Many nations plan to push the United States and other powers to honor their commitments to move toward eliminating their nuclear arsenals when a key U.N. body begins its 2011 session this week.
The restlessness is a backdrop to the resumption of work at the First Committee of the U.N. General Assembly, the arm of the world body devoted to disarmament and international security. Interviews with key players and ambassadors by Global Security Newswire reveal a growing sense of frustration with the pace of movement on the ultimate goal of ridding the world of nuclear weapons.
The nuclear powers have taken "important steps like New START, reductions by France and the U.K.," United Nations disarmament chief Sergio Duarte declared in an interview, "but this is understood by other members, particularly the Nonaligned Movement, as being too slow. This is a perception of the U.N."
For their part, U.S. officials said their one major resolution at this session of the committee will press compliance with existing nonproliferation treaties. While the resolution will not name any countries, officials have in mind nations such as Iran and North Korea that are known or broadly suspected of pursuing a nuclear-weapon capability.
Both the United States and numerous other countries are expected to express great dissatisfaction with the deadlock in an international body that has frozen any consideration of new treaties on disarmament. This year, diplomats report more serious consideration of action to bring at least one nuclear treaty directly to the First Committee and General Assembly.
The First Committee meeting begins on Monday and is expected to take about a month. Traditionally, almost all of the 190-plus U.N. members participate and vote on resolutions. The resolutions generally do not compel nations to take individual action, but can spur movement by expressing international will. Officials note the First Committee has spurred actions that range from development of the landmark Chemical Weapons Convention to establishment of nuclear weapon-free zones around the world.
Critics of the commitment to disarmament by the United States and other nuclear powers include both nations normally aligned with Western goals and the sizable Nonaligned Movement of developing states. The tensions could foreshadow conflict during next year's preparatory meeting for the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference.
Diplomats point out that the accord's declared five nuclear powers -- China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States -- agreed to work on disarmament steps as part of the 2010 review conference. That meeting's final document contained strong language affirming "the need for the nuclear-weapon states to reduce and eliminate all types of their nuclear weapons." Toward that goal, it noted "the urgent need for the nuclear-weapon states to implement the steps leading to nuclear disarmament."
Nations unsatisfied with the nuclear reduction efforts by the five countries acknowledge some progress, such as the U.S.-Russian New START agreement that entered into force earlier this year. The accord requires both governments to reduce their arsenal of deployed strategic systems to no more than 1,550 warheads and 700 delivery devices. Some dismiss the treaty as arms control, rather than genuine disarmament. They also note the need to bring the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty into force and to consider disarmament efforts outlined in an action plan by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The action plan includes CTBT ratification, giving serious consideration to a Nuclear Weapons Convention and a ban on space weapons.
The Nonaligned Movement and other U.N. states "recognize that more should be done -- and more quickly," said Duarte, the U.N.'s high representative for disarmament affairs. "We will see this come up within the debate" of the First Committee.
"There's a lot of impatience," First Committee Chairman Jarmo Viinanen told GSN. "Many countries say that the recognized nuclear weapons states are not honoring their commitment to nuclear disarmament," said the Finnish diplomat. "They are very critical."
For the Nonaligned Movement, which holds sway with more than half of the countries in the United Nations, the issue is of paramount importance. "The main objective is the total elimination of nuclear weapons," explained Fikry Cassidy, minister-counselor for Indonesia, a major player in the movement. "We don't see anything yet, at the moment, going to that objective."
Amb. Juan Jose Gomez-Camacho of Mexico, like many of his colleagues, plans to journey from the international Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, Switzerland, to New York to play a leading role in his nation's First Committee delegation. Mexico has a key position in a group of nations demanding progress not only on frozen arms control and nonproliferation issues, but disarmament from nations that possess nuclear weapons.
"We have found the U.S. making genuine efforts," Gomez-Camacho noted. "We see elements of political will there. We clearly see President Obama's leadership," he observed. Nonetheless, "we feel that they should do much more -- the U.S. and all of them."
One modest initial step would be in "transparency," according to Gomez-Camacho. Atomic powers should be "much more forthcoming" about the size of their nuclear arsenals. The United States responded to calls for transparency last year by releasing the number of deployed and reserve weapons in its commissioned nuclear arsenal -- a total of 5,113.
The United Nations' declared nuclear powers also answer that they have been discussing disarmament-related steps in an effort to comply with the NPT review conference agreement. They plan to meet on the topic during the First Committee session.
French Ambassador Eric Danon noted that his nation since in the past 20 years has reduced its stock of nuclear weapons from roughly 600 to 300, along with eliminating ground-to-ground missiles and a nuclear test facility in the Pacific Ocean.
"So we have a good record," said Danon, who represents Paris at the First Committee and the Conference on Disarmament, "but we still of course understand the frustration of some countries that say we could do more. But they must look at what we have done and how we are going to continue."
Still, the Mexican ambassador pointed to Article 6 of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which requires nuclear powers to pursue complete disarmament.
"This is the only part of the NPT where we haven't been able to move at all," Gomez-Camacho said.
