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Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation: 

Nuclear Disarmament Commentary Index





Published by the Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy,

New York

December 2000 Volume 2, Number 5



Hopes for Revival of

Nuclear Disarmament Efforts?


John Burroughs and William Epstein



The dramatic shift made at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in May, in which the five NPT-party nuclear weapon states (NWS) accepted most of the New Agenda countries' positions, has spilled over into the First Committee of the 55th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). The United States, the United Kingdom, and all NATO countries joined China in voting for the New Agenda resolution incorporating the NPT Final Document. France and Russia abstained. By strongly reaffirming the disarmament agenda adopted by the NPT Review Conference, the UNGA, with support or non-opposition from the NWS, has signaled that, far from being confined to the NPT setting, that agenda is a set of commitments to which the NWS will be held. The First Committee meeting, which was marked by a degree of consultation and cooperation exceeding any in recent years, is considered a success.

New Agenda Resolution

The New Agenda resolution sponsored by Sweden, joined by its fellow New Agenda countries Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, and South Africa and by many others, incorporates the 13 "practical steps for systematic and progressive efforts to implement" NPT Article VI which imposes the obligation to negotiate in good faith for nuclear disarmament. The most well known of those steps, the "unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals", is referred to in the preamble. Thus the undertaking clarifying the Article VI obligation is now considered a given which provides the overarching framework for nuclear disarmament.

The operative paragraphs of the resolution, reproducing the NPT document, specify how the undertaking is to be implemented. They include such crucial measures to be carried out by the NWS as "the conclusion of START III as soon as possible" between Russia and the United States further reducing strategic nuclear arms; "further reduction of nonategic nuclear weapons"; "concrete agreed measures to reduce further the operational status of nuclear weapons systems"; a "diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies so as to minimize the risk that these weapons will ever be used and to facilitate the process of their total elimination"; and the "engagement, as soon as appropriate, of all the nuclear-weapon States in the process leading to the total elimination of their nuclear weapons". The resolution goes beyond the NPT agenda only in operative paragraph 18 which "[a]ffirms that a nuclear-weapon-free world will ultimately require the underpinnings of a universal and multilaterally negotiated legally binding instrument or a framework encompassing a mutually reinforcing set of instruments".

Introducing the New Agenda resolution on October 2, Swedish Ambassador Henrik Salander noted that it "will reflect the outcome of the recent Review Conference [and] will accept the compromises which all parties made". For this reason, the 2000 New Agenda resolution was more moderate than the 1999 resolution, and could attract NWS and NATO support, or at least abstentions in the case of France and Russia. In 1999, the NWS except China opposed the New Agenda resolution, and NATO states abstained.

An example of a compromise concerns de-alerting. The 1999 New Agenda resolution called for "early steps" to "proceed to the de-alerting and removal of nuclear warheads from delivery vehicles". In the consensus NPT Final Document and the 2000 New Agenda resolution, that was watered down to "concrete agreed measures to reduce further the operational status of nuclear weapons systems".

Noting the lack of any progress in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva this summer despite the NPT outcome, Ambassador Salander stated regarding the global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime, "The patient is not cured, but a diagnosis has been made and a remedy prescribed. What remains is to make sure that the patient takes the medicine ..."

The nuclear malady was most recently illustrated by a communique from a December 5 NATO meeting of defense ministers. It states that "NATO's nuclear forces are a credible and effective element of the Alliance's strategy of preventing war", and affirms "the fundamentally political purpose and the principles underpinning the nuclear forces of the Allies as set out in the Alliance's 1999 Strategic Concept". On the other hand, the communique refrains from repeating egregious statements found in the Concept, e.g. that nuclear forces will be maintained for the "foreseeable future", make a "unique contribution" in preventing aggression, and are "essential to preserve peace". On a positive note, also unlike the 1999 NATO summit documents, the communique referred specifically to the NPT, stating, "We confirmed our commitments made at this year's [NPT] Review Conference ... and will contribute to carrying forward the conclusions reached there."

On November 20, the UNGA adopted the New Agenda resolution recommended by the First Committee by 154 affirmative votes (including the United States, United Kingdom and China), to three negative votes (India, Israel, and Pakistan), with eight abstentions (including France and Russia). Aside from the vote last year on the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty resolution, this marked the first split in recent memory among the Western NWS. A chart of NWS votes in 2000 is appended.

Explaining the US vote when the First Committee draft was adopted on November 1, US Ambassador Robert Grey said the NPT Final Document "is our guiding light for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament efforts". He also stated that the resolution "recognizes that nuclear disarmament is a process that requires pragmatic proposals in a step-like process ... We view the resolution in this context, including the rather unclear and ambiguous operative paragraph 18 [regarding the legal framework for a nuclear-weapon-free world], which should not be construed as in any way limiting the ways and means available to pursue our shared goals."

