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former IAEA Director-General

News Briefs

States Avoid Discussing Controversial Arms Trade

States Avoid Discussing Controversial Arms Trade


At the third annual conference since the Arms Trade Treaty entered into force in 2014, states-parties again generally avoided formal discussion of controversial arms transfers, especially those to Saudi Arabia. As in past years, civil society members encouraged states to specifically discuss and, in many cases, halt arms transfers into conflict zones, including transfers to the Saudi-led coalition active in the Yemen war. The treaty requires the establishment of national export control systems, as well as assessments of whether exported arms could facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law.

Speaking on behalf of the Control Arms coalition on Sept. 11, Yemen-based Radhya al-Mutawakel of the Mwatana Organization for Human Rights said that 19 states-parties and three signatories had agreed to sell or deliver weapons to Saudi Arabia since the outbreak of the Yemen war. In calling for all arms transfers affecting that conflict to stop, she added “Sadly, many ordinary Yemenis have come to know some of your countries through the weapons that have destroyed their homes and killed their families.”

In analyzing all statements, the nongovernmental group Reaching Critical Will identified just one country, Costa Rica, that specifically mentioned Yemen. A total of 106 countries attended the five-day meeting in Geneva, including 79 of 92 states-parties and 23 of 41 signatories. Discussion primarily centered on treaty working groups, funding, and other administrative matters, as well as linkages between the treaty and sustainable development goals. States-parties provisionally agreed to meet next year in Japan during Aug. 20–24. 

Separately, the European Parliament on Sept. 13 again adopted a nonbinding resolution for an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia, reiterating a decision made in February 2016 and stating that such transfers are “non-compliant” with the EU’s Common Position on Arms Export Controls. Many of the countries identified as providing arms are EU members. (See ACT, October 2016.) — JEFF ABRAMSON

Posted: October 1, 2017

The Man Who "Saved the World" Dies at 77

The Man Who "Saved the World" Dies at 77

Stanislav Petrov, a little-known Russian whose decision averted a potential nuclear war, died in May at 77, a family friend disclosed in mid-September. 

As a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces, Petrov was on duty Sept. 26, 1983, when the early-warning satellite system he was monitoring detected what appeared to be five approaching U.S. nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles. Petrov was faced with a critical choice that had to be made immediately: treat the warning as a false alarm or alert his superiors, who likely would launch a counterattack. Petrov went with false alarm, later explaining he reasoned that if the United States really were to start a nuclear war, it would do so with more than five missiles. He was correct. The satellites had mistaken the reflection of sun off clouds for attacking missiles.

Petrov’s decision was all the more remarkable because it occurred during a particularly tense period, shortly after the Soviet Union had shot down a civilian Korean jetliner that had passed over its territory, killing all 269 passengers and crew. Rather than being praised, Petrov was reprimanded for allegedly faulty documentation during the key moments. Soviet officials treated the incident as a secret, which it remained until well after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In recent years, Petrov received international praise, earning the 2013 Dresden Peace Prize and a 2006 award from the Association of World Citizens. A 2014 documentary, “The Man Who Saved the World,” told his story.

In response to news of Petrov’s death, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) tweeted, “Times of nuclear tension call for careful restraint. You may not know Stanislav Petrov, but at height of the Cold War, he saved the world.”—ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE

Posted: October 1, 2017

Court Dismisses Marshall Island Case

Court Dismisses Marshall Island Case

U.S. courts cannot find the United States in breach of the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a 3–0 decision dismissing a case filed by the Marshall Islands. The Pacific island country filed suit in 2014, alleging that the United States failed to fulfill obligations under Article VI of the NPT to pursue negotiations in good faith toward nuclear disarmament. The appeals court, upholding the federal district court’s original February 2015 dismissal, found that the NPT is not “judicially enforceable.” Judge Margaret McKeown wrote, “Asking the federal court to order the United States to negotiate in ‘good faith’ on ‘effective measures’ for nuclear disarmament puts the judiciary in the role of nanny to the executive.”

