Experts Warn of Nuclear Testing Risks despite Moratorium, as General Assembly Marks International Day
Experts Warn of Nuclear Testing Risks despite Moratorium, as General Assembly Marks International Day
|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Sixty-sixth General Assembly
Observance of International Day
against Nuclear Tests (AM)
Experts Warn of Nuclear Testing Risks despite Moratorium,
as General Assembly Marks International Day
Despite a fragile moratorium on nuclear-weapons testing, the risks posed by such activities still loomed heavily over the international community, expert panellists said today as delegates and other participants gathered in observance of the international day devoted to bringing an end to testing.
“Nuclear tests are a threat to human health and global stability,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Assembly in a video message. While the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty — adopted by the United Nations in 1996 — now enjoyed near-universal support, it had yet to enter into force as it lacked ratification by several key States. Urging those States to ratify the instrument without delay, he stressed the importance of refraining, in the interim, from all nuclear testing. “Let us be clear: voluntary moratoria are essential, but they are no substitute for a total ban.”
Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser (Qatar), President of the General Assembly, agreed that there had been significant results from more than half a century of extensive international efforts aimed at banning nuclear-test explosions. The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty represented the culmination of those efforts, particularly with the completion of a significant portion of the Treaty’s global verification infrastructure. With the advanced technical capabilities in analysing data obtained from verification stations across the globe, signatories were able to detect in a timely and effective manner any nuclear-test explosions, wherever they occurred on the globe, he said. Moreover, following such advances, “the remaining effort is not necessarily scientific or financial, but rather political,” he added.
Timur Zhantikin, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Agency of Kazakhstan — one of the meeting’s co-organizers — shared his country’s experience with the horrors of nuclear testing over the course of 40 years. Some 490 explosions had been carried out at the Semipalatinsk testing site alone, he said, adding that 1.5 million people had been affected. Immense territories comparable to the size of some European States were contaminated with radiation, and the effects of the tests continued to be felt to the present day, he said. It was therefore symbolic that, 18 years after the closure of Semipalatinsk, 29 August had been declared the International Day against Nuclear Tests.
Five panellists called attention to issues ranging from the security of nuclear stockpiles and the importance of International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, to the approaching 2015 Review Conference on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), to the nuclear activities of certain States. One common theme was the pivotal role to be played by the United Nations — as an organization with unprecedented international scope — and the importance of maintaining the world body as the champion of a world free of nuclear weapons.
Such a role was particularly urgent as the world was still home to enough nuclear material to set off some 150,000 Hiroshima blasts, said Gary Quinlan ( Australia), one of the panellists. Referring to the famous “doomsday clock” maintained since 1947 by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, he said this year it had been set even closer to “midnight” due to recent political stalling and lack of leadership on key nuclear issues. The fact was that the moratorium on testing was “fragile and voluntary”, he said, and “we could always fall back into testing”. Making the moratorium legally binding was therefore a critical cornerstone of what nuclear policy should become.
Another panellist, Jim McLay ( New Zealand), said the United Nations had a “mixed track record” on matters of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, stressing in particular that the Conference on Disarmament had not made significant progress in negotiations lasting more than 15 years. Much of the recent progress made in nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, including the completion of the Treaty on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (START) between the United States and the Russian Federation, had been made outside the United Nations machinery. “That’s us — that’s our Conference on Disarmament — and that’s our appalling record,” he said, echoing many speakers who called throughout the meeting for urgent action to rectify the situation.
Following the panel discussion, a host of delegates expressed their views, while thanking Kazakhstan for its bold action in closing the Semipalatinsk site and proposing the International Day. Many stressed that they attached great importance to the entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, and touched on their hopes that a fissile material cut-off treaty — currently before the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva — would soon begin to take shape.
Still other speakers, including the representative of Belarus, emphasized that the creation of nuclear-weapon-free zones around the world was a crucial component of the path towards a denuclearized world. In particular, many echoed the panellists in underscoring the critical importance of establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East to the maintenance of international peace and security. To that end, a number of delegates, including the representative of Egypt, also called for the convening of an international conference at the earliest possible date.
Also speaking during the interactive discussion were representatives of the Netherlands, Turkey, Japan, Iran, Belarus, Algeria, South Africa, Russian Federation, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Ukraine, Syria and the Republic of Korea. The Deputy Head of the European Union delegation also participated.
Convening this morning to commemorate the third International Day against Nuclear Tests, observed each year on 29 August, the General Assembly was expected to hold a high-level panel discussion on “The Role of the United Nations in Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation”.