In explaining France's abstention, Ambassador Hubert de la Fortelle complained that the "unequivocal undertaking" to accomplish the total elimination of nuclear arsenals had been placed in the preamble, while the reaffirmation of the "ultimate objective" of general and complete disarmament remained an operative paragraph. However, the two provisions had also been clearly separated in the NPT Final Document. On October 2, New Zealand Ambassador Clive Wallace Pearson observed that "the total elimination of nuclear weapons can no longer be regarded as contingent on what is now the 'ultimate' objective of general and complete disarmament". France also failed to participate in a vote on a New Agenda preambular paragraph welcoming the NPT Final Document and on an operative paragraph noting that the NPT Final Document calls for NPT-based negotiations of security assurances to non-nuclear weapon states. Russia explained that it abstained because the resolution creates the impression that the implementation of only certain aspects of the NPT outcome is important.

Analysis of Other Nuclear Disarmament Resolutions

Japan’s resolution, now in its seventh year, also incorporates the NPT outcome. Entitled "A path to the total elimination of nuclear weapons," and co-sponsored by Australia, the resolution omits the New Agenda reference to the legal framework for a nuclear-weapon-free world, and strikes a less urgent tone in the preamble. In some other respects, the resolution is more demanding than the New Agenda resolution. It calls for entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty by 2003, and for completion of negotiations on a treaty banning production of fissile materials for weapons by 2005. The New Agenda resolution, tracking the NPT agenda, has no CTBT timeline and weakens the fissile materials timeline by tying it to the adoption of a program in the Conference on Disarmament. The Japanese resolution also refers to the "constructive role played by civil society". It was adopted by the UNGA by 155-1-12 (yes-no-abstain); India cast the negative vote.

A resolution sponsored by Algeria simply welcomed the NPT Final Document, and was overwhelmingly adopted. Algeria's UN Ambassador Abdallah Baali presided over the NPT Review Conference.

For the fifth straight year, Malaysia, joined by many co-sponsors, put forward a resolution following up the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice. The operative paragraphs are unchanged, underlining the Court's unanimous holding regarding the obligation to bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects, and calling for commencement of multilateral negotiations in 2001 "leading to an early conclusion of a nuclear weapons convention" prohibiting and eliminating nuclear arms. Introducing the resolution on October 19, Malaysian Ambassador Hasmy Agam noted that, in calling for a multilateral process "leading to" a convention, the resolution does not exclude unilateral decisions, bilateral negotiations and incremental measures, or require that multilateral negotiations begin immediately on the convention itself. The UNGA adopted the resolution by 119-28-22. The negative votes were cast by the NWS, except China, and some NATO and other Western-allied states. A separate vote on the first operative paragraph, requested in order to demonstrate the breadth of support for the ICJ's conclusion regarding the nuclear disarmament obligation, was adopted by 162 affirmative votes to four negative votes (France, Israel, Russia, and the United States), with one abstention (United Kingdom).

A resolution entitled "Nuclear disarmament" sponsored by Myanmar, with many co-sponsors, welcomed the NPT outcome and calls for its "full and effective implementation", but also contains numerous additional strongly worded measures. They include ending qualitative improvement of nuclear weapons; agreement on a no-first-use instrument; and commencement of negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament on a phased program of nuclear disarmament leading to the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. The UNGA adopted it by 109-39-20. The United States, United Kingdom, and France voted no, and Russia abstained; most other negative votes and abstentions were from their allies.

India and others again put forward a resolution entitled "Reducing nuclear danger" calling in its first operative paragraph for "immediate and urgent steps to reduce the risks of unintentional and accidental use of nuclear weapons". The second operative paragraph calls specifically only on the five NWS to take such steps. It was adopted by 110-45-14. The negative votes and abstentions were mostly cast by the NWS and their allies.

Brazil, joined by many co-sponsors, again advanced a resolution entitled "Nuclear-weapon-free southern hemisphere and adjacent areas". In 1999, the states parties to the Tlatelolco Treaty proposed an international conference of states parties to regional nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWFZ) treaties, and the resolution "considers" that such a conference "might be held". The resolution also calls for cooperation among such states parties and their treaty agencies, in order "to promote the nuclear-weapon-free status of the southern hemisphere". It was adopted 159-4-5. The debate reflected the underlying controversy about transit and deployment of nuclear weapons in the waters of NWFZs. The United Kingdom, also on behalf of the United States and France, explained their negative votes on the grounds that the resolution fails adequately to guarantee freedom of the seas, and that an international conference can contribute nothing given the recent adoption of NWFZ guidelines in the UN Disarmament Commission. On the other hand, the Philippines, while voting for the resolution, declined to sponsor it because a preambular paragraph refers to a right of passage through maritime space.

