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The Road to Nuclear Disarmament

The Guatemala Times (Guatemala)

19 November 2008

By Ban Ki-moon

Weapons of mass destruction and disarmament form one of the gravest challenges facing the world. One of my priorities as United Nations Secretary-General is to promote global public goods and remedies to challenges that do not respect borders. A world free of nuclear weapons is a global public good of the highest order.

My interest in this subject stems partly from personal experience. My homeland, South Korea, has suffered the ravages of conventional war and faced threats from nuclear weapons and other WMD. But, of course, such threats are not unique to Asia.

Despite a longstanding taboo against using nuclear weapons, disarmament remains only an aspiration. So, is a taboo merely on the use of such weapons sufficient?

States make the key decisions where nuclear weapons are concerned. But the UN has important roles to play. We provide a central forum in which states can agree on norms to serve their common interests. We analyze, educate, and advocate in the pursuit of agreed goals.

Most states have chosen to forgo nuclear weapons, and have complied with their commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Yet some states view such weapons as a status symbol, and some view them as offering the ultimate deterrent against nuclear attack, which largely accounts for the estimated 26,000 that still exist.

Unfortunately, the doctrine of nuclear deterrence is contagious, making non-proliferation more difficult and raising new risks that nuclear weapons will be used.

The world remains concerned about nuclear activities in North Korea and Iran, and there is widespread support for efforts to address these concerns by peaceful means.

There are also concerns that a "nuclear renaissance" is looming, with nuclear energy seen as a clean energy alternative at a time of intensifying efforts to combat climate change. The main worry is that this will lead to the production and use of more nuclear materials that must be protected against proliferation and terrorist threats.

The obstacles to disarmament are formidable. But the costs and risks of its alternatives never get the attention they deserve. Consider the enormous opportunity cost of huge military budgets. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, global military expenditures last year exceeded $1.3 trillion. Ten years ago, the Brookings Institution published a study that estimated the total costs of nuclear weapons in the United States alone to be over $5.8 trillion, including future cleanup costs. By any definition, this is a huge investment that could have had many other productive uses.

Concerns over nuclear weapons' costs and inherent dangers have led to a global outpouring of ideas to breathe new life into nuclear disarmament. We have seen the WMD Commission led by Hans Blix, the New Agenda Coalition, and Norway's Seven Nation Initiative. Australia and Japan have launched the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. Civil society groups and nuclear-weapon states have also made proposals, such as the Hoover Plan, spearheaded by Henry Kissinger.

I would like to offer my own five-point proposal.

First, I urge all NPT parties, in particular the nuclear-weapon states, to fulfill their obligation under the treaty to undertake negotiations on effective measures leading to nuclear disarmament. They could agree on a framework of separate, mutually reinforcing instruments. Or they could consider negotiating a nuclear-weapons convention, backed by a strong verification system, as has long been proposed at the UN. I have circulated to all UN members a draft of such a convention, which offers a good point of departure.

The nuclear powers should actively engage with other states on this issue at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, the world's single multilateral disarmament negotiating forum. The world would also welcome a resumption of bilateral negotiations between the US and Russia aimed at deep and verifiable reductions of their arsenals.

Governments should also invest more in verification research and development. The United Kingdom's proposal to host a conference of nuclear-weapon states on verification is a concrete step in the right direction.

Second, the Security Council's permanent members should begin discussions on security issues in the nuclear disarmament process. They could unambiguously assure non-nuclear-weapon states that they will not be subject to the use or the threat of use of nuclear weapons. The Council could also convene a summit on nuclear disarmament. Non-NPT states should freeze their own nuclear-weapon capabilities and make their own disarmament commitments.

Third, unilateral moratoria on nuclear tests and the production of fissile materials can go only so far. We need new efforts to bring the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty into force, and for the Conference on Disarmament to begin negotiations on a fissile material treaty immediately, without preconditions.

I support the creation of the Central Asian and African nuclear-weapon-free zones, and strongly support efforts to establish such a zone in the Middle East. And I urge all NPT parties to conclude their safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and voluntarily to adopt the strengthened safeguards under the Additional Protocol.

Fourth, the nuclear-weapon states often circulate descriptions of what they are doing to pursue these goals. But these accounts seldom reach the public. I invite the nuclear-weapon states to send such material to the UN Secretariat, and to encourage its wider dissemination. The lack of an authoritative estimate of the total number of nuclear weapons attests to the need for greater transparency.

Finally, a number of complementary measures are needed. These include eliminating other types of WMD; new efforts against WMD terrorism; limits on the production and trade in conventional arms; and new weapons bans, including of missiles and space weapons.

If there is real, verified progress on disarmament, the ability to eliminate the nuclear threat will grow exponentially. As we progressively eliminate the world's deadliest weapons and their components, we will make it harder to execute WMD terrorist attacks.

These proposals offer a fresh start not only on disarmament, but also on strengthening our system of international peace and security.

Ban  Ki-moon is the Secretary-General of the United Nations