Laurie Ashton, lead lawyer for the Marshall Islands, called the decision “very disappointing,” arguing that “there has never been a more critical time” to enforce the treaty. The United States conducted 67 nuclear test explosions in the Marshall Islands from 1946 to 1958. The Marshall Islands filed similar cases against the nuclear-armed states at the International Court of Justice, all of which were dismissed last fall on procedural grounds. (See ACT, November 2016.)—ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE

Posted: September 1, 2017

OPCW-UN Investigating Team Visits Syria

OPCW-UN Investigating Team Visits Syria

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) visited Syria in late August as part of its ongoing investigation to determine the group responsible for the April 4 chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun. A Syrian man prays July 12 at a cemetery in Khan Sheikhoun, a rebel-held town in Idlib province, 100 days after the alleged sarin nerve-gas attack by Syrian government forces that was reported to have killed more than 90 people, including women and children. (Photo credit: Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images)U.S. intelligence agencies allege that Syrian government forces carried out the attack, while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad called the incident a “fabrication” shortly after it occurred and has since denied responsibility. “We will offer [the JIM] all facilitations needed for the investigation and to help it arrive to the place where the alleged chemical attack took place,” Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad was quoted as saying in an Aug. 12 report in The Washington Post.

An OPCW fact-finding mission confirmed the Khan Sheikhoun attack and identified the weapon used as sarin gas in a June 29 report, but it did not assign blame, which is the JIM’s task. German media reported an increase in chemical weapons attacks in Syria in July after a brief respite in May and June. Local groups documented at least seven chemical weapons attacks in and around Damascus in July.—ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE

Posted: September 1, 2017

Nigeria Sale Proposed Despite Concerns

Nigeria Sale Proposed Despite Concerns

The U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified Congress on Aug. 2 of a proposed $593 million foreign military sale to Nigeria of up to 12 A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft, along with associated weapons, training, and spare parts. The sale is intended to bolster Nigerian troops in their fight against Boko Haram and Islamic State group extremists. President Barack Obama had blocked this sale in the final days of his administration in response to the January bombing of a displaced persons camp by the Nigerian military that reportedly resulted in about 236 deaths. In June, U.S. Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) wrote a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urging the State Department to withhold approval of the sale until Nigeria implements measures to ensure it observes international human rights and humanitarian law.

The notification said the sale includes “special training on the law of armed conflict and humanitarian rights, and air-to-ground integration to minimize civilian harm in air operations.” Still, former State Department official Dan Mahanty, a senior adviser at the Center for Civilians in Conflict, said in an Aug. 11 email to Arms Control Today that “training is a necessary but rarely sufficient step in avoiding civilian harm. It’s a promising sign that the Defense Department has committed to training in air-to-ground integration. Training has to be reinforced by leadership, policy, doctrine, and most importantly, accountability. It’s also important that the Defense and State departments focus more attention on the way weapons are used, and the consequences of use, as a part of end-use monitoring.”

This sale notification follows the potential sale of precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia, a deal that was also blocked by Obama over humanitarian concerns and then approved by the Trump administration.—SARA SCHMITT

Posted: September 1, 2017

Anti-Nuclear Campaigner Tony de Brum Dies

Anti-Nuclear Campaigner Tony de Brum Dies

Tony de Brum, the three-time foreign minister of the Marshall Islands and lifelong advocate for nuclear disarmament, died Aug. 22 at his home in Majuro at age 72.

Tony de Brum in 2013 (Photo credit: Giff Johnson/AFP/Getty Images)At age nine, while fishing with his father, he witnessed the massive 1954 “Castle Bravo” test explosion of a hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll, which unleashed 1,000 times more destructive force than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The United States conducted 67 nuclear test explosions over the Marshall Islands from 1946 to 1958.

“I have seen with my very own eyes nuclear devastation and know, with conviction, that nuclear weapons must never again be visited upon humanity,” de Brum said while accepting the 2015 Right Livelihood Award. De Brum and the Marshall Islands also were recognized with the 2016 Arms Control Person(s) of the Year Award, and he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016.

“The Marshall Islands lost a national hero today,” Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine said in an Aug. 22 statement citing de Brum’s contributions to the nation’s independence, nuclear disarmament, and climate justice.

Under de Brum’s leadership in 2014, the Marshall Islands launched two legal cases to push nuclear-weapon states to fulfill legal obligations under the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to pursue nuclear disarmament, one within U.S. courts and another at the International Court of Justice.

Although both courts declined on technical grounds to rule on the cases, John Burroughs, executive director of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy and a member of the Marshall Islands legal team, said at the Arms Control Association annual meeting June 2 that “simply bringing the cases raised to world attention the failure of the nuclear powers to fulfill the obligation to negotiate and reach a global elimination of nuclear weapons.”

De Brum also played a key role in the Paris climate negotiations, forging a coalition of about 100 diverse nations, the “high-ambition coalition,” which successfully pushed for a global warming limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius.—ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE

Posted: September 1, 2017

China Deploys Sea-Based Nuclear Force

China Deploys Sea-Based Nuclear Force

China has put in place its “first credible, sea-based nuclear deterrent” with the deployment of JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), according to the U.S. Defense Department. China is also strengthening other aspects of its nuclear forces with the deployment of a new intermediate-range ballistic missile and development of a long-range strategic bomber “that officials expect to have a nuclear mission,” according to the department’s May 15 report to Congress titled “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2017.”