The International Day was established by Assembly resolution 64/35 of 2 December 2009, at the initiative of the Government of Kazakhstan. The preamble to the text emphasizes that “every effort should be made to end nuclear tests in order to avert devastating and harmful effects on the lives and health of people […] and that the end of nuclear tests is one of the key means of achieving the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world”.
NASSIR ABDULAZIZ AL-NASSER (Qatar), President of the General Assembly, said there had been significant results from more than half a century of extensive international efforts aimed at banning nuclear-test explosions, and much had been achieved. The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) represented the culmination of those efforts, particularly with the completion of a significant portion of the Treaty’s global verification infrastructure.
With advanced technical capabilities in analysing data obtained from verification stations across the globe, signatories were able to detect, in a timely and effective manner, any nuclear-test explosions, wherever they occurred on the globe. More than $1 billion in international funding had been invested in establishing and operating the Treaty’s verification system, he said, cautioning, however, that much remained to be done towards concluding a universally effective legally-binding comprehensive nuclear-test ban. “The remaining effort is not necessarily scientific or financial but rather political.”
Commending Kazakhstan for having enabled the Assembly to establish 29 August as the International Day against Nuclear Tests, he recalled that the country had also unilaterally closed down the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site more than a decade earlier. He encouraged all participants in today’s meeting to engage in constructive exchanges, not only to promote the Treaty’s entry into force, but also progress on all parallel fronts. That would require Government efforts as well as the active engagement of civil society and other relevant stakeholders who supported a global cause in nuclear disarmament, he said.
BAN KI-MOON, Secretary-General of the United Nations, speaking via video message, recalled his 2010 visit to Kazakhstan’s Semipalatinsk nuclear testing site, whose closure had inspired the declaration of the International Day. During that visit, he had learned how people were working together to restore the area and create a brighter future. “Nuclear tests are a threat to human health and global stability,” he said, pointing out that while the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty enjoyed near universal support, it had not yet entered into force. He urged States that had not yet ratified the Treaty to do so without delay. Pending its entry into force, all States should observe voluntary moratoria on nuclear tests. “Let us be clear: voluntary moratoria are essential, but they are no substitute for a total ban,” he emphasized, renewing his pledge to visit any State that remained unconvinced of the Treaty’s monitoring systems and to address their concerns.
TIMUR ZHANTIKIN, Chairman, Atomic Energy Agency of Kazakhstan, said that, for his country’s people — who had experienced the horrors of nuclear-weapons testing for 40 years — the question of a total ban was particularly significant. Some 490 explosions had been carried out at Semipalatinsk, and their consequences had affected 1.5 million people. Immense territories comparable to the size of some European States were contaminated with radiation, and the impacts of the tests continued to be felt to this day, he said. It was therefore symbolic that, 18 years after the closure of Semipalatinsk, 29 August had been declared the International Day against Nuclear Tests.
Recalling that the Secretary-General had visited Semipalatinsk in 2010, the year in which the International Day had first been declared, he said that, standing on ground zero of the one-time nuclear-testing ground, the Secretary-General had made a strong appeal for substantial progress towards complete nuclear disarmament. This year, on 27-29 August in Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital, an international conference entitled “From Nuclear Test Ban to Nuclear Weapon Free World” had adopted a declaration, and various follow-up activities would be held in different countries around the world.
The path of the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty had not been easy, “but there is undeniable progress”, he said. To date, 183 countries had joined the Treaty and 153 had completed their internal procedures for its entry into force. Regrettably, however, some fairly influential countries had so far refrained from signing and ratifying the Treaty, which allowed the official nuclear-weapon States to continue testing weapons and “threshold” States to work on their own missile and nuclear programmes “with impunity”. Calling on States to sign and ratify the Treaty, he declared: “We have to understand and value the voluntary moratoria on nuclear tests by nuclear Powers as a very important factor, but clearly they are insufficient and cannot serve as an alternative to a legally binding document, such as the CTBT.” Indeed, exercising their responsibility towards non-nuclear States demanded an internationally legally binding instrument to provide security guarantees by the nuclear Powers. “Only in that way can we overcome the perception that nuclear weapons can bring security and the consequent misguided desire to have it,” he said.
The panellists discussed key issues, including necessary steps for further progress on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, the establishment of further nuclear-weapon-free zones, confidence-building measures and other relevant concerns.
