On 14 October 2021, the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) organized a side event entitled “Addressing Today’s Nuclear Challenges: Findings from a UNIDIR Dialogue” in the margins of the First Committee on Disarmament and International Security of the 76th United Nations General Assembly.
The side event aimed to contribute to discussions on today’s nuclear challenges, including consolidating the norm of the non-use of nuclear weapons, recrafting strategic arms control for the 21st century, and revitalizing the pursuit of nuclear disarmament. Participants at the event reflected on the findings of the informal dialogue on nuclear disarmament, nuclear deterrence, and strategic arms control, launched by UNIDIR in July 2020, and discussed actions for the way forward.
UNIDIR is uniquely placed to organize crucial discussions and serve as a platform to bring together diverse expertise and thinking about strategic concerns, UNIDIR Director Mr. Geiss said in opening remarks. He encouraged participants to make use of the outputs that were produced as a result of the initiative, including the nuclear dialogue series of papers.
In an introductory statement, Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Ms. Izumi Nakamitsu acknowledged that in an environment of growing risk “recommendations for reducing the risk of any use of nuclear weapons and strengthening the norm against the use of nuclear weapons should be of obvious interest to States Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.” She noted that at the same time, risk reduction and other near-term measures cannot substitute for actual steps in disarmament, underlining the urgency to pursue the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.
Mr. Lewis Dunn, independent consultant and member of the UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters, highlighted the two most important consequences of the nuclear divide. First, the risk of confrontation crisis in an escalation towards the nuclear threshold, and secondly the accelerating arms competition. Speaking on ways forward, Mr. Lewis highlighted that the Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear-Weapons (NPT) as a window of opportunity for the nuclear-weapon States to reaffirm the principle that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must not be fought” and also go beyond to make a commitment and state the actions they will take to implement the declaration.
Ms. Manpreet Sethi, Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies India, underscored that the changes in political relationships and strains between nuclear-weapon States in the 21st Century have led to threatening rhetoric between States about their nuclear arsenals and the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons. She stressed that belief in the possibility of a limited use of nuclear weapons is highly dangerous.
Speaking about recrafting strategic arms control for the 21st century, Ms. Sethi highlighted that modern engagement on nuclear risk reduction and arms control cannot depend solely on capping the number of weapons but should rather be in consideration of the capabilities of nuclear-weapon States. She underscored that a world free of nuclear weapons is the ultimate way of eliminating nuclear risk and that to get there the international community must take steps to make nuclear weapons valueless. Ms. Sethi highlighted two ways of doing this. Firstly, by encouraging doctrines that strip nuclear weapons of a role except for deterring nuclear weapons use and secondly by getting nations to pledge to no-first-use policies.
Mr. Karim Haggag, Professor of Practice at the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at The American University in Cairo (AUC), drew attention to two points highlighted in UNIDIR’s report on the value of dialogue. Firstly, Mr. Haggag underscored that dialogue helps reach a deeper level of understanding of how interactions between emerging technologies, especially in the cyber realm and artificial intelligence, new nuclear doctrines and advances in conventional weapons, are changing threat perceptions and strategic concerns. The second key value of holding dialogue, according to Mr. Haggag, “is the realization of the participants that facing challenges of arms control, nuclear deterrence, and disarmament needs to be a collective effort.”
Considering that today’s nuclear challenges are increasingly manifested at the regional level, Mr. Karim encouraged supporting or revitalizing systems that are already in place to address these. In this context, Mr. Haggag referred to the six-party talks in connection to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, revitalization of confidence building measures (CBMs) in South Asia and using the new UN process to establish a Middle East Zone free of nuclear weapons and all other Weapons of Mass Destruction.
Mr. Andrey Baklitskiy, Senior Research Fellow at Center of Advance American Studies at the MGIMO University of the Russian Foreign Ministry and Consultant at PIR Center, continued that currently there is a sense of urgency within the international community to advance their self-defense capabilities, all of which at some point will become difficult to regulate. Mr. Baklitskiy then highlighted that the starting point for recrafting arms control for the current strategic environment would be to accept today’s broad-ranging disarmament challenges and engage in dialogue with a view to addressing those issues and systems that the ‘other side’ believes are destabilizing.
The discussion that followed in the Q&A portion of the event focused on the actions that nuclear-weapon States can take and publicly announce for addressing the current nuclear and arms control challenges. Participants also explored multi-dimensional aspects of nuclear challenges with surging developments in cyber, outer space, emerging technologies, and the current environment for disarmament within the international community.