"Though we have acheived progress, our work is not over. That is why I support the mission of the Arms Control Association. It is, quite simply, the most effective and important organization working in the field today." 

– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
Alicia Sanders-Zakre

OPCW Granted Mandate to Place Blame

July/August 2018
By Alicia Sanders-Zakre

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will begin investigating and attributing responsibility for chemical weapons attacks in Syria following an 82–24 vote at a special meeting of OPCW member states on June 26–27 in The Hague.

Ahmet Üzümcü, director-general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, speaks January 23 in Paris during a French-led meeting of diplomats from countries seeking to identify and punish those responsible for the prohibited use chemical weapons. (Photo: Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty Images)The United Kingdom and 11 other countries requested the special session in a May 29 letter, and more than 64 countries approved the request in early June. The special session was only the fourth in the organization’s 21-year history. A French-led coalition of 34 countries, which seeks to increase accountability for chemical weapons use, first called for the special session during its May 18 meeting in Paris.

Although the OPCW has been investigating suspected chemical weapons use in Syria through an investigative body called the Fact-Finding Mission, it was not previously mandated to assign blame for attacks. The body that had attributed responsibility, the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), ceased operations after Russia blocked a proposed extension of its UN Security Council mandate last November. (See ACT, December 2017.)

The OPCW mission released a report June 13 determining that chlorine and sarin were very likely used as chemical weapons in Ltamenah, Syria, on March 24 and 25, 2017. “This OPCW report underscores the urgency of establishing, as swiftly as possible, a new mechanism to determine those responsible for these attacks,” the French Foreign Ministry stated in a June 13 press release. A mission report on the use of chemical weapons in an early April 2018 attack in Douma that killed dozens is expected imminently.

Since the breakdown of the JIM, confirmed uses of chemical weapons in Syria have not been attributed. Several attempts in the Security Council to restart independent investigations to assign blame were blocked by Russian vetoes. (See ACT, April 2018.)

OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü called the lack of attribution for chemical weapons attacks a “major gap” in a June speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. and earlier in May voiced his support for the OPCW to assume an attribution role.

“Today, there might be good reasons actually to clarify the role of the OPCW itself in terms of attribution once it has the necessary information at its disposal,” he said in a speech in London. “Willful defiance of a valued norm should not be allowed to go unchallenged.”

Once granted the mandate to conduct attribution investigations, the OPCW can transmit its technical findings to the UN Security Council and the OPCW Executive Council for those bodies to take further action to hold perpetrators accountable, Üzümcü said in Washington.

Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s UN ambassador, opposed the decision. “The only legitimate way to re-establish an attribution mechanism is an agreement within the Security Council,” he told reporters on June 13, calling attempts through other forums “illegitimate.”


The action seeks to get around Russia’s roadblock at the UN Security Council involving chemical weapons use in Syria.

Fissile Material Report Points Toward Treaty

An expert group tasked by the United Nations with laying the groundwork for the negotiation of a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) completed its work June 8 with consensus recommendations that could be taken forward by a new subgroup of the Conference on Disarmament (CD).

“With this report, which has been aptly described as ‘two inches from a negotiating text’, the range of possible treaty provisions is further distilled in a manner that makes clear there is little more to be done on an FMCT other than to negotiate it,” Canadian Ambassador Heidi Hulan, who chaired the high-level preparatory group, told Arms Control Today in a June 18 email.

The FMCT preparatory group, mandated by a 2016 UN General Assembly resolution, was made up of representatives from 25 states who met for two weeks in 2017 and 2018. It followed on from the meetings of a group of governmental experts, convened in 2014 and 2015, on the same subject. The UN General Assembly in 1993 approved the negotiation of an FMCT in the CD, but the consensus-based CD has failed to start negotiations due to a few states’ objections.

