By Izumi Nakamitsu
UN Secretary-General [António] Guterres has described the war in Ukraine, which started on February 24 this year by the Russian invasion, as “an absurdity in the 21st century” and simply “evil.” The war has shaken the international system and order, weakening the guardrails against the use and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. But it is, in many ways, the culmination of multiple trends that have been festering for years.
We see openly hostile relationships between nuclear-armed states, where distrust has replaced dialogue. Arms spending is at historic levels. Cyber[space] and outer space have become potential new domains of conflict. Game-changing technologies have been repurposed to create new generations of conventional weapons with strategic capabilities. They have also lowered the barriers to [weapons of mass destruction (WMD)] acquisition, especially in the case of biological weapons. The taboo against chemical weapons, as we all know, has been repeatedly broken.
The global disarmament and nonproliferation regime has achieved remarkable results in shielding the international community from the horrors of WMD. But cracks in the façade were beginning to show even before Ukraine. Expensive modernization programs, coupled with expanding roles and dangerous rhetoric, illustrate clearly how nuclear weapons are trending in the wrong directions. Regional conflicts are fueling proliferation drivers. The conflict in Ukraine has propagated the false narrative that nuclear weapons provide the ultimate security guarantees.
Meanwhile, the disarmament machinery is a miasma of dysfunction. Divisions over the pace and scale of disarmament have widened into chasms. The Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), for so long the bedrock of the entire regime, faces unprecedented challenges. The use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic and elsewhere has undermined the historic achievements of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The failure to hold the perpetrators of these horrific acts accountable would really imperil the entire regime.
Now, turning to another WMD, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a global lack of preparedness and demonstrated the disruption that could be caused if biological agents were to be used as weapons of war or terror. Yet while it remains a pillar of international peace and security, the Biological Weapons Convention’s (BWC) lack of a mechanism to verify compliance severely limits its effectiveness. I would like to come back to these issues of the CWC and BWC later because these are extremely important.
This is not a pretty picture. The guardrails against WMD use and acquisition are eroding. The war in Ukraine with its veiled nuclear threats and near-daily allegations regarding chemical and biological weapons has placed a spotlight on existing damage. The questions, therefore, are “What can we do” and “What should we do”? When it comes to nuclear weapons, current events have highlighted two urgent near-term objectives: the development of measures to reduce the risk of nuclear war and the reinforcement of the norm against use. But clearly this is not enough. For our collective security, we need to reverse course and take practical steps along the path to a world free of nuclear weapons. Arms control and disarmament efforts are instruments for our security, not an idealistic dream.
None of these objectives can be achieved without dialogue and engagement. Although the current situation makes it difficult, the United States and the Russian Federation need to return to dialogue at the first available opportunity, if only to ensure the efficacy of crisis communication. Even during the hottest moments of the Cold War, these states were able to engage in dialogue. [The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] will expire in four years. Time is running out to negotiate a successor, and that cannot happen without dialogue and engagement.
I hope this doesn’t sound too strange in this audience, the world’s top arms control experts. After major crises, there would always be windows of opportunity that would open up for engagement and negotiations in arms control because it is necessary for our security. In this context, now is the time to identify key issues and prepare ourselves for that day so that the moment the window of opportunity opens up, we will be able to immediately start substantive negotiations and engagement.
In that regard, I cannot stress enough the importance of the five NPT nuclear-weapon states’ engagement. In an increasingly multipolar world, coordination among these five is essential. They carry special responsibilities.
This brings me to the NPT and its 10th review conference taking place in August, just around the corner. As I said, the NPT faces unprecedented challenges. Even before the war in Ukraine, issues like regional proliferation crises, submarine propulsion, and divergence on disarmament threatened a consensus outcome. Despite all this, I hope that states-parties still will do their best to strengthen the NPT and, by extension, the regime itself. This treaty is simply that important.
The absence of consensus will not necessarily undermine the regime. What will jeopardize the NPT and the tangible benefits it provides is if states-parties do not approach the review conference with a willingness to listen, negotiate, and compromise. A review conference wracked by divisive actions will endanger the central role of the treaty, and we don’t want to see that happening.
Having said that, I believe there are several areas in which this review conference would still be able to make progress to reinforce disarmament and nonproliferation guardrails.
First, all states-parties can reaffirm their commitment to the norm against the use of nuclear weapons. Even under the current circumstances, the [five recognized nuclear-weapon states] should reaffirm their January joint statement. States-parties should also reaffirm their commitments to strengthening the norms against proliferation and testing.
Second, states-parties should reaffirm the commitments they have undertaken as parties to the NPT, especially under Article VI. They should engage in dialogue about accountability for the implementation of these commitments.
Third, states-parties should agree to a set of measures to reduce the risk of nuclear war, including at the nexus between technology and nuclear weapons. These could include transparency and confidence-building measures or doctrinal changes.
Fourth, the positive impact of peaceful uses is growing, including on the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. Ensuring access for all states-parties to these benefits would be a clear success.
Fifth, the conference should strengthen the safeguards system, including through universalization of the Comprehensive Safeguard Agreement, and ensuring the [International Atomic Energy Agency] has the necessary financial and human resources.
Last year saw the entry into force of a new guardrail, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). The TPNW’s first meeting of states-parties later this month is an opportunity for this instrument to demonstrate its complementarity with the broader regime and to strengthen its important focus on the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons.
The TPNW’s membership base remains relatively small, and I think even the most ardent supporters would agree that its implementation will take some time, but I have been impressed with the pragmatic and principled way states-parties are working towards these goals.
