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UN High-Level Meeting Reflects Broad Support for Total Nuclear Disarmament

By Santo D. Banerjee

Photo: María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés (centre right), President of the 73rd session of the General Assembly, listens as Secretary-General António Guterres (centre left) addresses the high-level plenary meeting to commemorate and promote the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons (26 September). At left is Izumi Nakamitsu, Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs (ODA). UN Photo/Ariana Lindquist

NEW YORK (IDN) – The United Nations has pursued the goal of nuclear disarmament since the adoption of the very first General Assembly resolution in 1946. But aware that countries possessing nuclear weapons have well-funded, long-term plans to modernize their nuclear arsenals, in 2013 the UN declared September 26 as the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. [P 11JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF

Commemorating that Day against the backdrop of a deteriorating global security environment and to mobilize international efforts towards achieving a nuclear-weapon-free world, the General Assembly convened a high-level plenary meeting on September 26 at the UN in New York.

Throughout the day, Heads of State and Government and senior officials of more than 50 countries, as well as Observer States and civil society, took the floor to spotlight the many ways in which nuclear weapons endanger humanity – from the modernization of existing arsenals by major Powers to the risk of deadly nuclear technology falling into terrorist hands.

One of the speakers who stood out as a voice of passion and persistence in the quest of a nuclear-weapons-free world was Kehkashan Basu, the 18 year old Youth Ambassador of World Future Council.

"I am growing up in a world where factories churn out Trident submarines at $4 billion each, while in the developing world 80,000 children die each day due to poverty – most of whom could be saved with food or medication costing less than 1/10th of the cost of one Trident submarine," she said.

She drew attention of the Assembly to the Sustainable Development Goals the world's nations adopted in 2015 with concrete programs on reducing poverty and protecting the environment.

"Yet governments continue to undermine progress by investing more in military, including nuclear weapons, than in achieving the goals," she lamented, recognizing  that for many countries, nuclear weapons provide a sense of security and perhaps they play a role in preventing war.

"But we are a civilised and intelligent society, are we not? We know how to resolve conflicts, prevent aggression and enforce the law without having to threaten to destroy civilization," she added.

Also speaking "in the quest to make our world more secure, more just, and more equitable," on behalf of the 2017 Nobel Peace laureate, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), Ray Acheson from Reaching Critical Will declared: "For us, abolishing nuclear weapons is about preventing violence and promoting peace."

"Some say this is a dream, that we live in a time of uncertainty and change, that we can't or shouldn't try to eliminate nuclear weapons now. But when is there not uncertainty and change? It is the only constant in our world," she noted.

"What is true is that we live in a time where we spend more money developing new ways to kill each other than we do on saving each other from crises of health, housing, food security, and environmental degradation," she added. "What is also true is that after 73 years, we still live under the catastrophic threat of the atomic bomb. We should have solved this "

To move in that direction, she encouraged States and activists to continue their important work, underlining that the world is now existing in a new reality in which nuclear weapons are illegal and where the only option for any reasonable State is to reject them, eliminate them and sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

"The only sure way to eliminate the threat posed by nuclear weapons is to eliminate the weapons themselves," declared Guterres in his opening remarks to the day-long debate, apparently moved by his visit to the Japanese city of Nagasaki – scene of the world's second nuclear attack on August 9, 1945 after Hiroshima – in August 2018. Regrettably, the global security environment has deteriorated, "making progress in nuclear disarmament more difficult, yet more important," he added.

Recalling the disarmament agenda that he launched in May 2018, Guterres appealed to the United States and the Russian Federation – the two nations that by far possess the biggest nuclear arsenals amounting to 13,800 warheads – to extend by five years the New Treaty on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (START) and to begin talks leading to further reductions of their nuclear arsenals. He urged them also to work to overcome their dispute on the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.

"It is equally important that all States possessing nuclear weapons reinforce the norm against nuclear use," Guterres said, emphasizing the responsibility of States to fulfil – in letter and spirit – their non-proliferation obligations.

Describing disarmament and non-proliferation as two sides of the same coin – "backward movement on one will inevitably lead to backward movement on the other" – he said all States should work with nuclear-weapon States to return to the common path of eliminating nuclear weapons.

Ecuador's María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, President of the current session of the General Assembly, opened the meeting, saying the elimination of nuclear weapons "is probably the existential challenge of our times". It must remain a priority for the United Nations, she said, stressing that the very survival of humanity hinges on the international community agreeing to forbid the use of nuclear weapons.

Referring to the adoption in July 2017 of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, she acknowledged that some Member States still have objections to that instrument. But she said she is hopeful that September 26 discussions will sway their opinion, as the Treaty remains open to signing, and will enter into force once it is ratified by 50 Member States.

Describing nuclear weapons as a legacy of the Cold War, Aloysio Nunes Ferreira, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Brazil, expressed concern about nuclear warheads on high alert, because it would take just one push of a button to trigger devastation on an unimaginable scale. According to experts, a staggering 1,800 strategic nuclear warheads are on high alert on land- and sea-based ballistic missiles, ready to launch between 5 and 15 minutes after receiving a launch order.

Calling for the 2020 review conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) to produce tangible results, he noted a declaration by member States of the Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean, marking the International Day, firmly demanding that nuclear weapons never be used again by anyone under any circumstances.

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the world is facing a new nuclear arms race that started when the U.S. President asked for even more nuclear weapons to remain "at the top of the pack". That, and the modernization of nuclear arsenals by States possessing nuclear weapons, are threatening international peace and security and deepening the frustration of non-nuclear-weapon countries.

Every effort must be made to ensure universal adherence to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, he said, recalling that Israel is not a party to that instrument and emphasizing that its nuclear programme "remains the most paramount threat" to international peace and security. On the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), he said successive International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports have verified Iran's full compliance.