The preparatory group’s discussions sought to clarify issues concerning a potential treaty’s scope, definitions, verification measures, and legal and institutional arrangements before negotiations begin. Its recommendations will go to the UN secretary-general, the General Assembly, and the CD, where they could inform the work of a new subsidiary body, created in February in part to discuss the negotiation of an FMCT. With the preparatory work completed, the CD “needs to be held to account for its negotiation, and finally end the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons,” wrote Hulan.—ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE

Fissile Material Report Points Toward Treaty

Syria’s CD Presidency Sparks Boycotts

Syria took the helm of the Conference on Disarmament (CD) on May 28 under the four-week presidency rotation among member states, sparking boycotts and threatening to unravel recent progress in the long-stalled forum. Syria’s presidency drew anger due to its repeated use of chemical weapons and its past suspected covert nuclear weapons program.

U.S. Ambassador Robert Wood walks out during a statement by Syria at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on May 29 in protest of Syria’s four-week presidency of the body. (Photo: Eric Bridiers/U.S. Mission)The United States attended the plenary meetings, but skipped in protest meetings of the body’s subsidiary bodies and informal consultations called by Syria during its presidency. Some other delegations participated on a reduced level, by sending low-level officials or only listening to the proceedings. The European Union, while stating it regretted Syria’s presidency, stated it still would participate fully in the disarmament body so as not to hamper its work.

Work in the consensus-based CD has been stalled for decades, but there has been recent movement. On Feb. 16, it created five subsidiary bodies to advance different disarmament topics, such as negative security assurances and risk reduction measures. (See ACT, April 2018.)

Syria’s CD Presidency Sparks Boycotts

Majority of Americans Still Support the CTBT

A new survey shows that 20 years after the opening for signature of the CTBT, the majority of Americans still support the test ban. This latest survey joins many other polls that have found high American support for the CTBT over the past six decades. This chart, pulled from data from the 2016 poll by Herzog and Baron, was in response to the following question: “Should the US Senate approve a treaty with 164 other countries that would prohibit nuclear weapon test explosions worldwide?” Working with the polling firm YouGov, Stephen Herzog and Jonathan Baron, both Ph.D candidates at Yale...

Young voices on peace with North Korea

This op-ed originally appeared in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Ahead of US President Donald Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, we spoke with young people around the world who saw hope in the summit, and a chance to advance their own work—including the reunion of families divided by conflict, the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula, and a negotiated agreement that would lead toward the denuclearization of North Korea. Captivated by North Korea’s nuclear tests and Trump’s reckless Twitter tirades, the media rarely pick up voices of the next generation. Young...

Nuclear-Weapon States Spar at NPT Meeting

June 2018
By Alicia Sanders-Zakre

The international conference to prepare for the 2020 review of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) was marked by quarreling among nuclear-weapon states and revised U.S. positions put forward by the Trump administration.

Tensions among Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States about chemical weapons use in attacks in Syria and the UK, although not part of the NPT agenda, bled into the debate. An April 24 meeting among the five NPT nuclear-weapon states was unable to produce a consensus statement, but the states were united in opposition to assertions by non-nuclear-weapon states that the nuclear powers have not adequately complied with their NPT Article VI obligations to pursue nuclear disarmament negotiations in good faith.

U.S. officials brief reporters April 26 at the 2018 NPT preparatory conference. The speakers (left to right) were Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation; Anita Friedt, acting assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification and compliance; and Robert Wood, U.S. ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament. (Photo: Eric Bridiers/U.S. Mission)The Trump administration said that U.S. disarmament measures would depend on changes in the international security environment. A U.S. working paper, “Creating the Conditions for Nuclear Disarmament,” presented at the conference contends that the “easing of international tension,” “strengthening of trust,” and other specific conditions are prerequisites for progress on global disarmament.

Some of the specific conditions identified include the denuclearization of North Korea; Iran’s verified compliance with its nonproliferation commitments; the recognition of the right of Israel to exist; adherence by all states to the Model Additional Protocol established by the International Atomic Energy Agency; a moratorium on the production of fissile material; a halt to the increase and diversification of Russian, Chinese, and North Korean nuclear weapons arsenals; an improvement in the transparency of nuclear policies; the development of nuclear disarmament verification technologies; and compliance by all states with all international agreements, particular by Russia with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and by “some” states with the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The preparatory talks, held from April 23 to May 4 in Geneva, were divided into three thematic sections: disarmament, nonproliferation, and nuclear energy. At the conclusion, Adam Bugajski of Poland, the conference chairman, presented a factual summary that was not voted on or adopted by the conference as a consensus document.