Now, I said I’d come back to chemical and biological weapons issues, so let me quickly talk about what I see as key issues. The scourge of chemical weapons should have been consigned to history, yet the last decade has seen repeated use of these heinous weapons. Twenty-five years after its birth, the CWC remains one of the most important achievements in disarmament. Through the verifiable destruction of 99 percent of global declared chemical weapons stockpiles, the CWC has made the world a safer place.
However, the norm against chemical weapons has been subjected to repeated challenges, driven by failures of compliance, the rise of nonstate actors capable of acquiring and using chemical weapons, and developments in science and technology. Perhaps most disheartening has been the inability so far to hold the perpetrators of chemical weapons use accountable. Such profound violations of international law cannot continue to go unaddressed.
Recent challenges to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ (OPCW) technical authority and to the professionalism of the Technical Secretariat not only undermine efforts to eliminate chemical weapons but also the entire disarmament and nonproliferation regime.
So, let me use this opportunity to once again thank the OPCW Technical Secretariat for its professionalism, impartiality, and dedication. I know these sentiments are held by the vast majority of CWC states-parties, but they need to openly demonstrate that support, especially regarding the investigation into and identification of the perpetrators of chemical weapons use.
Ultimately, the only way to reinforce the taboo against chemical weapons is for all states-parties to the convention to strictly abide by their obligations. But the [UN] Security Council needs to do its job as well, by uniting to end the crime of use with impunity.
Next year, the Fifth Review Conference of the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention will be an important milestone in the life of this treaty and provides an opportunity to strengthen the norm against chemical weapons use and set a strategic direction for the OPCW for the next five years and beyond. My call is, let us start working together to fully restore this very important convention, the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Now turning to the BWC, as I noted earlier, the COVID-19 pandemic brought into stark relief the need for a fully operationalized, properly institutionalized, and fit-for-purpose BWC in the 21st century. We should be grateful that no country today professes a desire to acquire biological weapons, nor a need for such weapons for national security reasons. But as recent events have shown, we cannot take this for granted. The erosion of the taboo against chemical weapons sets an alarming precedent.
This year, BWC states-parties will hold the convention’s ninth review conference in November and December. The review conference is an ideal opportunity for states to unite and strengthen this vital convention. State-parties could consider a range of different options, but today let me just mention four issues.
First, states-parties should operationalize the convention by giving teeth to its provisions supporting peaceful scientific cooperation, enhancing transparency in research, and promoting beneficial applications of new technologies. States should also establish mechanisms supporting national implementation and investigating and responding to alleged violations.
Second, states should institutionalize the convention, providing it with the necessary human capital to oversee its many functions. Regimes against chemical weapons and nuclear proliferation and testing already benefit from organizations that engage in outreach, training, and capacity-building and as a result have larger memberships and higher levels of implementation.
Third, the governments must adequately fund the convention. Ahead of the review conference, they should prepare for a significant increase in the convention’s budget.
Currently, most of its states-parties pay less than $1,000 a year.
Finally, states should explore how to verify compliance with the convention’s obligations. This issue was last explored over 20 years ago, and much has changed in the meantime, both the threats and the technologies to ensure adherence to the rules.
As we seek to strengthen the BWC, we should remember that member states of the United Nations also have another tool when it comes to investigating the use of biological weapons.
The United Nations Secretary-General’s Mechanism for investigation of alleged use of chemical, biological, and toxin weapons is not related to the BWC, and its mandate relates only to the investigation of alleged use, nor is the mechanism a standing body. It relies on the generosity of member states to maintain its roster of state-nominated laboratories and experts that can be called on to conduct investigations at short notice.
However, the Secretary-General’s Mechanism is currently the only international mechanism for the investigation of alleged use of biological weapons. In the absence of a BWC verification mechanism, it is essential that the independence of the Secretary-General’s Mechanism is preserved and its preparedness strengthened. I want to stress that there are many arrows in the international quiver for dealing with the threats posed by WMD. Those arrowheads really need to be kept sharp and ready for use.
The rapidly evolving geostrategic environment also demands a reassessment of whether the international community has everything it needs to confront the dangers of WMD, whether existing structures should be adapted, and whether we need new tools. In other words, should we not have a new updated vision for arms control and disarmament?
In his report “Our Common Agenda,” the secretary-general of the United Nations stated that “[r]isks to peace and security are growing…. The world is moving closer to the brink of instability.” In response, he called for a new agenda for peace that would include “a renewed effort to agree on more effective collective security responses.” This new agenda will also serve to “update our vision for disarmament so as to guarantee human, national and collective security.”
This update would need to address many of the challenges that I have mentioned, as well as new elements regarding ungoverned spaces such as missiles or nonstrategic nuclear weapons. It should also support efforts to place guardrails around areas that do not have them, from cyber[space] to outer space and artificial intelligence, and we should also look at linkages between these new issues and traditional WMD. We also need to look at responsible behavior, capabilities, and qualities, not just quantities, and specific types of weapons.
Finally, we should seek to ensure that disarmament and arms control takes it rightful place as a pillar of the international peace and security architecture. Obviously, we have much work ahead of us. I’m counting on you, and I know that, with the necessary political will and readiness to engage, our goals are indeed achievable.
Remarks by Izumi Nakamitsu, UN undersecretary-general and high representative for disarmament affairs, to the annual meeting of the Arms Control Association, held June 2 in Washington, D.C. They have been edited for clarity and length.