Disarmament of Most Loathsome Weapons Would ‘Ease Fear Clouding Human Existence’, Speakers Tell General Assembly in Effort to Change Calculus on Nuclear Debate

26 September 2013

Disarmament of Most Loathsome Weapons Would ‘Ease Fear Clouding Human Existence’, Speakers Tell General Assembly in Effort to Change Calculus on Nuclear Debate

26 September 2013
General Assembly
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Sixty-eighth General Assembly


11th Meeting (AM & PM)

Disarmament of Most Loathsome Weapons Would ‘Ease Fear Clouding Human Existence’,

Speakers Tell General Assembly in Effort to Change Calculus on Nuclear Debate

Make No Mistake, Says Assembly President, Today’s Meeting Will Have

Lasting Implications; Secretary-General Warns Failure Carries ‘Heavy Cost’

Reflecting the growing complexity of contemporary global security threats and the often bipolar nature of the nuclear disarmament debate, speakers in the General Assembly today grappled with the challenging elements of the process and the often divergent political interests that constrain it.

“This agenda cannot languish; it must advance for our common humanity,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared at the Assembly’s first high-level debate on the subject, underscoring “the heavy price” of failure.  It was up to the Member States, he said, to add to the historical legacy of today’s gathering by “taking meaningful, practical steps to achieve our great disarmament goal”.

“Some might complain that nuclear disarmament is little more than a dream,” he said, but stressing its tangible developments, added that its success would strengthen international peace and security, free up vast and much-needed resources for social and economic development, and advance the rule of law.  It would also spare the environment and help keep nuclear materials from terrorist or extremist groups and “remove a layer of fear that clouds all of human existence”.

He noted some progress, such as declared stockpiles that had been falling for decades, the closure of test sites by some nuclear-weapon States and the elimination of certain nuclear weapons and cessation of the production of nuclear-weapon materials, and enhanced physical security.  But he acknowledged that much work remained, noting, among other challenges, that the transparency of nuclear weapons stocks, delivery systems and fissile material remained weak and uneven.

Touching on additional challenges, he called on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to demonstrate its commitment towards verifiable de-nuclearization, and he urged Iran to enhance the transparency of its nuclear programme.  He asked countries outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime to accede to it without delay or conditions, and called for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty’s entry into force.  Stressing the need for new binding legal commitments, he urged the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament to take up the fissile material cut-off treaty as a top priority.

“Make no mistake about it,” said General Assembly President John Ashe, “this is a historic meeting, which will have lasting implications for our present well-being and our shared future.”  Amid daily lives, which, for many, were fraught with deep worries about feeding families and finding clean water and safe shelter, he said the spectre of nuclear weapons, indeed, of all weapons, still haunted and was the reason for the gathering today.

When the General Assembly gathered at its inaugural meeting on 10 January 1946 in London, it adopted its very first resolution calling for “specific proposals for the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction”.  The world had recently been traumatized by the horrors of atomic weapons; “there was no greater threat imaginable to international peace and security,” he said.  

But 67 years later, assembled here for the very first time in a high-level meeting on that critical subject, “we do so against a backdrop of weapons of mass destruction and the technology to produce them having become commonplace and the danger of proliferation very real.”  It was a sad irony, he said, that amid endeavours to improve the lives of people around the world, significant investment was made in instruments that would destroy them.  He urged delegations to devote part of the resources made available for disarmament and arms limitation agreements to economic and social development. 

Saying the world had been waiting too long for nuclear disarmament, Hassan Rouhani, President of Iran, speaking on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, which introduced the resolution to convene today’s meeting, stressed that the indefinite possession ofnuclear weapons could not be tolerated, nor could their complete elimination be further delayed. 

Fulfilment by the nuclear-armed States of their long overdue obligation, he said, must not be delayed any further or heldhostage to progress on non-proliferation or the perceived notions of strategic stability.  Nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation were mutually reinforcing, and they should be pursued simultaneously, not one at the cost of the other, he said, adding that non-proliferation derived its legitimacy from the larger objective of nuclear disarmament.

He went on to say that steps for de-targeting, de-alerting or reducing the number of nuclear weapons were “not a substitute” for their total elimination.  Pending that day, nuclear-weapon-States should refrain from any threat or use of nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear-weapon State under any circumstances.  The current declarations on negative security assurances were inadequate and must be codified into a universal legal instrument, he said.

