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Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation: 

Nuclear Disarmament Commentary Index




Published by the Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy,

New York

November 1999 Volume 1, Number 5



Nuclear Deadlock Endangers

NPT Review


William Epstein



Stalemate Continues in First Committee

Since this was the last session of the First Committee’s work on disarmament during the millenium, there were hopes that some new concepts or visions would provide new approaches to overcome the continuing impasse on nuclear disarmament. These hopes, however, were quickly dashed.

On 23 September 1999, the Foreign Ministers of the five permanent members of the Security Council issued a joint statement (S/1999/996) following a meeting with Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The Ministers stressed the primary responsibility of the Security Council for the maintenance of international peace and security, and expressed the view that it is in the interests of all member states "to safeguard the leading role of the United Nations in international affairs". They also stressed that the improvement of the international situation based on full respect for the Purposes and Principles of the U.N. Charter "will facilitate disarmament and non-proliferation efforts". In their detailed comments on nuclear disarmament, however, they merely repeated their well-known positions that had led to the current impasse. The only new thought expressed was their call for "continued efforts to strengthen the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and to preserve its integrity and validity, so that it remains a cornerstone in maintaining global strategic stability and world peace and in promoting further strategic nuclear arms reduction".

On the same day, a meeting of the Foreign Ministers and Heads of Delegations of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) issued a Final Communiqué setting forth their views, on the eve of the new millenium, on world affairs and the work of the United Nations. In their detailed comments on nuclear disarmament, they too repeated their well-known positions that had led to the current impasse. The NAM statement also drew attention to their new concern "over the negative implications of the development and deployment of anti-ballistic missile defense systems and the pursuit of advanced military technologies capable of deployment in outer space…. In this connection, we call upon the states parties to the ABM Treaty to fully comply with its provisions".

The two statements, by the five recognized nuclear powers and by the NAM states, show no changes in their positions and provide no grounds for resolving the current deadlock on nuclear disarmament.

The First Committee dealt with the usual long list of agenda items, which Dag Hammarskjold once described as "hardy perennials". Of the 52 draft resolutions and decisions acted on by the Committee, 17 dealt with nuclear disarmament issues. As the Chairman, Raimundo Gonzalez Aninat, of Chile, remarked in his closing statement, "Multilaterally, it appears we are working at the frustration level, which is rising". He also referred to the "deep concern at the impasse bilaterally and multilaterally on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. The situation is at best static, perhaps worsening". Since the contents of the various resolutions and the result of the votes were very similar to those of the last few years, some delegates privately described the session as dull or boring.


The Problem of the ABM Treaty

The resolution that attracted the most attention and interest this year dealt with the new item co-sponsored by Belarus, China and Russia entitled "Preservation of and compliance with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty". The draft resolution was introduced by Russia with a warning that undermining or liquidation of the ABM Treaty would end the START process for strategic weapons reduction and result in the collapse of the whole system of international arms control agreements.

The draft resolution (A/C.1/54/L.1/Rev 1) called for renewed efforts by each of the parties to "preserve and strengthen the ABM Treaty through full and strict compliance" and also "to refrain from the deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems for a defense of the territory of its country and not to provide a base for such defense and not to transfer to other states or to deploy outside its national territory, ABM systems or their components limited by this Treaty".

The United States responded that the draft resolution was inconsistent with the commitments made by Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin at Cologne in June 1999 to review the Treaty in light of changes in the strategic situation. Moreover, the U.S. would not make any decision to deploy a limited National Missile Defense until the year 2000 or later, and in any case such a deployment would not change the basic strategic calculus underlying the ABM Treaty or be incompatible with its central purpose to maintain strategic stability and enable further reductions in strategic offensive arms.

France introduced an amendment to the draft resolution on the ABM Treaty that "urges all member states to support efforts aiming at stemming the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the means of their delivery". The proposed amendment seemed to add some uncertainty or confusion to the consideration of the draft resolution. It was adopted by a vote of 22 in favor to 1 against (U.S.), with 95 abstentions (including China, Russia and the United Kingdom) – probably the smallest number of votes ever cast in the First Committee. The resolution as a whole, as amended, was then adopted by a vote of 54 in favor (including China, France and Russia), to 4 against (Israel, Latvia, Micronesia and the U.S.) with 73 abstentions (including the United Kingdom and almost all Western states). Nobody seemed to be really pleased, or even satisfied, with the vote. But, since more than 50 member states were absent when the vote was taken, there will probably be a larger number of participants (most of whom tend to vote "yes" as is the customary practice) when the vote is taken in the plenary meeting of the General Assembly.