Randy Rydell, Senior Political Affairs Officer, Office of the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, moderated the panel, which featured Tibor Tóth, Executive Secretary, Preparatory Commission, Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization; Susan F. Burk, Special Representative of the President of the United States for Nuclear Non-proliferation, Bureau of International Security and Non-proliferation; Jim McLay, Permanent Representative of New Zealand to the United Nations; Gary Quinlan, Permanent Representative of Australia; Geoffrey Shaw, Representative of the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); and John Burroughs, Executive Director, Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy.
Mr. RYDELL used the ancient parable of different men examining an elephant and arriving at different conclusions as to what the creature could be in encouraging the panellists to examine the question of nuclear testing from different angles.
Mr TÓTH, recalling the Cuban missile crisis of the 1960s, described the closure of Semipalatinsk 20 years ago as an important milestone. Joining forces towards the goal of zero nuclear testing in the future was critical, otherwise there would be no future to test nuclear weapons, he said.
Ms. BURK said she had been asked to address the topic “From here to 2015 and beyond”, a subject that sparked three questions. First, where was “here”, or what was the state of affairs at the intersection of nuclear technology and international security? Second, how had the world arrived at that point, and what was behind that progress? And third, what lessons could be taken from the past few years in light of the approaching 2015 Review Conference on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), as well as the nuclear challenges — non-proliferation, disarmament, peaceful use, and security — currently facing the world and those to be confronted in the years ahead? She outlined achievements, including the 2010 NPT Review Conference and the entry into force of the new Treaty on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (START) in February 2011, emphasizing that full implementation of the latter would result in reducing United States and Russian nuclear arsenals to levels unseen since the 1950s.
However, there were challenges, including the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme, Syria’s clandestine nuclear activities and the non-compliance and provocative actions of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, she cautioned. On the second question, she said a commitment by each State to the mutual obligations and legal commitments embodied in the nuclear non-proliferation regime was fundamental to the progress made so far. For the United States, President Barack Obama had voiced that commitment at Prague in 2009, she continued. As for the third question, which was about moving forward, she said all parties must support each pillar of the Non-proliferation Treaty, whether by bolstering efforts to address non-compliance, pursuing steps that would contribute to nuclear disarmament, or promoting the peaceful benefits of nuclear energy. It was also important that States in the Middle East deal in a respectful and serious way with the issue of a region free of weapons of mass destruction.
Mr. MCLAY, stressing that the proliferation of nuclear weapons posed a looming threat to humanity, recalled that the first resolution ever adopted by the General Assembly in 1946 included proposals on the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction. Now, 66 years later, the situation remained as urgent — and as elusive — as ever. New Zealand, a long-standing supporter of efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons, backed the creation of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Pacific, but was concerned that nuclear-weapons programmes continued to eat up resources that could be used for other purposes.
Non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament were mutually reinforcing, and therefore required equal attention, he said. The United Nations had a critical role to play in that regard, in particular because “if we are to make progress, a multifaceted, multilateral solution is required”. The Organization was uniquely placed to provide such a “big-picture” perspective, he said, pointing out that at no other time in human history had a body of such scope been available. It should rightly be used to play a strong disarmament role, he added, welcoming the Secretary-General’s recent statements urging that nuclear issues should be viewed through a “human-security prism”, as well as one to the effect that the solution lay in greater efforts by States to harmonize their actions to achieve a common end.
Despite some progress made, however, the United Nations had a “mixed track record” on matters of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, he said. Progress had been slow, and much of what had been achieved had taken place outside the United Nations system. Moreover, the opportunities provided by the world body’s disarmament machinery had not been fully embraced, he noted, expressing his “extreme disappointment” that the Conference on Disarmament had not made progress in more than 15 years. “That’s us — that’s our Conference on Disarmament — and that’s our appalling record.” With more than 100 Member States part of nuclear-weapon-free zones, the United Nations must remain a champion for a nuclear-weapon-free world, escaping a more than 60-year-old legacy of “sometimes dodging the key issues”, he stressed. As had been seen before, progress could be halted in an instant, he said, adding that the next serious test would be the next Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. Before that, however, a regional conference must be held on establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East. “Progress there is important to the ongoing vitality of the NPT regime.”
Mr. QUINLAN called to mind the famous “doomsday clock”, which this year had been set even closer to midnight due to the stalling and lack of leadership in the critical areas under discussion today. Indeed, there remained enough stockpiled nuclear materials in the world to set off more than 150,000 Hiroshima blasts. The fact was that the moratorium on testing was “fragile and voluntary”, and that “we could always fall back into testing”. Making the moratorium legally binding was therefore a critical cornerstone of what nuclear policy should become.