Many nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states did agree on supporting several interim measures toward nuclear disarmament, including risk reduction efforts, negative security assurances, extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, and the resolution of U.S.-Russian compliance disputes involving the INF Treaty.

Dozens of states emphasized their support for the Iran nuclear agreement, subsequently abandoned by U.S. President Donald Trump; advocated for the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), including calling for North Korea to sign and ratify the treaty; and supported the negotiation of a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT). The United States announced that it will officially support work toward an FMCT.

Many states welcomed recent developments, including the diplomatic moves between North and South Korea and the July 2017 adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Although France and Russia condemned the prohibition treaty, which is opposed by all the nuclear-weapon states, it was not a major point of contention at the conference.

NPT signatory states agreed on the right of all treaty parties to peaceful uses of nuclear energy and on the importance of nuclear security and nuclear safety. Many highlighted national initiatives to advance these goals.

The United States sparked a debate by stating in a working paper that “the NPT review cycle cannot be the primary mechanism for progress” on a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East but that regional states should work to establish the conditions needed to make progress on the initiative. At the 2015 NPT Review Conference, disagreement on this subject blocked agreement on a final consensus document.

The Arab Group and the Non-Aligned Movement were among those to reject the U.S. approach, stating that the decision during the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference to indefinitely extend the NPT would not have been possible without the resolution on the Middle East calling for a WMD-free zone.

Two nonproliferation statements were circulated for members to sign during the conference. One statement, distributed by Russia and China, expressed support for the Iran nuclear accord. Another denounced North Korea’s nuclear and missile developments and welcomed the recent diplomatic overture. Some states did not sign that document because it did not include a call for North Korea to join the CTBT.

The day before the conference’s end, Bugajski released his factual summary. Nuclear-weapon states largely accepted the document and did not point out changes to be made in the document.

Other countries suggested revisions to better reflect the views expressed at the conference. New Zealand, speaking on behalf of the New Agenda Coalition, recommended adding a reference to maintaining the moratorium on nuclear testing pending the CTBT’s entry into force and removing the word “some” when describing nuclear modernization programs that are not consistent with NPT obligations. Several states argued that the document should assert that states had “welcomed” the nuclear weapons prohibition treaty instead of “noting” it.

The conference selected Shahrul Ikram of Malaysia to be chairman of next year’s preparatory meeting, to be held in New York.


Talks prepare for the major review of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2020.

UN Unveils Broad Disarmament Agenda

June 2018
By Alicia Sanders-Zakre

UN Secretary-General António Guterres last month presented a broad new UN strategy for disarmament, stressing a renewed urgency as “our world is going backwards” toward a new nuclear arms race.

The backdrop for his agenda, Guterres noted, is an increasingly bleak disarmament environment, including a lack of strategic dialogue among the nuclear-weapon states, the return of chemical weapons use, and the rise of conflicts that are deadly for civilians.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres presents a new UN strategy for disarmament in a speech at the University of Geneva May 24. (Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)Reflecting that, Guterres’ 87-page agenda is far more wide-ranging than the five-point nuclear disarmament proposal advanced in 2008 by his immediate predecessor, Ban Ki-Moon. “Disarmament concerns every country, and all weapons, from hand grenades to hydrogen bombs,” Guterres said in his speech May 24 at the University of Geneva.

Guterres’ comprehensive approach will please many constituencies, but its breadth may make it difficult to focus and make progress on individual issues. But he said that the elimination of nuclear weapons “remains our priority,” and he appealed specifically to the United States and Russia to “resolve their dispute” over the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which is due to expire in three years; and to “take new steps toward reducing nuclear stockpiles.”

The UN chief, who took office in January 2017, expressed concern that existing U.S.-Russian arms control agreements are “threatened as never before” and that there currently are no talks between the two powers on further reducing nuclear arsenals.

Izumi Nakamitsu, UN high representative for disarmament affairs, consulted with civil society organizations to prepare the new agenda. It puts forward recommendations for actions to promote the disarmament of weapons of mass destruction, restrictions on conventional weapons, and monitoring and restriction of emerging weaponized technology.