It seems clear that almost all states want to preserve and strengthen the ABM Treaty, which they regard as a cornerstone for maintaining global strategic stability and world peace and for promoting further strategic nuclear arms reductions. But, it also appears that most states would prefer that the nuclear powers settle their differences among themselves.

On the day after the resolution on the ABM Treaty was adopted by the First Committee, it was reported that a senior American Defense official had stated that, if Russia refused to agree to amend the ABM Treaty in accordance with U.S. wishes, the United States would exercise its right to withdraw from the Treaty. This is a most disturbing development, but fortunately the debate and the resolution served to highlight the problem, and there is still time to work on the problem.


The Problem of Nuclear Disarmament

Among the 17 draft resolutions dealing with nuclear disarmament in the First Committee, four dealt with a program for the elimination of nuclear weapons and the steps necessary to achieve total elimination. Of these, three resolutions were improved versions of those that had been debated for several years and adopted by overwhelming majorities. They are:

-The resolution proposed by Japan on "Nuclear disarmament with a view to the ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons" (A/C1/54/L4/Rev 1). It was adopted by a vote of 128 in favor to none against, with 12 abstentions – the United Kingdom and United States voted for the resolution, and China, France and Russia abstained.

-The resolution proposed by Myanmar on "Nuclear Disarmament" (A/C.1/54/L41) was adopted by a vote of 90 in favor, 40 against with 17 abstentions. China voted for the resolution, France, the U.K. and the U.S. voted against, and Russia abstained.

-The resolution proposed by Malaysia on "Follow-up to the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons" (A/C.1/54/L43) was adopted by 98 votes in favor to 27 against, with 21 abstentions. China voted for the resolution, and France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. voted against.

-The fourth resolution calling for the steps necessary to achieve total elimination of nuclear weapons, first proposed last year by Ireland on behalf of the New Agenda Coalition, was entitled "Towards a nuclear-weapon-free world: the need for a new agenda". It attracted a great deal of interest last year and, for the first time, led to split voting, both by members of NATO and by members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) (formerly the Soviet Union). This year’s version (A/C.1/54/L.18) was introduced by New Zealand and again resulted in split voting by members of NATO and of the CIS. The vote in the First Committee was 90 in favor, 13 against, with 37 abstentions. France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. again voted "no", as did two non-nuclear members of NATO, China again abstained, as did 14 members of NATO, and most members of the CIS. The split votes among the five nuclear powers, and also among the members of NATO and the CIS, demonstrate the difficulties of achieving any consensus.

It is noteworthy that, although the U.S. Senate rejected the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) on Oct 13/99, it had little impact on the work of the First Committee. Mexico proposed a draft resolution with many co-sponsors. It endorsed the Final Declaration of the Conference on Facilitating the Entry into Force of the CTBT (held in Vienna from 6-8 October 1999) and its call on all states to sign and ratify the Treaty as soon as possible, in particular those whose ratification is needed for its entry into force. It also urged all states to refrain from acts which would defeat the object and purpose of the Treaty, and to maintain their moratoria on all nuclear test explosions. The resolution was adopted by a vote of 137 in favor to none against, with 5 abstentions. All five nuclear weapon states voted in favor of the resolution.

It seems clear from the above that the nuclear powers, in particular the Western ones, are reluctant to proceed with nuclear disarmament. The nuclear powers also refuse to begin any multilateral negotiations on nuclear disarmament either in the Conference on Disarmament (CD), or elsewhere. The NAM insist on starting negotiations immediately on a phased program for the elimination of nuclear weapons, as has been repeatedly called for by the General Assembly and as set forth in the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice. The present session of the First Committee disappointed most member states by doing nothing to resolve the deadlock.


What Next?

After the last General Assembly session of this millenium ends in December, the two most important meetings on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation in the year 2000 are the meeting of the Conference on Disarmament (CD) that begins in Geneva on January 18 for a period of 2 to 3 months, and the NPT Review Conference that will convene in New York from 24 April to 19 May.