Some recent successes had been seen with the ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty by Indonesia and Guatemala, he said, encouraging the major nuclear weapons States that had not yet ratified it to examine “why they haven’t, and how they can”. The theme of today’s observance went to the heart of the matter — a world free of nuclear weapons. “That must remain our goal, but to achieve it, we must be credible,” he emphasized, warning against unachievable, over-ambitious objectives that could more easily be ignored. In addition, the power of parliaments to reflect “what people really think about nuclear weapons” was a crucial tool to “keep all of our Governments honest” in that critical area, he said.
Citing several recent examples of what non-nuclear weapons States could do to advance the nuclear-weapon-free agenda, he stressed the need for credible intellectual leadership on key issues. Australia and Japan had established a ministerial committee on disarmament, working to enforce Review Conference agreements in a number of countries, including on reducing the size of nuclear-weapons arsenals and reporting on disarmament commitments. “It is an attempt to transact the operationalization of what we committed to,” he said of those efforts, agreeing strongly on the absolutely critical need for progress towards a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East.
Mr. SHAW, speaking on behalf of the Director-General of IAEA, recalled that States parties attending the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Preparatory Committee earlier this year had once again reaffirmed that the Agency’s safeguards were a fundamental component of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Safeguards were now being applied in 179 States. Comprehensive safeguard agreements were in force, of which 172 were with non-nuclear-weapon States. However, 13 countries had yet to meet their obligations under the Treaty and conclude comprehensive agreements.
Besides establishing safeguards, the Agency continued to evolve the State-level concept in the planning, conduct and evaluation of safeguard activities, he said. At the request of the Russian Federation and the United States, the Agency was developing a draft agreement that would provide for IAEA verification of the disposition of plutonium designation by those countries as no longer required for their respective defence programmes. More generally, the Agency stood ready to cooperate in building confidence, improving transparency and developing efficient verification capabilities relating to nuclear disarmament.
He said IAEA worked to help Member States make nuclear and other radioactive materials, and associated facilities, more secure. In that regard, the 2005 “Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials” obliged States parties to protect nuclear materials in domestic use, transport and storage, and to protect nuclear facilities against sabotage, including acts of terrorism. “There is no room for complacency concerning nuclear security,” he stressed, noting that the Agency also continued to help States, including Kazakhstan, assess and remediate areas affected by nuclear testing and radiological emergencies.
Mr. BURROUGHS said he would never forget visiting the Soviet test site at Semipalatinsk, where he had met directly affected victims of nuclear testing. He would also never forget participating in protests at the Nevada test site in the United States during the 1980s. In the debate about nuclear weapons, the tide had turned towards disarmament, but some still argued that nuclear weapons should on balance be retained because they provided security and international stability. He underlined an observation by the President of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy — the policy debate could be endless, but the law, which all States were committed to uphold, was already clear. It was now beyond dispute that there was a legal obligation to negotiate and achieve nuclear disarmament, and that nuclear weapons, like all weapons, were subject to the rules governing the conduct of warfare, now often referred to as international humanitarian law.
The 2010 Review Conference had for the first time acknowledged the humanitarian catastrophe that would result from the use of nuclear weapons, and the obligation of all States to comply with international law, including international humanitarian law, at all times. Turning to questions of policy, he said a step-by-step approach was favoured by the nuclear-weapons States, and had been clearly articulated by the United States. However, that approach was encountering serious difficulties: the Russian Federation appeared resistant to the bilateral negotiations on comprehensive reductions envisaged by the United States; Pakistan was blocking negotiations on a fissile material cut-off treaty in the Conference on Disarmament; and the nuclear-weapon States, as well as India, Pakistan and Israel, were proceeding with the modernization of warheads, delivery systems and infrastructure, he said, warning that, with its indefinite timeline, the step-by-step approach was vulnerable to geopolitical tensions and disruptive events like wars and further proliferation. A comprehensive approach had the merit of addressing now, not at some uncertain future date, the logical and lawful solution to the problem of nuclear weapons — achieving and maintaining zero.
Many delegates hailed Kazakhstan’s closure of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site as a positive step towards a nuclear-weapon-free world, and expressed expectations for a conference this year on a Middle East free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.
The representative of the Netherlands said his Government had played a key role in drafting the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, which had not yet entered into force but had already helped to create the norm for a nuclear-test ban. Expressing frustration over the lack of progress in Geneva, he urged Member States to focus on how to make progress in New York. The representative of Egypt said his Government was committed to the creation of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East, and underscored the importance of observing the International Day in that continuing effort.
