Day-long Debate Focuses on Atomic Testing, Adherence to Non-Proliferation Treaty, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action
With the global security environment deteriorating, nuclear weapons remain a clear threat to international peace and security, and urgent steps must be taken to resume progress on the long road to total disarmament, speakers said today at the General Assembly’s high-level plenary meeting to commemorate and promote the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.
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.
In opening remarks, António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, who visited the Japanese city of Nagasaki – scene of the world’s second nuclear attack on 9 August 1945 – last month, said the only sure way to eliminate the threat posed by nuclear weapons is to eliminate the weapons themselves. “Regrettably, the global security environment has deteriorated, making progress in nuclear disarmament more difficult, yet more important,” he said.
Pointing to the disarmament agenda that he launched in May, he appealed to the United States and the Russian Federation – the two nations that by far possess the biggest nuclear arsenals – 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. They should also 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,” he 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. Disarmament will not come overnight, he said, but urgent steps must be taken now to make tangible progress to rid the world of nuclear weapons.
María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés (Ecuador), President 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, emphasizing that the very survival of humanity hinges on the international community agreeing to forbid the use of nuclear weapons.
Pointing 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 today’s 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.
Aloysio Nunes Ferreira, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Brazil, describing nuclear weapons as a legacy of the cold war, said that with 15,000 nuclear warheads on a state of alert around the world, it would take just one push of a button to trigger devastation on an unimaginable scale. 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.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Iran, said the world is facing a new nuclear arms race that started when the President of the United States 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, he said successive International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports have verified Iran’s full compliance.
The unlawful and unjustified withdrawal of the United States from that agreement, and the re-imposition of illegal extraterritorial sanctions with unprecedented vengeance, has been rejected by most countries, he continued. In addition, the United States is openly and unlawfully bullying Member States to either disobey Security Council resolution 2231 (2015) endorsing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or face punishment. Iran will continue working with other Plan of Action participants and the wider international community to safeguard the agreement, he said, adding that Iran is confident that the United States will face further, and unfortunately well-deserved, isolation.
Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, Prime Minister of Fiji, 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. There is no room for bitterness, and much has been learned, but it must be pointed out that some human beings are paying the price for a dark chapter of history, he said.
John Silk, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Marshall Islands, 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 United States 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. Reiterating that request, he expressed 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 Hibakusya and civil society who are tersely conveying to the world the reality of atomic bombing.
Eloi Alphonse Maxime Dovo, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Madagascar, speaking on behalf of the African Group, 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 called on all States to give thought to the impact on health, the environment and vital economic resources.
Md Mahfuzur Rahman, Lieutenant General and Principal Staff Officer of the Armed Forces of Bangladesh, said that, with billions of people struggling for life, liberty and development, billions of dollars are being spent by a handful of States on nuclear weapons that are no guarantee of international peace and security. He urged nuclear-weapon States to fulfil in good faith their long-overdue obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and to extend security assurances to non-nuclear States while supporting the peaceful use of nuclear energy in line with IAEA guidelines.
Ibrahim Abdulkarim Al-Jafari, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Iraq, pointed to the danger of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of non-State actors and drew attention to his Government’s efforts to search for harmful substances in areas liberated from Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh). Noting his Government’s efforts to wind up the former Iraqi regime’s nuclear programme, he said efforts towards a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East should be preceded by the elimination of Israel’s nuclear programme and its accession to the Non‑Proliferation Treaty.
İsmail Alper Coşkun, Director General for International Security Affairs of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Turkey, calling on countries possessing nuclear weapons to set an example, described the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as an illustration of successful diplomacy. It has been working well, according to the IAEA, and it should be upheld. Noting the lack of progress towards a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East, he said efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons globally must be realistic and include the participation of nuclear-weapon States. There are different approaches to disarmament, but common ground must be found to chart a way forward, he said.
Sun Lei (China) 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.
Jorge Arreaza Montserrat, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Venezuela, speaking on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, 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.
Vijay Keshav Gokhale, Foreign Secretary of India, associating himself with the Non-Aligned Movement, 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.
Abdallah Y. al-Mouallimi (Saudi Arabia), 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. He criticized Iran for locating its Bushehr nuclear reactor in an earthquake zone, saying any fallout would impact the region’s food and water supply. He called for regular United Nations reports to ensure that States are taking steps to avoid Chernobyl-like disasters. On the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, he said Iran had taken advantage of that agreement, and the elimination of sanctions, to update its arsenal while undertaking destabilizing activities in the region, including its support for the Houthis in Yemen. He called on the international community to be firm and united in demanding that Iran stop supporting terrorism, uphold Security Council resolutions and cease endangering other countries.
Sebastian Kurz, Federal Chancellor of Austria, noting his country’s leading role in forging the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, 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 said, “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.
Ray Acheson, of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, shared civil society’s perspective, recalling that her organization, representing 532 groups in 103 countries, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 for its critical work. “For us, abolishing nuclear weapons is about preventing violence and promoting peace,” she said. “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. 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.
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. The idea that atomic bombs provide some sort of an ultimate security guarantee only serves to weaken arguments against proliferation and the development of more such arms by those tending to use the very same argument to justify their decision to pursue weapons programmes. “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.
Also speaking today were Heads of State and Government and senior officials of Cuba, Palau, Costa Rica, Samoa, Honduras, New Zealand, Guatemala, Kazakhstan, Guyana, Mexico, Algeria, Namibia, Philippines, Côte d’Ivoire, United Republic of Tanzania, Malaysia, Thailand, Nepal, Indonesia, Uruguay, Belarus, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Sudan, Kyrgyzstan, Oman (on behalf of the Arab Group), Peru, Morocco, Egypt, Liechtenstein, Libya, Jordan, Angola, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ghana, Trinidad and Tobago, Argentina and Ireland, as well as the Holy See and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Also participating was a representative of the World Future Council.
By its resolution 68/32 of 5 December 2013, the General Assembly declared 26 September as the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, devoted to furthering that objective - including through enhanced public awareness and education – in order to mobilize international efforts towards achieving a nuclear-weapon-free world.