This concerns Amb. Akio Suda of Japan, who said he wonders whether the relatively positive feelings coming out of the 2010 NPT meeting will last. "After the review conference, we saw some prospect for the future," Suda said, "but now we have the worry again."
Beijing's nuclear weapons holdings are still shrouded in mystery, Suda pointed out. "The problem with China is most important," said the Japanese ambassador, whose nation is not only a regional neighbor of China, but is the only country ever attacked with nuclear bombs.
While noting the progress made between the United States and Russia in last year's arms control agreement, Suda urged Moscow and Washington to pursue opportunities for additional reductions to their nuclear arsenals.
There is always a demand for progress on eliminating nuclear arsenals, U.S. Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament Laura Kennedy said in an interview. "We absolutely share that goal, but our approach is it should be done in a step-by-step way," said Kennedy, who will also be a key figure in the U.S. delegation to the First Committee.
Kennedy noted the United States plans at this month's session to co-sponsor a resolution put forth by Japan promoting the goals of disarmament, drawing a stark contrast between the Obama administration and the Bush White House. "That was a sea change. That was a resolution that we voted no on" until President Obama took office in 2009. Washington's policy "shifted quite dramatically," Kennedy declared, becoming more "in sync" with other nations.
There are expected to be roughly 50-60 resolutions raised in the First Committee, which will then be considered by the full U.N. General Assembly. Last year, resolutions addressed ballistic missile proliferation, decreasing the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems, nuclear weapons free zones, and nuclear disarmament. Many are negotiated in advance outside the public eye, so they pass by a wide margin in open voting, although nations also express opposition by merely abstaining.
The First Committee debate provides insight into critical or emerging issues in the arms control and nonproliferation world. A host of issues related to weapons of mass destruction will come up in some form at the session this fall, including the test ban, nuclear terrorism, compliance, the stalled international arms control machinery, the long-sought fissile material cutoff treaty, and the accords on biological and chemical weapons.
Here is a look at some of these issues:
Special Session on Disarmament: The General Assembly has not held a special session on disarmament since 1988. The potential for a new session is sparking interest among non-nuclear nations and will certainly be raised once debate starts, First Committee Chairman Viinanen said. While some nations believe it would push disarmament issues forward, others believe it could actually be harmful.
The United States is very clear in its opposition to an open-ended special disarmament session, which Kennedy said would "represent a colossal waste of time and resources."
"We think such a session would not be productive until there was general agreement on what would be the mandate and goals," she said. "Without such a consensus, such a session could end with no tangible result," Kennedy added, pointing to two previous inconclusive meetings.
A Western European diplomat noted that the appetite for true disarmament efforts among the five declared nuclear powers is limited, given the "reality" of crisis spots in the Middle East, South Asia, and other regions that house overt or purported nuclear-weapon programs.
"You have a problem in the Middle East... with Iran and Israel, you have a problem between India and Pakistan, in North Korea," the diplomat said. "You really cannot expect countries like the United States and Russia and China, even countries like France and the U.K. to do more if you have the remaining problem of that kind," he remarked. "Because of the political difficulty, you cannot expect much more of a reduction in the number of warheads."
Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty: One potential nod to non-nuclear states without pledging major nuclear reductions would be the test ban treaty. Mexico's Gomez-Camacho, whose nation is drafting a resolution on CTBT ratification, along with Australia and New Zealand, said this year the committee "needs to send a strong message" to the U.S. Senate and policymakers in all nations that must ratify the pact before it can enter into force. "In this case, U.S. institutions have to listen."
The Obama administration shares that goal. However, it "cannot simply negotiate treaties and put them into force," a U.S. official explained. "Every treaty we negotiate must be ratified. That is 67 votes [in the Senate] and always requires a major effort."
So far that effort has not been officially launched in Washington. While other nations are "very keen" on CTBT ratification, Viinanen said, "if you expect there is going to be any movement from the U.S. side, I don't think so.... One year before the [presidential] election, I'm not counting on that."
The United States' full authorization of the accord "would be a very [powerful] boost to the treaty," the United Nations' Duarte pointed out. However, there are nine nations that must still ratify the treaty before it can become a global rule of law, "some of them quite important," including nuclear-armed nations China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea, the. U.N official said.
WMD Terrorism: While Viinanen was unsure whether there would be a resolution on the subject, he noted that the deadly specter of WMD terrorism hovers around the First Committee meeting. "That's a constant concern and probably one of the biggest threats [seen by delegations] that nuclear weapons would be in the hands of nonstate actors."
Compliance: For the first time in three years, the United States is sponsoring a resolution on compliance. It would reinforce the need to hold accountable those who violate international arms control and nonproliferation regimes.
The resolution is not "intended to be a specific report card on individual cases of compliance," a U.S. official insisted, but added under questioning that Iran and North Korea are "just in the back of anybody's mind."
Last time it was introduced, "there were a number of abstentions," the official noted. "We hope to ideally better that record."
