Terrorism, Nuclear Proliferation Steer U.N. Committee’s Debate

UNITED NATIONS — Threats of terrorism and the tensions between the advocates of nuclear disarmament versus proliferation helped shape the General Assembly’s disarmament committee debate, which ended its work for the year yesterday (see GSN, Nov. 4, 2002).

Little new ground was broken in the committee on issues of eliminating and controlling weapons of mass destruction, regulating the flow of conventional arms and promoting new disarmament negotiations. However, as was the case last year, the specter of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons — as opposed to focusing on the stockpiles of the nuclear weapons states — increased in resonance.

A resolution sponsored by the United States captured both aspects of this debate. The draft on “Enhancing the contribution of the First Committee to the maintenance of international peace and security” reads like a procedure plan to improve the methodology of the disarmament committee, but all the delegates understood this to represent an attempt to shift the committee’s emphasis from disarmament to nonproliferation. The reference in the draft to “the emergence of new threats to international peace and security” was a particular focus of the debate.

U.S. Ambassador Sherwood McGinnis said the draft was “not revolutionary. ... It is [meant] to focus people on how they can better use this body.” In an interview with Global Security Newswire, he said, “We are not trying to redo the First Committee to make it a nonproliferation committee, we are saying let us use the time here to focus people’s attention on the way we do our work.”

“Let’s come back and get a little more balance in the NPT [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty], because the threat right now is not [a] nuclear battle” between the United States and Russia, he said, it is “the fact that certain states and nonstate actors may acquire weapons of mass destruction and use them, and that’s what we mean by ‘new threats.’”

The draft was approved unanimously on Wednesday.

Brazilian Ambassador Sergio Queiroz Duarte said it is “important to have specific treatment of some multilateral issues. In that respect, [the U.S. resolution] is not a procedural issue at all and I think everyone understood it.” Duarte told GSN, “All of us agree this must be looked into very seriously.”

He added that the threats mentioned by the United States are “very dangerous, but we look at proliferation from a wider perspective.” Duarte said the United States does have “reasons to believe that, but many of us believe nonproliferation has many facets. We think the increase and improvement of weapons and the doctrines of certain kinds of weapons, in our view is also proliferation. They tend to limit the concept of proliferation only to new countries acquiring them or worse than that, nonstate actors.”

Brazil is a member of the New Agenda Coalition, an ad hoc group of seven states — Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and Sweden — promoting steps toward nuclear disarmament, in terms of commitments made in the NPT.

During the debate over the U.S. draft on Wednesday, Pakistani Ambassador Shaukat Umer said he found it “odd” that other threats — such as the development of new weapons, foreign occupation, unilateralism and the improper use of pre-emptive military force — were not mentioned in the text.

According to McGinnis, “Yes you can disarm, but you don’t want to get to the point where, while you are in the process of disarming, you do not realize or recognize that countries may be using the development of nuclear energy to put themselves in a position where they can break out of the treaty and develop nuclear weapons.”

On Wednesday, U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Russian Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev made a joint presentation on the same theme. “The nonproliferation regime’s weaknesses become woefully apparent when a state joins the NPT, professes peaceful intentions, and then abuses the treaty by using it as a cover to build up a nuclear weapons capability which it then publicly declares through abrogation of or withdrawal from the treaty,” Abraham said, citing in particular North Korea (see GSN, Nov. 6).

“No states should be able to pursue nuclear weapons under the guise of pursuing so-called ‘legitimate’ nuclear programs for peaceful purposes,” Abraham said. “Hence we need to tighten constraints that prevent the acquisition of materials and supplies that could contribute to nuclear weapons programs. And we must insist upon strong enforcement of international controls when such programs come to light.”

A resolution sponsored by India on “Measures to prevent terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction” was adopted unanimously. The resolution calls on states to strengthen measures to control nuclear and other materials that could be used by terrorists.

Finnish Ambassador Jarmo Sareva chaired the six-week session. In his concluding remarks, he said he was troubled by “the persistence of deep divisions on some very important issues on the global agenda for international peace and security.” Such divisions, Sareva said, were not evidence of any failure, but rather they symbolized the need to expand “the common ground on which everyone stands.”

There was disagreement over most of the major nuclear disarmament resolutions. Drafts favored by the New Agenda Coalition and the nonaligned states were often opposed by the nuclear weapon states as too radical or failing to take into account progress made, especially by the United States and Russia, on reducing their stocks of nuclear weapons. Resolutions more favorable to the nuclear powers were criticized by some countries as watering down the disarmament commitments made by the nuclear powers at the 2000 Review Conference for the NPT. India and Pakistan objected to references to the NPT. The United States objected to any reference to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

There was a direct correlation between the ambition of the resolution and the divisions in the voting. In other words, the more ambitious the goals, the less support the resolution had. Three resolutions illustrate this pattern. A nonaligned resolution on “Nuclear disarmament,” which contained a long list of disarmament steps including taking nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert, calling for a halt in the qualitative improvements in nuclear weapons and negotiating a legally binding commitment against the first use of these weapons, was adopted 101-43, with 18 abstentions. It was basically a North-South split with European countries and U.S. allies such as Australia and Japan voting against the resolution or abstaining.

The New Agenda resolution, which also contained a number of disarmament steps but stuck closer to the mandate of the NPT, garnered more support. The vote was 121-6, with 38 abstentions. The six negative votes were all from nuclear-armed states — France, India, Israel, Pakistan, the United Kingdom and the United States. China was the only nuclear power to vote for the resolution. Russia abstained.  Most of the abstentions came from European countries.

Brazil’s Duarte said the debate showed a “stalemate rather than any indication that whatever positions we strive for are losing any force.” The New Agenda did not try to expand its support, he said. “The positions we defend are apart from the positions they [the nuclear powers] defend,” Duarte said. “We did not try to get any closer to the nuclear weapon states, neither did they make any effort to come closer to us.”

A Japanese-sponsored resolution on “Path to the total elimination of nuclear weapons” was approved 146-2 with 16 abstentions. India and the United States voted against the resolution. The New Agenda countries were among the abstainers, arguing that the resolution would weaken the commitments made in 2000. India objected to the support in the resolution for the NPT and the United States rejected the reference to the CTBT.

Resolutions supporting the Biological and Chemical Weapons conventions and calling for improving verification of the treaties were both approved by consensus.


November 7, 2003

UNITED NATIONS — Threats of terrorism and the tensions between the advocates of nuclear disarmament versus proliferation helped shape the General Assembly’s disarmament committee debate, which ended its work for the year yesterday (see GSN, Nov. 4, 2002).