Regretting that almost four decades of international efforts to establish a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East had failed, he called for urgent practical steps towards the establishment of such a zone in the region and for the early convening of a conference for that purpose.  He recommended, on the Movement’s behalf, that the Conference on Disarmament commence negotiations on a comprehensive convention on nuclear weapons.

Heinz Fischer, President of Austria, quoted United States President John F. Kennedy from 1961 on his notion of a nuclear sword of Damocles “hanging by the slenderest of threads capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness”, underlining that the nuclear weapons still posed an existential threat to humanity.  Already nine States had them and overcoming the technological challenges to build them was no longer limited to a few.  To those who claimed that those weapons were ultimate guarantors of security, he said that relying on mutually assured destruction as the foundation of international relations and stability was neither responsible nor sustainable.

When the disarmament machinery failed, important instruments could be concluded elsewhere, said Elbegdorj Tsakhia, President of Mongolia, drawing attention to the Mine-Ban Convention of 1997 and the Convention on Cluster Munitions in 2008.  Neither was negotiated under United Nations auspices, but was spearheaded by coalitions of States and non-governmental organizations. 

The President described nuclear-weapon-free zones as effective regional measures of non-proliferation and disarmament, and recalled that, more than 20 years ago, Mongolia, situated between two nuclear-armed States, had declared itself as a single-State nuclear-weapon-free zone.  That showed that even small States could contribute to promoting the vision of a nuclear-weapon-free world.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe noted that his was the only country that had ever suffered from the devastation caused by the use of atomic bombs in wartime.  A world free of nuclear weapons was not only a major goal of Japan’s, but a shared aspiration of mankind.  However, in reality, a “massive number” of nuclear weapons still remained and in some areas nuclear arsenals were said to be increasing with a lack of transparency. 

Considering nuclear terrorism by non-State actors and the nuclear development by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the nuclear risk for Japan was more diverse and challenging than it was during the cold war.  He expected that the United States-Russian Federation bilateral reduction negotiations would become multilateral, and added that all five nuclear-weapon States should report their concrete nuclear disarmament measures at the third session of the Preparatory Committee of the 2014 NPT Review Conference.

Viola Onwuliri, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs of Nigeria, said that unlike with natural disasters, adequate humanitarian response might not be possible following a single nuclear explosion or detonation in a populated area.  The zero tolerance shown by States against chemical and biological weapons, which were similar weapons of mass destruction, should be extended to all types of nuclear weapons.  Since the nuclear deterrence policy was predicated on actual willingness and capacity of all possessors to use them, Nigeria supported the call for total nuclear disarmament.  With nuclear-weapon-free zones pivotal to the overall goal, she supported their establishment across all regions, including the Middle East.

Speaking on behalf of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Cuba, called for the negotiation and adoption of a universal and legally binding instrument on negative security assurances against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons.  His was the first densely populated region in the world to be declared a nuclear-weapon-free zone, which constituted an important heritage of the international community to inspire the establishment of more such zones, including in the Middle East.  The Community was concerned at the humanitarian impact of vast proportions and global effects of any accidental or intentional nuclear weapon detonation.

Substantive Segment

In the ensuing discussion, some 70 delegates at senior levels of Government took the floor to discuss various aspects of nuclear disarmament, including regional tensions and interim disarmament measures to assuage them; the concept of deterrence and the rationale for nuclear weapons possession; the stalemate in the disarmament machinery, particularly in the Conference on Disarmament; bilateral arrangements, such as the New Treaty on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (START) between the United States and the Russian Federation; the mutually reinforcing nature of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation; a fissile material ban; and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Among them was Egypt’s Foreign Minister, Nabil Fahmy, who, speaking on behalf of the New Agenda Coalition (Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden), said that throughout the last 15 years, the cross-regional group had advocated for the implementation of concrete, transparent, mutually reinforcing, verifiable and irreversible nuclear disarmament measures.  It had been disappointed by the slow pace of nuclear disarmament, both at regional and global levels, despite successive undertakings by the nuclear-weapon States.  Although initiatives were not lacking, concrete progress was.  The absence of a Middle East nuclear-weapon-free zone, including the failure to hold a conference in 2012 on ridding the region of nuclear and other mass destruction weapons, as agreed at the 2010 NPT Review Conference, remained a serious concern.  

