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Nikkei Asian Review

October 15, 2016 7:00 am JST

UN General Assembly to consider talks on nuclear weapons ban

ARIANA KING, Nikkei staff writer

UNITED NATIONS -- A group of non-nuclear-weapons states called for negotiations in 2017 on a treaty banning these weapons in a draft resolution submitted Thursday, sidestepping strong opposition from the global body's most conspicuous nuclear powers.

"This resolution here has the potential to be the most significant development in nuclear politics since the end of the Cold War," Matthew Bolton, associate chair of political science at Pace University in New York City, said during a news conference organized by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, or ICAN.

Led by Austria, Mexico, South Africa, Ireland, Brazil and Nigeria, the resolution has gained the support of 33 co-sponsors as of Friday and is expected to be adopted by a majority in the General Assembly sometime between Oct. 26 and Nov. 2. The proponents faced pressure and arm-twisting from nuclear states with permanent seats on the Security Council -- particularly Russia, the U.S., U.K. and France, said Beatrice Fihn, ICAN executive director.

"We've heard from friendly sources in certain nuclear-armed states that no other initiative on nuclear weapons has made them so worried," she said. "And they are really sweating about this kind of movement."

Robert Wood, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, affirmed American objections to a nuclear ban treaty Friday at a committee on disarmament affairs in New York. Wood asserted that the U.S. continues to rely on nuclear weapons for its security, and he said that a ban treaty would undercut existing nonproliferation and disarmament regimes.

"We cannot deny the reality that nuclear weapons continue to play a role in maintaining peace and stability in some parts of the world," he said. "The current challenge to nuclear disarmament is not a lack of legal instruments. The challenges to disarmament are a result of the political and security realities we presently face."

The resolution, which presents its target of achieving a world without nuclear weapons as "all the more urgent" amid the current international climate, seeks a conference in 2017 from March 27 to 31 and from June 15 to July 7 to negotiate a "legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination."

The document also calls for a report on the conference's work to be submitted to the 72nd session of the General Assembly, beginning in September 2017, that would assess the progress of negotiations and propose a way forward.

This initiative at the U.N.'s headquarters in New York follows the momentum of the open-ended working group on nuclear disarmament in Geneva back in August, where a recommendation to move toward prohibiting the weapons received the wide support of 107 countries.

Decades of negotiations seeking tangible results toward disarmament have mostly ended in a deadlock between nuclear-armed states and non-nuclear nations. Despite some unilateral and bilateral progress in reducing stockpiles, the rift remains between the nuclear haves and have-nots over how quickly to move toward total elimination of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear-armed countries, not keen to relinquish the upper hand militarily, argue that moving too quickly to dispose of a key element of their deterrence strategies not only endangers national security, but would undermine international security.

Frank Rose, U.S. assistant secretary of state, also objected to such a treaty in remarks at the opening of the general debate on disarmament affairs Oct. 3, asserting that "those who say that a nuclear weapons ban is favored by the majority of countries of the world overlook the billions of people who reside in countries that count on nuclear weapons as a deterrent or who are protected by an extended deterrent."

Vladimir Safronkov, a Russian deputy permanent representative to the U.N., said Sept. 26 at a commemoration for the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, that calls for a nuclear-weapons-ban treaty were "completely unrealistic," and he dismissed the idea of a ban as "a propaganda-based action."

"Russia would not participate in dubious events that might undermine the basis of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, and we have grounds to believe that other nuclear states would act in the same way," he said in remarks through an interpreter. "So therefore, convening a conference on banning nuclear weapons would be totally pointless."

The U.S. and Russia together control more than 90% of the world's nuclear warheads, according to the Arms Control Association, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization.

Taking a milder approach, Japan has tabled its own draft resolution on united action with renewed determination toward the elimination of nuclear weapons. A draft resolution on nuclear disarmament is submitted annually by Japan, with this year's text including updated language to welcome U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Hiroshima and criticizing North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile tests during the year.

Japan, which receives security assurances under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, is not supporting the Austria-led ban negotiations resolution.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, contains the only binding commitment to nuclear disarmament in a multilateral treaty. It stipulates that all signatories pursue negotiations on "effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament," as well as for "a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control."

No timeline is specified for reaching that goal, though the NPT has been active since 1970. A review conference for the NPT is held every five years, most recently in 2015. Negotiations at the 2015 conference failed to produce an outcome document.

Bolton suggests that a nuclear ban treaty could make a difference by strengthening the global stigma on nuclear weapons.

"States are sensitive to internal pressure, their sense of identity of being a 'good country.' They are incredibly sensitive to external pressure of norms and conventions," he said.

Even if nuclear weapons states boycott treaty negotiations, Bolton said that the pressure of nuclear weapons becoming taboo could push governments to take action toward disarmament. He cited broad support for the resolution as an example.

"Global public opinion has shifted against nuclear weapons," he said. "What we are seeing with this resolution is that governments are beginning to catch up."

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