Since the CD operates solely on the basis of consensus of its members (now 66), it is easy to understand why it has made no progress on any measure of nuclear disarmament since it prepared the draft of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996. Its members have not been able to agree on a program of work for the last two years, and it is difficult to see how they can achieve any real substantive agreement at its forthcoming session in 2000, particularly in view of the new impasse over the ABM Treaty.

The United States has made known that it is prepared to move forward on two matters at the next session. It is now prepared to accept the proposal put forward by Belgium and four other members of NATO "to establish an ad hoc working group to study ways and means of establishing an exchange of information and views within the Conference on endeavours towards nuclear disarmament." The Group of 21 insists on the creation of an Ad Hoc Committee on Nuclear Disarmament, and is opposed to any mechanism that will merely "talk about talks".

The United States is also now willing to agree to creation of an Ad Hoc Working Group on Outer Space. It is not yet clear whether the members will be able to agree on a mandate for the Ad Hoc Working Group. The First Committee this year, as it has for many, adopted a resolution proposed by Egypt on "Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space", which was adopted by a vote of 138 in favor to none against with two abstentions (the U.S. and Israel). It is also not clear whether the Group of 21 will insist on the adoption of a complete program of work, including nuclear disarmament, before agreeing to any particular item.

In any case, however, there is a great danger that the bitter disagreement about U.S. policy regarding National Missile Defense and the ABM Treaty may poison the entire atmosphere of the CD, and prevent any agreement on either nuclear disarmament or outer space. Unless some way is found to solve the very difficult deadlock over the ABM Treaty, the entire structure of international agreements and treaties on disarmament may crumble.

Some eminent scholars and experts believe that the only way the problem of the ABM Treaty and national missile defense can be solved is to follow up the suggestion made by President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s that his proposed Strategic Defense Initiative must be shared with the Soviet Union (now Russia). If any one of the recognized nuclear powers can successfully mount a national missile defense, it would deprive all other nuclear powers of the deterrent capacity of their nuclear arsenals. The threat of mutual assured destruction, and of such strategic stability that it could provide, would be lost, and probably be replaced by a horrendous new nuclear arms race. In fact, some scholars believe that the only safe way to proceed would be for all recognized nuclear powers to work together in some agreed joint venture that would ensure that any missile defense system would provide equal security for all. At the very least, such ideas should be fully explored. Unless there is some progress in dealing with this problem, it may be that all other possibilities for progress on nuclear disarmament will be blocked. In the end, global control of strategic missiles is the best solution.

The NPT Review Conference is also bound to be seriously affected by the problem of missile defense and the ABM Treaty. The danger of ending the entire process of further nuclear disarmament would inevitably undermine the NPT and efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation. It seems clear that no consensus is now possible on a solution to this problem. Fortunately, however, rule 28 of the draft rules of procedure for the NPT Review Conference does provide for the adoption of resolutions and decisions by a two-thirds majority when a consensus is not possible. As was explained in the June-July issue (number 3) of Nuclear Disarmament Commentary, the 1985 NPT Review Conference may provide a precedent for the 2000 Review Conference on the usefulness of the voting procedure. If it is followed at the forthcoming conference, it would be possible to decide to take the Chairman’s Revised Working Paper at PrepCom III for the NPT Conference as the basis for the Final Declaration of the Conference and for the adoption of one or more substantive resolutions. While the adoption of a final declaration and even of some resolutions by consensus or without a vote (as was done at the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference) would be preferable, it now seems clear that such a course may not be possible. And if the conference were to end in failure without any result, that might be disastrous for further efforts to achieve the interlinked goals of nuclear disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation. Certainly, it would be better for the Review Conference to make known its views on the problems of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, even if there is no consensus, than to do or say nothing.

Most European states are worried about any undermining of the ABM Treaty and the negative effects on their security that would follow, and on future prospects for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. If they should decide to demonstrate their strong desire to preserve and strengthen the ABM Treaty over the next few weeks and months, there is a chance that they could prevail. While the current outlook for the NPT Review Conference and the non-proliferation regime is very gloomy, the situation is not hopeless.



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Editor: William Epstein

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