Speaking in his national capacity, he said it was essential that the five nuclear Powers adhere to the NPT’s article VI.  In the last decade, his nation had made enormous efforts towards creating a Middle East nuclear-weapon-free zone.  It also had played a crucial role in 1995 to have the NPT extended indefinitely, without vote.

Also drawing attention to the NPT-based obligations on nuclear-weapon States parties was Franciscus Cornelis Gerardus Maria Timmermans, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.  Speaking on behalf of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (Australia, Canada, Chile, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Poland, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Nigeria, Philippines), he said that while disarmament was the responsibility of all States, the five NPT nuclear-weapon States parties had particular obligations codified in the Treaty’s article VI.  Concerned about the reported build-up of nuclear arsenals by some States, he urged all nuclear-weapon States and those States outside the NPT to take concrete steps towards the speedy, final and total elimination of their nuclear weapons.

Echoing the frustration of several speakers over the stalemate in the Geneva-based Conference, he said the time had come to take bold steps and work towards fulfilling that body’s mandate.  He regretted the postponement of the international conference ridding the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction, and urged its immediate convening.  He also stressed the importance of civil society in realizing global disarmament and non-proliferation objectives.

The African Group, said Osman Mohammed Saleh, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Eritrea, speaking on its behalf, felt that, although measures such as de-targeting or de-alerting the operational readiness of nuclear weapons and reducing their current numbers were steps in the right direction, those should not be mistaken as a real substitute for total elimination.  He called on nuclear-weapon States to consider the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the use of such weapons and to take measures aimed at voluntary renunciation and dismantling.

He acknowledged the useful purposes served by the establishment of nuclear-weapon-free zones in consolidating the NPT and addressing nuclear proliferation, and called on all nuclear-armed States to ratify related protocols to all such treaties.  He expressed strong support for the establishment of such a zone in the Middle East, and urged Israel, the only country in the region that had not joined the NPT, to renounce any possession of nuclear weapons and accede to the Treaty without precondition and further delay.  He pointed out that as long as nuclear weapons existed, the risk of their use and proliferation would persist. 

Wunna Maung Lwin, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Myanmar, speaking on behalf of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), emphasized the importance of preserving the region as a nuclear-weapon-free zone and free of all other weapons of mass destruction, and urged the nuclear-armed States to accede to the Protocol to the Bangkok Treaty, without reservations. 

Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, Prime Minister of Pakistan, said his country was committed to the goal of general and complete disarmament, in a process that was global, non-discriminatory and verifiable.   Pakistan’s approach had been determined by the guiding principles of the First Special Session of the General Assembly devoted to Disarmament in 1978, which had upheld every State’s right to security at the lowest level of armaments.  That meant security for all, and not security of a privileged few, he said.

He recalled that it had been on his watch, as Prime Minister in 1998, that Pakistan had conducted nuclear tests, a decision that had not been taken lightly.  “Our hand was forced,” he said; an existential choice made for strategic stability in the region.  Pakistan’s nuclear policy was guided by the principles of restraint and responsibility, as it did not want an arms race in South Asia.  It would continue to adhere to its policy of Credible Minimum Deterrence, without entering into an arms race.  At the same time, it would maintain full-spectrum deterrence, as recent nuclear policies dictated by politics and profits were altering the strategic balance in the region.  He called on the international community to reverse nuclear discrimination.  On the proposed fissile missile treaty, he advocated a comprehensive, strategic control regime that established nuclear restraint, balance in conventional forces and a mechanism for conflict resolution.

Salman Khurshid, Minister for External Affairs of India, said that his country believed that nuclear disarmament could be achieved through a step-by-step process, underwritten by a universal commitment and an agreed multilateral framework, which was both global and non-discriminatory.  There was a need for meaningful dialogue among nuclear-armed countries to build trust and confidence and for reducing the salience of nuclear weapons in international affairs and security doctrines.  Progressive steps were needed for the de-legitimization of nuclear weapons, thereby paving the way for their complete elimination.

He said that, as a responsible nuclear Power, India had a credible minimum deterrence policy and would not participate in a nuclear arms race.  It had a no-first-use posture and was prepared to negotiate a global no-first-use treaty.  Its proposal for a convention banning the use of nuclear weapons remained on the table, as did its commitment to advancing the international common objectives of non-proliferation.  India supported the early commencement of negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament on nuclear disarmament and on a non-discriminatory and verifiable fissile material cut-off treaty, he said, stressing that the Conference remained the single multilateral disarmament negotiating forum.