The report, an annual requirement, indicates that China deployed the JL-2s in the past year. It states that China’s four operational JIN-class nuclear submarines “are equipped with” up to 12 JL-2s, while the 2016 report had stated that submarines “will eventually carry” them. The SLBMs have a range of 7,200 kilometers, according to the 2016 report. The Defense Department report also stated that China has deployed a new intermediate-range ballistic missile, the DF-26, which was first unveiled in a September 2015 parade. It could reach U.S. bases in Guam. People’s Liberation Army Air Force Gen. Ma Xiaotian announced in September 2016 that China was developing a new generation of long-range bomber, which observers expect to debut sometime around 2025, according to the new report. The bomber is expected to employ stealth technology, according to the report.—ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE

Posted: July 10, 2017

Money Woes Curtail ‘Killer Robot’ Talks

Money Woes Curtail ‘Killer Robot’ Talks

Scheduled international talks this year on lethal autonomous weapons, or so-called killer robots, have been cut by half due to insufficient funding, according to Matthew Rowland, UK ambassador to the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva and 2017 chair of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), the forum for the autonomous weapons talks. A meeting of governmental experts planned for Aug. 21-25 was canceled, along with some other CCW activities. A second session scheduled for Nov. 13-17 will be held, assuming sufficient funds, Rowland said in a June 6 letter.

At their fifth review conference in December 2016, CCW states decided to formalize and expand their deliberations by establishing a group of governmental experts on lethal autonomous weapons systems that would meet in August and November this year. The August cancellation may slow the momentum of previous discussions. Nineteen countries have endorsed a ban, and others have affirmed the need to maintain human control over the selection of targets and use of force, according to the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. The CCW’s financial squeeze is due to the failure of several states, most notably Brazil, to pay their assessed dues for the convention’s meetings, according to the advocacy group. “The collective failure of countries to find a solution to their financial woes doesn’t mean they can stop addressing concerns over weapons that would select and attack targets without further human intervention,” said Human Right Watch’s Mary Wareham, the campaign’s global coordinator.—SARA SCHMITT

Posted: July 10, 2017

Moon Orders THAAD Deployment Review

Moon Orders THAAD Deployment Review

A South Korean protester wears a ‘No THAAD’ face mask during an April 28 rally in Seoul against the deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. (Photo credit: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)New South Korean President Moon Jae-in announced on June 7 that deployment of four additional U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile launchers would be suspended pending an environmental review. After taking office May 10, Moon said he had not been informed of the presence of the launchers on South Korean soil for weeks and ordered an investigation into why the Defense Ministry withheld this information. Moon has been critical of the rushed deployment of two launchers before his predecessor’s impeachment earlier this year, arguing that the decision should have been left for the incoming administration. Although the four additional launchers would have brought the battery to full strength, the two initial launchers will continue to function. Each launcher is equipped with eight interceptors designed to defend against incoming missiles.

Moon, who campaigned on fostering dialogue with North Korea, sought to ease concerns about diverging policies with Washington. “My order for a probe on THAAD is purely a domestic measure, and I want to be clear that it is not about trying to change the existing decision or sending a message to the United States,” he told U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) during a May 31 meeting in Seoul. U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis recently expressed confidence that the United States could address Moon’s concerns.—TYLER ROGERS

Posted: July 10, 2017

NSG Still Stuck on India, Pakistan Bids

NSG Still Stuck on India, Pakistan Bids

A June 22-23 plenary meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) ended inconclusively on the controversial question of parti­cipation by India and Pakistan, which are not signatories to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Meeting chairman Benno Laggner of Switzerland said in a statement on June 23 that he intends to continue the discussion at an “informal meeting” in November.

The NSG, with 48 members, sets guidelines for nuclear trade so that transfers do not contribute to weapons proliferation. Laggner said diplomats, meeting in Bern, Switzerland, discussed “technical, legal, and political aspects” of NSG participation by non-NPT states. China and others have objected to India’s and Pakistan’s membership bids, which were submitted last year. (See ACT, January/February 2017.) The NSG, which operates by consensus, has sought to reach agreement on membership criteria for non-NPT states. NSG guidelines include the prohibition of exports to countries that do not open all nuclear facilities to international inspections. In 2008 the NSG agreed to exempt India from that provision, and in 2010, the United States endorsed India’s bid for NSG membership.—DARYL KIMBALL

Posted: July 10, 2017

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