China, Russia, India, North Korea and the US finally agree on something: they all want to keep their nuclear weapons

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 October, 2016, 3:03pm
UPDATED : Friday, 28 October, 2016, 10:00pm

For all the divisions among world powers, one concern unites China, Russia and the US, India and Pakistan, North Korea and Israel, France and Britain at the United Nations: keeping their nuclear weapons.

Those nuclear-armed states worked to head off a resolution calling for a global conference to establish a binding “legal process” to ban the manufacture, possession, stockpiling and use of the weapons.

The non-binding resolution nevertheless passed Thursday in a 123-38 vote with 16 abstentions. Opposing its call for a nuclear-free world is awkward for world leaders, and none more so than US President Barack Obama. He’s preparing to leave office seven years after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in large part for what the award panel called his “vision of, and work for, a world without nuclear weapons.”

The US would refuse to participate in the negotiations over a nuclear ban if it passes, Robert Wood, the US special representative to the UN’s Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament, said on October 14.

“How can a state that relies on nuclear weapons for its security possibly join a negotiation meant to stigmatise and eliminate them,” Wood said in an address at the UN. Because nuclear weapons play a role in maintaining peace and stability in some parts of the world, a “ban treaty runs the risk of undermining regional security,” he said.

Echoing that view, Matthew Rowland, the UK’s representative to the disarmament conference, said that same day that his country’s nuclear deterrence must be maintained “for the foreseeable future” because of the “risk that states might use their nuclear capability to threaten us, try to constrain our decision-making in a crisis or sponsor nuclear terrorism.”

After international efforts to ban the use of biological and chemical weapons, land mines and cluster bombs, arms control advocates say it’s time to deal with nuclear bombs as the remaining weapons of mass destruction that aren’t prohibited. Sponsors of the resolution include Austria, Mexico, Nigeria and South Africa.

“Given the tremendous humanitarian consequences of any nuclear explosion, we have to take action,” Thomas Hajnoczi, Austria’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, said in an interview. “Nuclear weapons states always say it’s too early for such a treaty but we think time is right to create legal norms to ban weapons of mass destruction.”

The initiative comes 70 years after a resolution was adopted in 1946 establishing a commission to make proposals for “the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction.” It also comes a year after the formal adoption of the deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program that was negotiated by some of the same nations opposing the new resolution.

In 2011, Obama negotiated a nuclear treaty with Russia requiring each country to reduce its arsenal to 1,550 operational warheads, and that accord remains intact. But amid worsening relations between the Cold War rivals, the Pentagon plans to spend US$1 trillion over the next 30 years to modernise its air-land-sea triad of nuclear weapons. And Russian President Vladimir Putin has suspended a nuclear nonproliferation treaty and vowed to develop new arms systems to neutralise the US’s missile defense shield, which he sees as a breach of the nuclear balance.

Faced with a more assertive China in the South China Sea and the rapid advances of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the US lobbied NATO allies such as the Netherlands to vote against the resolution, according to European diplomats.

“Successful nuclear reductions will require participation from all relevant parties, proven verification measures, and security conditions conducive to cooperation,” Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, said. “We lack all three factors at this time.”

Supporters of the resolution cited the success of efforts to ban land mines. The Ottawa Convention, which prohibited their manufacture and use, was drafted in 1997 and more than 160 countries have ratified it. While Russia, China and the US refused to sign it, the Obama administration announced in 2014 that it planned to comply with the ban outside the Korean Peninsula, and to destroy its stockpile there if it wasn’t needed for the defense of South Korea.

“This treaty won’t eliminate nuclear weapons overnight,” said Beatrice Fihn, executive director of International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. “But it will establish a powerful new international legal standard, stigmatizing nuclear weapons and compelling nations to take urgent action on disarmament.”