Recalling that nuclear Powers, 45 years ago, had made a commitment to nuclear disarmament through the NPT, and non-nuclear-armed States to non-proliferation, Pak Kil-yon, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, said priority was being given to non-proliferation rather than to nuclear disarmament.  Furthermore, under the pretext of nuclear disarmament, new types of nuclear weapons of enhanced capacity were constantly developed and “further manoeuvres to conduct nuclear pre-emptive strikes” against countries having different ideas and systems were becoming “undisguised”.

Only the total elimination of nuclear weapons could settle the proliferation issue to its root, he said, and no progress could be expected “if nuclear disarmament initiatives are purely for the sake of holding strategic superiority or if abandonment of nuclear deterrence is requested unilaterally”.  As the country that had used nuclear weapons first and still possessed the largest nuclear stockpiles, the United States should take the lead in realizing nuclear disarmament.  “The anachronistic logic that the possession of nuclear weapons enables a State to do whatever they like should not be tolerated,” as that would only compel non-nuclear-weapon States to also adopt the nuclear deterrence policy.

Fiona Blyth (United Kingdom), also speaking on behalf of France and the United States, said nuclear disarmament was a shared responsibility of all NPT States parties.  Nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon States must cooperate to create the conditions in which the twin goals of disarmament and non-proliferation could be pursued.  Success in halting nuclear proliferation was among the international conditions that would further the step-by-step progress towards the ultimate goal of nuclear disarmament.  In order to uphold the integrity of the non-proliferation regime, the international community must address the issue of non-compliance by a few States with their obligations, she said.

She outlined progress by the nuclear-weapon countries in nuclear arms reduction, disarmament, confidence-building and transparency, citing, for example, the New START Treaty between the United States and the Russian Federation.  She noted her country’s own deep reductions in numbers of warheads and missiles on board its nuclear deterrent submarines, and said that France had slashed by one third the number of nuclear weapons, missiles and aircraft of the airborne component, leading to an arsenal of fewer than 300 nuclear weapons.  Favouring a step-by-step disarmament process that upheld global security and stability, she said the three countries sought to advance negotiations on a fissile material cut-off treaty and see the entry into force of the CTBT.

There were already sufficient forums for taking up the disarmament processes, including the General Assembly’s First Committee, the Disarmament Commission and the Conference on Disarmament, she said, and while she was encouraged by the increased energy and enthusiasm around the nuclear disarmament debate, she regretted that “this energy is being directed toward initiatives such as this high-level meeting, the humanitarian consequences campaign, the open-ended working group and the push for a nuclear weapons convention.”  It would have much better effect if channelled toward existing processes, she added.

Adding to those joint remarks was Anita Friedt, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, United States, who, in her national capacity, said that efforts to achieve the long-term goal of a world without nuclear weapons were built upon a realistic framework of iterative, mutually reinforcing, and progressive steps, with each one building on the accomplishment and momentum of the preceding steps and taking into account changes in the international security environment.

The New START Treaty would reduce the United States and the Russian Federation arsenals to the lowest numbers of deployed strategic nuclear weapons since the 1950s.  Her country was also working with other nuclear-armed States, including on implementation of their NPT obligations.  In the broader multilateral context, the United States believed the focus should be on achievable steps, starting with the immediate commencement of long-delayed negotiations on a fissile material cut-off treaty in the Conference on Disarmament.

Added to that, Pascal Teixeira (France), also in his national capacity, cautioned that nuclear disarmament should not lead to an arms race in other areas, and in that connection, he stressed the need to conduct a comprehensive approach to disarmament.  France had reduced its deterrent air component by one third, totally dismantled the ground component and slashed the maritime component by one third.  Furthermore, his country had been among the first of the five declared nuclear-weapon States to have ratified the CTBT, and it had unilaterally terminated the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons.

Alex Karpov, Deputy Director of the Department for Security Affairs and Disarmament, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, said that before launching new major actions in the field of nuclear disarmament, it was necessary to first enforce the New START Treaty.  Negotiations on further reductions of strategic offensive arms were only possible if all the factors influencing global stability were duly taken into account. 

He said that those included, first, plans of unilateral deployment of a strategic missile defence system; development of non-nuclear strategic offensive arms; potential deployment of weapons in outer space; increasing quantitative and qualitative imbalances in conventional weapons amid persistent, or emerging regional conflicts; and uncertainty over the entry into force of the CTBT.   