A resolution sponsored by Mexico and others, "United Nations study on disarmament and non-proliferation education," was adopted without a vote. It requests the Secretary-General to convene a group of experts to prepare a study on development of disarmament and non-proliferation education at all levels.

Missiles and Missile Defenses

For the second year, Russia, Belarus, and China sponsored a resolution calling for "full and strict compliance" with the ABM Treaty on the ground that it "remains a cornerstone in maintaining global strategic stability and world peace and in promoting further strategic nuclear arms reductions". A new provision welcomed the US decision "not to authorize deployment of a national missile defence at this time". The resolution was adopted by a vote of 88 to 5 (including the United States and Israel), with 66 abstentions.

US Ambassador Grey stated that its basic flaw remains "the premise that preserving and strengthening the ABM Treaty is incompatible with amending it". Abstainers maintained that while the ABM Treaty should be preserved for reasons stated in the resolution, the matter should be dealt with by the treaty parties, the United States and Russia. Ambassador Salander in explaining Sweden's abstention added that Sweden "does not share the overriding preoccupation with 'strategic stability' expressed in the resolution. The concept of strategic stability is closely linked with cold war doctrines which ... should in Sweden's view not be the sole basis for disarmament and non-proliferation in the post-cold war era". Thus Sweden challenged the desirability of basing security on the stability allegedly arising from mutual vulnerability to nuclear attack.

The resolution on "Prevention of an arms race in outer space" sponsored by Egypt and others calling for establishment of a committee with a negotiating mandate on that subject in the Conference on Disarmament was again adopted overwhelmingly, 163-0, with three abstentions including United States and Israel.

A resolution sponsored by Iran provides for an expert study on "the issue of missiles in all its aspects". The matter is fraught with difficulties, as any effort to establish a discriminatory global missile regime comparable to the NPT will be resisted, and countries also desire at least to maintain the option of having theater and regional missiles as well as the capability of space launches or participation therein. The resolution was adopted 97-0-65, drawing the same number of abstentions as last year. Abstaining Western and Western-allied states objected among other things that that the resolution failed to address the proliferation of missiles or support existing efforts to stem proliferation, i.e. the Missile Technology Control Regime. Supporters including China, Pakistan and Egypt argued for the necessity of developing a comprehensive and non-discriminatory approach. Hopefully the resolution will pave the way for serious consideration of universal control and elimination of missiles as an alternative to missile defenses and missile proliferation.

An International Conference?

Secretary-General's Kofi Annan's March 2000 proposal for an international conference on elimination of nuclear dangers was positively referred to by some 30 members, but the opposition of some NWS has been firm, and no resolution was submitted for consideration. Some countries judge that given the favorable NPT outcome the NPT review process should remain the primary focus for the time being. The New Agenda resolution merely referred to the idea in a preambular paragraph concerning the Millennium Declaration. India’s "Reducing nuclear danger" resolution includes a request to the Secretary-General to seek inputs from the Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters regarding the proposal. The most ambitious provision is found in Myanmar’s "Nuclear disarmament" resolution. Going beyond the Secretary-General’s proposal, and reflecting the Non-Aligned Movement position, it calls for "an international conference on nuclear disarmament in all its aspects at an early date". A resolution on the proposed Special Session on Disarmament IV only repeats previous resolutions, stating that such a session will be held once consensus on its objectives and agenda is achieved. Some countries apparently see a Special Session, if it can be organized, as obviating the need for a conference devoted to nuclear weapons.

Putin's Proposal

In November, Russia signaled that it remains prepared to go forward with arms reductions. President Putin reiterated Russia's readiness to achieve levels of 1500 or fewer deployed strategic warheads in START III, and also urged a cooperative approach to nonategic missile defense and reliance on diplomacy with respect to North Korea. In the United States, President Clinton's September 1 decision not to authorize national missile defense deployment seems to reflect a growing recognition that whatever their desirability, missile defenses are simply not technologically feasible at present. In addition, US dialogue with North Korea is ongoing. These developments, combined with the UNGA's emphatic entrenchment of the NPT disarmament agenda, make the outlook for moving forward on nuclear disarmament in 2001 considerably more promising than seemed possible prior to the NPT Review Conference.


See here for list of Votes on Selected Nuclear Disarmament Resolutions, 55th UNGA



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