Fiji Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama echoed the views of other Pacific leaders in emphasizing the human and environmental consequences of more than 300 nuclear tests conducted in the region since the Second World War by far‑away Powers that considered it a safe place to carry out explosions.

Those States knew what the impact would be and so they selected a corner of the world they deemed to be largely uninhabited, "but it was not".  Many people were forced to relocate from their homes, he said, and decades later, large swathes of the Pacific remain unsafe for human habitation, fishing and agriculture.

The Marshall Islands Foreign Minister John Silk recalled his country’s grim history with the atomic bomb, stressing that his Government's formal requests to the United Nations to end testing fell on deaf ears.

Indeed, the U.S. continued its programme, detonating a total of 67 nuclear bombs between 1946 and 1958 in the Marshall Islands, leaving behind grave health consequences that linger to the present day. He expressed the hope that testing would finally end and nuclear-weapon States would join instruments to ban those arms to rid the world of atomic bombs.

Tomoyuki Yoshida, Director-General of the Disarmament, Non-Proliferation and Science Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, agreed, regretting to note that despite the international community's shared common goal, more than 15,000 nuclear warheads still existed around the world.

Encouraging all States, including those possessing warheads, to continue interactive discussions to enhance transparency and advance nuclear disarmament through cooperation and collaboration, he highlighted recent developments, including the Democratic People's Republic of Korea-United States summit on denuclearization.

"As the only country to have ever experienced atomic bombings during war, Japan has been engaged in building practical and concrete measures on the basis of cooperation between nuclear-weapon States and non-nuclear-weapon States, while not losing sight of a clear recognition of the humanitarian aspects of the use of nuclear weapons," he said, extending respect for the long-standing efforts of the Hibakusha (survivors of atomic bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and civil society who are tersely conveying to the world the reality of atomic bombing.

Speaking on behalf of the African Group, Madagascar's Foreign Minister Eloi Alphonse Maxime Dovo said the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons does not undermine the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but rather completes, complements and strengthens the non-proliferation regime with that Treaty at its foundation. He called on all Member States – especial nuclear-weapon States and those under the so-called “nuclear umbrella” – to sign and ratify the agreement.

Conveying the African Group's deep concern over the slow pace of progress among nuclear-weapon States to scale back their nuclear arsenals, he called for the prompt establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East. He also expressed the Group's concern about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and urged all States to give thought to the impact on health, the environment and vital economic resources.

Sun Lei of the Permanent Mission of China to the UN said his country has always advocated the total prohibition and destruction of nuclear weapons and undertaken not to be the first to use its own nuclear arsenal nor to threaten to use them against non-nuclear-weapon States or nuclear-weapon-free zones. Emphasizing that the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva is the sole appropriate venue for non-proliferation and disarmament negotiations, he called for a pragmatic and gradual approach towards a world free of nuclear weapons.

Speaking on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, Venezuela's Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza Montserrat emphasized the need to organize a high-level conference on nuclear disarmament to review progress made so far. So long as nuclear weapons exist, the risk of their use will persist, he said, adding that all such weapons are a violation of the United Nations Charter as well as a crime against humanity.  Their use would have catastrophic humanitarian consequences, he added.

Conveying the Movement's deep concern about a lack of progress among nuclear-weapon States to reduce their arsenals, he called for tangible and systematic action towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons, as well as the urgent implementation of the nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East.

Describing multilateralism as a fundamental principle of disarmament, he voiced concern over the modernization of existing nuclear arsenals, the manufacture of new weapons and the United States' review of its nuclear doctrine.

Associating himself with the Non-Aligned Movement, India's Foreign Secretary Vijay Keshav Gokhale emphasized that the goal of disarmament can only be achieved through a step-by-step process within an agreed multilateral framework.

Underscoring the need for meaningful dialogue, he said the Conference on Disarmament is the appropriate venue for negotiating a comprehensive nuclear weapons convention along the lines of the Chemical Weapons Convention but acknowledged that body's inability to agree on a programme work. He added that India also supports negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament on a fissile material cut-off treaty.

Saudi Arabia's Abdallah Y. al-Mouallimi, also associating himself with the Non-Aligned Movement, said peace and security are only possible in a given region when the region is free of weapons of mass destruction. That requires dialogue and cooperation among States, he said, adding however that Israel, unfortunately, is hampering efforts to create a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East.

Austria's Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz underlined the country's leading role in forging the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and said the danger of such weapons is greater than ever. Since the end of the Cold War, awareness of the danger of the threat they pose to humankind has receded, he regretted.

"But the weapons have not gone away."  Besides the modernization of arsenals, nuclear weapons are being made easier to use, he said. Everyone agreed that a world free of nuclear weapons will be a better and safe world, he said, adding that the Treaty sends a powerful signal that most States reject the status quo. The Treaty is a first step, but an essential one, he said, calling on all States to sign and ratify it.

Doc Mashabane, Head of International Peace and Security of the Department of International Relations of South Africa, said disarmament, non-proliferation and ridding the world of nuclear weapons are policies his country supported since its first democratic election in 1994.

South Africa's experience has shown that neither the possession nor the pursuit of nuclear weapons can enhance international peace and security. "Common threats can only be effectively addressed through enhanced international cooperation and strong institutions that can respond to collective security concerns," he said, adding that South Africa would shortly be ratifying the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. [IDN-InDepthNews – 30 September 2018]

Photo: María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés (centre right), President of the 73rd session of the General Assembly, listens as Secretary-General António Guterres (centre left) addresses the high-level plenary meeting to commemorate and promote the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons (26 September). At left is Izumi Nakamitsu, Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs (ODA). UN Photo/Ariana Lindquist

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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