Pang Sen, Director-General of the Department of Arms Control and Disarmament of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China, said that nuclear-weapon States should publicly undertake not to seek permanent possession of nuclear weapons, adding that countries with the largest nuclear arsenals should make further substantial reductions in a verifiable, irreversible and legally binding manner, and when conditions were ripe, other nuclear-weapon States should join the multilateral negotiations on nuclear disarmament.

He agreed with previous speakers that creating favourable regional and international security environments was an important precondition for progress.  Development of missile defence systems that disrupted global strategic balance and stability as well as the advanced conventional precision striking weapon system should be abandoned.  Efforts should also be made to vigorously promote multilateral negotiations on the non-weaponization of outer space.  Nuclear-armed States should abandon the nuclear deterrence doctrine and undertake unequivocally not to use or threaten to use those weapons against non-nuclear-weapon States or in nuclear-weapon-free zones.  The Conference on Disarmament was irreplaceable, he said, adding that all nuclear-weapon-related issues should be handled there.

As a nuclear-weapon State, China had never evaded its responsibilities and always stood for the complete prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons, he said, adding that his country had never deployed nuclear weapons on foreign territories or taken part in any nuclear arms race, and it had adhered to the policy of no-first-use of those weapons at any time and under any circumstances.

Offering the humanitarian perspective was Walter A. Füllemann, Head of Delegation and Permanent Observer to the United Nations of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who described nuclear weapons as unique in their destructive power, in the unspeakable human suffering they caused, in the impossibility of controlling their effects in space and time, and in the threat that they posed to the environment, to future generations, and indeed to the survival of humanity.  He called on all States to ensure that nuclear weapons would never be used again, and to pursue negotiations to completely eliminate them.

Nosizwe Lise Baqwa of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, representing civil society, said that the fact that nuclear weapons had not been clearly declared illegal for all alongside the other prohibited weapons of mass destruction was a failure of our collective social responsibility. 

Exercising the right of reply, the representative of Iran said several speakers today made unfounded accusations about his country’s peaceful nuclear programmes.

Also speaking today were high-level officials from Namibia, Costa Rica, Libya (on behalf of the Group of Arab States), Malaysia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Czech Republic, New Zealand, Lesotho, Switzerland, Slovenia, Montenegro, Ireland, Botswana, Iraq, Mexico, Belarus, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Finland, Japan, Zambia, Lithuania (on behalf of the European Union), Panama, Canada, Uganda, Marshall Islands, Nicaragua, Morocco, Norway, Ecuador, Ukraine, Paraguay, Solomon Island, Venezuela, Belgium, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Republic of Korea, the Philippines, Nepal, Germany, Brazil, Chile, Italy, Serbia, Qatar, Thailand, Turkey, Denmark, Burkina Faso, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Argentina.

The Permanent Observer of the Holy See also participated in the debate, as did the representatives of the League of Arab States, Inter-Parliamentary Union, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO).  A representative of the American Friends Service Committee, a civil society group, also spoke.

Closing Remarks

Assembly President Ashe, in a statement delivered by the Chair of the meeting, said that 74 Heads of State and Government, ministers and representatives had spoken today.  That high-level of participation demonstrated the determination of Member States to pursue global efforts towards nuclear disarmament.  He also acknowledged the determined commitment of civil society, which had played and continued to play an important role in shaping the disarmament agenda.

He noted the number of concerns expressed today, and said that, despite achievements in bilateral and unilateral arms reductions, the total number of nuclear weapons deployed and in stockpiles still amounted to thousands.  The use of those weapons, whether intentionally or accidentally, would have a devastating humanitarian and environmental impact.  Many had expressed disappointment with the lack of political will to agree on issues that could be taken forward in the Conference on Disarmament.

There were many constructive suggestions, too, he said, citing calls for the CTBT’s entry into force and the start of negotiations on a fissile material treaty.  A number of delegations had called for a nuclear weapons convention.  Also emphasized was the need to fulfil the agreement to convene the conference to establish a Middle East zone free of nuclear and all other weapons of mass destruction, without further delay.  Some suggested that 26 September be dedicated as the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, while others proposed that a high-level international conference be held on nuclear disarmament in five years to follow up progress on today’s meeting.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.