UN chief Antonio Guterres warns world is one step away from ‘nuclear annihilation’
- Guterres gave the warning to ministers, officials and diplomats attending a conference in New York to review the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty
- Guterres cited the war in Ukraine and the threat of nuclear weapons to conflicts in the Middle East and Asia, two regions ‘edging towards catastrophe’
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres gave the dire warning at the opening of the long-delayed high-level meeting to review the landmark 50-year-old treaty aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and eventually achieving a nuclear-free world.
Guterres told many ministers, officials and diplomats attending the month-long conference to review the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty that the meeting is taking place “at a critical juncture for our collective peace and security” and “at a time of nuclear danger not seen since the height of the Cold War”.
The conference is “an opportunity to hammer out the measures that will help avoid certain disaster, and to put humanity on a new path towards a world free of nuclear weapons”, the secretary general said.
But Guterres warned that “geopolitical weapons are reaching new highs”, almost 13,000 nuclear weapons are in arsenals around the world, and countries seeking “false security” are spending hundreds of billions of dollars on “doomsday weapons”.
Guterres called on conference participants to take several actions: urgently reinforce and reaffirm “the 77-year-old norm against the use of nuclear weapons”, work relentlessly toward the elimination of nuclear weapons with new commitments to reduce arsenals, address “the simmering tensions in the Middle East and Asia” and promote the peaceful use of nuclear technology.
“Future generations are counting on your commitment to step back from the abyss,” he implored the ministers and diplomats. “This is our moment to meet this fundamental test and lift the cloud of nuclear annihilation once and for all.”
In force since 1970, the Nonproliferation Treaty known as the NPT has the widest adherence of any arms control agreement, with some 191 countries that are members.
Nonetheless, the treaty has been credited with limiting the number of nuclear newcomers (US President John F Kennedy once foresaw as many as 20 nuclear-armed nations) as a framework for international cooperation on disarmament.
The meeting, which ends on August 26, aims to generate a consensus on next steps, but expectations are low for a substantial – if any – agreement.
Other speakers at Monday’s opening included UN nuclear chief Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.
The NPT’s five-year review was supposed to take place in 2020, when the world already faced plenty of crisis, but was delayed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
It is taking place at a time of heightened fears of a nuclear confrontation, spurred by Russia’s comments following its February 24 invasion of neighbouring Ukraine.
Patricia Lewis, former director of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research who is now in charge of international security programmes at the international affairs think tank Chatham House in London, said “President Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons have shocked the international community.”
Russia is not only an NPT signatory but a depository for treaty ratifications and in January it joined the four other nuclear powers in reiterating the statement by former US President Ronald Reagan and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that “a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought”, she told Associated Press.
Lewis said countries taking part in the review conference will have a difficult decision to make.
To support the treaty and what it stands for, “governments will have to address Russia’s behaviour and threats”, she said.
“On the other hand, to do so risks dividing the treaty members – some of whom have been persuaded by Russia’s propaganda or at least are not as concerned, for example, as the Nato states.”
And “Russia no doubt will strenuously object to being named in statements and any outcome documents”, Lewis said.