Echoing other delegations, the representative of Turkey described Kazakhstan’s closure of Semipalatinsk as a “courageous action” that deserved to be praised and emulated. In 2011, Turkey had hosted a joint regional conference within the framework of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, during which discussion had centred on the link between the Treaty and nuclear-weapon-free zones. The deputy head of the European Union delegation said the regional bloc continued actively to work with the Provisional Technical Secretariat of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization Preparatory Committee, as well as bilaterally and multilaterally with all States parties in order to stimulate more positive developments. “We have contributed more than €10 million for the strengthening of the Treaty’s monitoring and verification system,” he said.
Characterizing the nuclear-weapons issue as the most critical strategic challenge for all Member States, the representative of Japan outlined his country’s efforts to educate young people on the matter, and to ensure that the voices of atomic bomb survivors were heard. He sought comments from panellists, particularly those from nuclear-weapon States, on how to initiate concrete steps, instead of finger-pointing, towards a fissile material cut-off treaty, asking one panellist if his proposal for a comprehensive approach also related to that matter.
The representative of Iran described the closure of Semipalatinsk as “a bold exemplary step in the right direction”, and called on Israel, the only country in the Middle East that had not joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to renounce nuclear weapons. In addition to 29 August, there was also a need to observe 16 July, the day upon which the first nuclear weapon had been detonated, he said. It was ironic that the country that had first tested and used nuclear weapons, and still today possessed the largest nuclear arsenal, had been making allegations exclusively against Iran’s peaceful nuclear energy programme, he noted.
Many representatives also expressed their belief that the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty was at the core of international peace and security, and that the establishment of nuclear-weapon-free zones was critical. In that vein, the representative of Belarus expressed regret that his country was located in one of the regions of the world where the creation of such a zone had not yet been possible. Belarus had spent many years trying to overcome the effects of nuclear testing on its territory, and had become an active champion of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament after having gained its independence, he said.
Meanwhile, the representative of the Russian Federation said a nuclear-weapon-free world was an important long-term goal, and his country had undertaken several recent efforts to that end, including concluding START with the United States. Indeed, the total elimination of nuclear weapons would only be possible through a comprehensive, step-by-step process. With regard to the United Nations disarmament and non-proliferation machinery, he regretted that vigorous efforts by States parties had not yet led to the resumption of negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament. That body remained necessary and any initiative to move relevant issues from its remit to another forum would be counter-productive.
Several delegates, such as the representative of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, spoke in specific terms about their own nuclear policies and relationships with other States, citing in that respect threats against his country made by the United States, and the stockpiles of that country’s weapons in the Republic of Korea. Indeed, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was “living exposed” in a way that no other country in the world was doing, he said. As a result, it had no other option than to test its nuclear weapons and increase their number. The country had attempted peaceful talks to settle the nuclear issue, but unfortunately those talks had been ended, he said. If the United States was ready to settle the matter peacefully, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was ready to drop its nuclear policy.
Responding to those statements, the representative of the Republic of Korea said that his counterpart from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was once again trying to “falsify” conditions on the Korean peninsula. The goal of the six-party talks — a region free of nuclear weapons — was “crystal clear”, and the most important goal now was the total denuclearization of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. He called on that country to stick to its original commitments, and to comply fully with Security Council resolutions and IAEA commitments and obligations. Regarding the remark about the hostile policy of the United States, he said such comments were absurd and unacceptable.
Among others taking the floor was the representative of Syria, who said there was a regional and international consensus that Israel’s nuclear weapons posed the greatest threat to the Middle East. The United States was not abiding by its commitment to the Non-Proliferation Treaty for many reasons, including the fact that it was providing Israel with nuclear weapons. The latter had refused to work with IAEA, and had committed an act of aggression against Syria, using Turkish airspace, he said, noting that, unfortunately, the Security Council had not condemned that action.
The panellists responded briefly to some of those questions and comments.
Mr. QUINLAN, in response to the question by the representative of Japan, said the fissile materials cut-off treaty was mired in negotiations in Geneva, but there had been proposals to hold a parallel process to discuss the potential content of such an instrument.
Ms. BURK said the discussion had given her important “action items” to take back to her Government, particularly in such areas as modernization.
Mr. BURROUGHS, also discussing the fissile materials cut-off treaty, said he was not sure that instrument deserved the priority it was being accorded. The permanent five members of the Security Council could negotiate such a treaty, and it would not necessarily have to be done in the context of the Conference on Disarmament, he cautioned, noting, however, that such a treaty could easily be integrated into a larger, more comprehensive approach.
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