Revitalizing the Disarmament Machinery: This catch-all phrase is used by diplomats to describe the decade-plus stalemate at the Conference on Disarmament, which is intended to be the main international forum for negotiating arms control accords. Kennedy acknowledged "the sad record of the Conference on Disarmament...which has been deadlocked for many years."
The vast majority of CD nations say they want to start actually negotiating a fissile material cutoff treaty and begin discussions toward treaties on disarmament, preventing an arms race in outer space, and the pledge that non-nuclear nations won't face an atomic attack. They are blocked by the conference's consensus rules requiring unanimous agreement, with Pakistan in this case holding up the plan of work. "The stalemate in the CD is one year older," Viinanen said, "and nothing has happened. Some delegations are growing very impatient."
This has led to suggestions that the negotiations be taken out of the conference and moved to the General Assembly and its First Committee, a notion diplomats say is being given increased credence this year. "It is used as a lever in the political game to move forward," Viinanen said.
Mexico is ready to move the negotiations to the U.N. building, said Gomez-Camacho, who called the conference "absolutely dysfunctional." A potential compromise "would be to put some deadline to the CD to agree on a program of work -- and actually working," he said. "If the deadlines are not met, then maybe some of the work can be taken to the General Assembly and the First Committee."
One idea gaining some momentum would be to have a special committee of the General Assembly begin work on preparing an accord prohibiting production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons. This could be accomplished without the work being designated actual negotiations, as a diplomatic nod to the conference's role. Even that plan is widely contested, Duarte noted, and would still involve such contentious issues as whether to include existing stocks of nuclear weapons material.
Even though all the declared nuclear powers say they support negotiating a fissile material treaty, the Western European diplomat noted they are still wary of going to the United Nations. These nations, he said, fear any process in the General Assembly could be "used to begin something else" like negotiations on a disarmament treaty that could not be automatically blocked by powerful nations.
Still, the fissile material treaty is "near and dear to President Obama's agenda," a U.S. official noted. Obama promised "America will continue to work for" the pact in his recent speech to the United Nations.
Biological Weapons: The First Committee meeting comes shortly before the Biological Weapons Convention's review conference in December. Delegates at the conference could again raise the issue of the absence of a verification mechanism, one area where the Obama administration lines up in opposition with its predecessor.
Former Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament Jurg Lauber of Switzerland noted there could be compromise that offers measures short of verification. "There are confidence-building measures: exchange of information, certain collection, and evaluating the data," Lauber said. "These are not verification."
Such relatively noncontroversial moves could be included in a First Committee resolution. Otherwise, though, the resolution might have little teeth.
Chemical Weapons: The First Committee is likely to take note of the U.S. and Russian inability to meet the 2012 deadline for destruction of their chemical weapons stocks. "It's a very costly and complicated process" to eliminate the aging arsenals of deadly chemicals, the U.N.'s Duarte noted. As a result, the U.N. body will likely take note of "what has been done up until now... and at the same time, you say, 'you could have done better.'"
One dramatic concern that may feature in the U.N. discussion this year is Libya, which also has lagged in its destruction of chemical weapons. The control and disposal of Libya's stock of chemical weapons has brought concern as opposition forces are still battling the surviving remnants of the Qaddafi regime. U.S. and international officials, though, have recently said the materials are secured against diversion.
Even as it deals with these disparate issues, significant questions remain on whether the First Committee can produce an effective response to disarmament and nonproliferation problems. For example, on disarmament, "a lot of governments are getting more and more frustrated of [nations'] announcements to modernize nuclear weapons and commitments to extend the life of nuclear weapons facilities," said Ray Atcheson, who monitors First Committee issues for Reaching Critical Will, a pro-disarmament organization.
Former U.N. official Timur Alasaniya said he sees the First Committee as "a legislative body... with resolutions that are sort of becoming guidelines to follow."
The Chemical Weapons Convention "is one of the stories that we can proud of," according to Alasaniya. The pact began with a First Committee resolution in the 1970s, he said, and continued on to General Assembly authorization in the 1990s and finally entry into force.
Another "success story" Alasaniya pointed to are nuclear weapon-free zones that started out as First Committee resolutions. The concept has "spread like wildfire" with zones now established in Latin America, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and Africa.
The issue will come up this year, with the Nonaligned Movement insisting on promoting a 2012 conference on the creation of a Middle East nuclear weapon-free zone. "That's part of the package deal" from the NPT review conference, declared Indonesia's Cassidy.
Chairman Viinanen said the "importance" of the First Committee comes from "at least a willingness in the world community to address the issues. Whether the results are very good all the time, that's a different story."
To outsiders, it sometimes seems like the committee is debating resolutions "while the house is burning" the Western European diplomat noted. Actually, he said, the votes and positions are a good gauge of international stances on critical issues.
However, Mexico's Gomez-Camacho wondered this year "if the First Committee can have a real and not only a rhetorical impact on disarmament. That to us is one of the key challenges."
"The General Assembly has made legions of statements condemning nuclear weapons," Global Security Institute President Jonathan Granoff said. "It is time we started debating what is the best way to get rid of them -- and move from whether to how.... It is insane to continue to play Russian roulette with our future."