Arms Control Efforts under Increasing Jeopardy amid Drive for New Weapons, Secretary-General Warns Conference on Disarmament

SG/SM/19474-DCF/462
25 February 2019

Arms Control Efforts under Increasing Jeopardy amid Drive for New Weapons, Secretary-General Warns Conference on Disarmament

Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks to the Conference on Disarmament, in Geneva today:

It is indeed a privilege to take the floor here in this Council Chamber, a space that was created to nurture the agreements that make our world a safer place.  The words inscribed outside these doors are as urgent as ever:  “Nations must disarm or perish.”

I will be blunt.  Key components of the international arms control architecture are collapsing.  The continued use of chemical weapons with impunity is driving new proliferation.  Thousands of civilian lives continue to be lost because of illicit small arms and the use in urban areas of explosive weapons designed for open battlefields.

New weapon technologies are intensifying risks in ways we do not yet understand and cannot even imagine.  We need a new vision for arms control in the complex international security environment of today.  But, as we work toward this new common endeavour, we must take great care to preserve our existing frameworks which continue to bring us indispensable benefits.

Many of the most successful and ambitious disarmament and arms control initiatives over the past several decades were those led by the major Powers; that is perfectly natural.  Their drive to regulate and eliminate arms was the product of a strategic understanding of how cooperation and agreement could be the most effective security tools to help prevent, mitigate and resolve armed conflict.

And that is why it is one of my highest priorities.  Over the past seven decades, United Nations Member States have made great gains in these fields.  But, our efforts are in increasing jeopardy.  States are seeking security not in the proven collective value of diplomacy and dialogue, but in developing and accumulating new weapons.

And the situation is particularly dangerous as regards nuclear weapons.  The demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, should it be allowed to happen, would make the world a more insecure and unstable place.  That insecurity and instability will be keenly felt here in Europe.  And we simply cannot afford to return to the unrestrained nuclear competition of the darkest days of the cold war.

I call on the parties to the [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] Treaty to use the time remaining to engage in sincere dialogue on the various issues that have been raised.  It is very important that this treaty is preserved.  I also call on the United States and the Russian Federation to extend the so-called “New START” Treaty before it expires in 2021.  This Treaty is the only international legal instrument limiting the size of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals, and its inspection provisions represent an important confidence-building set of measures that benefit the entire world.  I urge Russia and the United States to use the time provided by an extension to the treaty to consider further reductions in their strategic nuclear arsenals.

I dream of the day when these bilateral arrangements become multilateral.  And at their summit in Hanoi later this week, I hope that the leaders of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the United States agree to concrete steps for sustainable, peaceful, complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

The treaties and instruments that make up the existing nuclear arms control and disarmament regime were painstakingly constructed over years.  States entered into dialogue despite harbouring deep suspicion towards each other.  At that time, too, the world was suffering from a serious case of “trust deficit disorder”.  But, in the absence of trust, Governments sought the strictest verification measures.

The bilateral arms control process between the Russian Federation and the United States has been one of the hallmarks of international security for 50 years.  Thanks to their efforts, global stockpiles of nuclear weapons are now less than one sixth of what they were in 1985.  That is the legacy that is in grave danger.

The arms control and disarmament regime is built on the good-faith implementation of provisions — and on rigorous verification and enforcement of compliance.  I hope the parties will make use of both, while there is still time.  More broadly, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty remains an essential pillar of international peace and security and the foundation for both nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.

Since I last addressed this Conference, I launched the Disarmament Agenda “Securing Our Common Future”, which includes 40 specific commitments to support disarmament.  And I have directed the Office for Disarmament Affairs to work with the entire United Nations system to implement these, and significant progress has already been made.  The Agenda is a useful guide for action by the United Nations system.  But it was created to serve as a tool to support the work of Member States, who have a responsibility for providing a clear, ambitious and realistic vision.

This vision should be a bridge from the lessons of the past to the emerging challenges of the twenty-first century.  The slow demise of the cold war-era arms control regime is already having profound consequences.  Member States cannot let the world sleepwalk into a new nuclear arms race.  And I urge you in the strongest possible terms to take decisive action to safeguard and preserve the existing system through dialogue that will help restore trust.

The development of risk reduction measures fit for this evolving environment, including transparency and confidence-building tools, would help to alleviate tensions and take us back from the nuclear brink.  Such steps could take into account regional nuclear challenges, as well as technological developments, including cyber security, artificial intelligence and so-called “hypersonic weapons” that could be used to launch attacks at unprecedented speed.

I stand ready to support you in any way I can to facilitate your efforts to develop a new vision for arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament in today’s world.

Strong support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons shows that a majority of Member States want to eliminate these horrific weapons of mass destruction.  This will only be achieved through constructive dialogue.  One forum for that dialogue should be the Conference on Disarmament.

However, the world’s only multilateral disarmament negotiation forum has not undertaken any disarmament negotiations in two decades.  As a result, arms control negotiations increasingly take place in different fora, including the General Assembly or outside the United Nations framework.

I urge this Conference to prove that it can provide an added value to the multilateral system.  If its members wish to reclaim the place for the Conference on Disarmament that was envisaged by its founders, they must return to seeking multilateral agreements.

The history of this chamber is a cautionary tale.  The failure of the Council of the League of Nations to grapple with the most pressing security challenges of its day was an important factor in its loss of purpose.

The establishment of subsidiary bodies and the work undertaken is encouraging.  I call on members to build on that progress.  Procedural innovations are important, but this body will be mostly judged by its results.

As the world’s foremost experts on disarmament issues, we look to you for both technical expertise and diplomatic skills.  We need you to get back to work.  I urge you to live up to your distinguished predecessors.

For the first time in many years, arms control and disarmament are headline news — for the wrong reasons.  One of the major achievements of international diplomacy is in grave danger.  Decisive action is needed.

The United Nations and I will do everything in our power to lend our support.  But, the impetus and vision must come from Member States.  We must act now.  Thank you.

For information media. Not an official record.