On nuclear weapons, Guterres embraced a robust set of initiatives, including encouraging states to sign and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), to negotiate a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), establish a zone free of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, pursue nuclear risk reduction measures, and develop nuclear disarmament verification standards and techniques.

Guterres also recommended that all states affirm the norm against the use of nuclear weapons and that nuclear-weapon states should stand behind U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s assertion that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

None of these suggestions are new, and many have languished, some for decades, in international forums such as the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review meetings and the Conference on Disarmament. But nuclear disarmament verification has seen recent progress, including the creation of the 2014 International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification, and the 2018 UN Group of Governmental Experts on the same subject.

Ban’s proposal made many of same recommendations, including the entry into force of the CTBT and the negotiation of an FMCT, although it had a stronger emphasis on beginning negotiations leading toward disarmament. Guterres supported these negotiations, although he suggested first generating dialogue and building confidence in formal and informal settings. In response to a question, Guterres called the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons enormously important and said that it could instigate further action on disarmament.

Guterres stressed the need for accountability for the use of chemical and biological weapons. He pledged to work with UN Security Council members to create a mechanism to identify responsible actors for chemical weapons use and to work with the UN General Assembly to create a standing capacity to investigate allegations of biological weapons use.

On May 18, the International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons released a statement supporting the call for a special meeting of the Chemical Weapons Convention conference of states-parties to explore options to restore accountability for chemical weapons use. The UN Security Council has failed to adopt a resolution creating a new chemical weapons accountability body after the previous one expired in November 2017 due to repeated Russian vetoes, most recently on April 10 (See ACT, May 2018.)

Turning to conventional weapons, Guterres expressed the need to protect civilians in conflict, including by raising awareness of the impact of explosive devices in populated areas and sharing best practices among states. Citing a lack of coordination among UN agencies working to prevent the spread of small arms and light weapons, Guterres announced that he would establish a “dedicated facility” to support governmental action to control these weapons.

Looking ahead, Guterres urged all states to consider the implications of new weapons technologies and their compatibility with international law. Addressing an audience mainly of students, he emphasized the crucial
role of young people in addressing future weapons technology and promoting disarmament.

“I hope you will use your power and your connections to advocate for a peaceful world free from nuclear weapons, in which weapons are controlled and regulated and resources are directed towards opportunity and prosperity for all.”

Secretary-General Guterres warns that “our world is going backwards” toward a new nuclear arms race.

China Develops, Deploys New Missiles

China is advancing its missile capabilities, with the official deployment of an intermediate-range ballistic missile and the reported development of a nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missile. Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Wu Qian told reporters on April 26 that China had deployed its first intermediate-range ballistic missile, the DF-26. The missile has a range of 4,000 kilometers and was first unveiled in September 2015. (See ACT, June 2016.) The U.S. Defense Department said that China had deployed the missile in a 2017 report on Chinese military developments. (See ACT, July/August 2017.)

Military vehicles carrying China’s DF-26 ballistic missiles are displayed at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on September 3, 2015 during a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of victory over Japan and the end of World War II. (Photo: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)China tested the air-launched ballistic missile, designated as CH-AS-X-13 by the United States, five times between 2016 and January 2018, according to an April report in The Diplomat. The U.S. intelligence community assesses that the missile will be ready for deployment by 2025, according to a source who spoke to The Diplomat. No other country has deployed this missile type, although others have developed it. In March, Russian President Vladimir Putin introduced the Kinzhal missile, which some analysts have characterized as an air-launched hypersonic cruise missile.—ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE

China Develops, Deploys New Missiles

North Korea Reports Nuclear Test Site Closure

Following a late April announcement by Kim Jong Un, North Korea announced on May 24 that it had destroyed its nuclear testing site at Punggye-ri. “Dismantling the nuclear test ground was done in such a way as to make all the tunnels of the test ground collapse by explosion and completely close the tunnel entrances,” a deputy director at North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Institute said, according to state media. North Korea claimed to destroy the north, south and west portals to the testing site as well as barracks, observation towers and other buildings. The east portal was abandoned shortly...


Subscribe to RSS - Alicia Sanders-Zakre