UN condemnation of North Korea’s nuclear test smacks of double standards

Sherif Elgebeily says the Security Council’s outrage at Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions would seem more legitimate if wasn’t so biased, given other member states’ actions

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 January, 2016, 4:24pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 May, 2017, 4:23pm

Almost two years since the last round of United Nations sanctions, North Korea has tested its first hydrogen bomb. The reaction from the UN Security Council, predictably, has been one of outrage, judging the test to constitute such a flagrant violation of UN sanctions and threat to peace and security that an emergency meeting was convened within three hours.

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This frantic appeal to emotion elicits fear within the international community but overlooks one simple fact: Pyongyang has as much of a legal right to nuclear proliferation as any other state.

It is no coincidence that the five permanent members of the Security Council all possess nuclear weapons. Nor should it be overlooked that Japan – a current non-permanent member and convenor of numerous emergency meetings on North Korea – held sufficient weapons-grade plutonium in 2013 for an estimated 5,000 nuclear bombs.

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) entered into force in 1970 with the aim of total prevention of nuclear weapon acquisition by non-nuclear weapon states. Despite the clear inequality of the subsequent creation of a nuclear-capable “members’ club”, 191 states have so far acceded, including North Korea in 1985. In 2003, when it withdrew from the treaty, it was – legally speaking – exercising its sovereign power.

Indeed, under the principles of international law enshrined in the Vienna Convention on the Laws of Treaties, all states maintain the right to enter into and withdraw from treaties. Nonetheless, in eight resolutions since 2006, the council has taken the unprecedented step of sanctioning Pyongyang for refusing to re-accede to the NPT, deeming its withdrawal a threat to international peace. Thus, the “members’ club” has placed itself above international law.

More troubling is the council’s selective bias. India and Pakistan, both non-signatories to the NPT, not only possess nuclear weapons but tested missile delivery systems last year. Neither has been forced to accede to the NPT, despite open hostility and the fact both tested their nuclear weapons in 1998 – long after the NPT came into force.

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It may seem that any expansion of nuclear arsenals poses a threat to peace and security and therefore falls within the remit of the council’s mandate. However, the legitimacy of the council’s action is questionable when one example is isolated while ignoring analogous regional and international threats. If the council truly aspires to a future free of nuclear weaponry, it must cast aside its double standards and broaden its scope.

Dr Sherif Elgebeily is a part-time lecturer and assistant research officer at the Centre for Comparative and Public Law, University of Hong Kong