Image credit: UNODA

By Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS (IDN) — Amid growing nuclear threats from Russia and North Korea, the United Nations commemorated Disarmament Week beginning October 24, warning that weapons of mass destruction, in particular nuclear weapons, continue to be of primary concern, owing to their destructive power and the threat that they pose to humanity.

But so far, they have been either empty threats or sabre rattling—described as a flamboyant display of military power or aggressive blustering. [2022-10-27-17]  FRENCH | JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF | RUSSIAN

The UN's latest 2021 Disarmament Yearbook, released recently, lists some of the "progress" made by the international community on nuclear disarmament in 2021.

The year’s landmark developments included, on January 22, the entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

“That seminal accomplishment was followed, in early February, by a five-year extension of the Treaty between the United States and the Russian Federation on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START Treaty).”

The decision of the United States and the Russian Federation to extend their only bilateral, legally binding agreement on nuclear arms control within days of its scheduled expiration further highlighted the need to expeditiously lay the foundation for the next generation of arms control, the Yearbook said.

But what about all the stalled progress in the field of nuclear disarmament in 2021-2022? Do these outweigh the progress achieved?

Tariq Rauf, former Head of Verification & Security Policy at the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told IDN: “In my view, the disarmament deficit increased in 2020-2021”.

“We see stasis in arms control, complete lack of progress in getting entry into force of the CTBT; four NPT States are holding out on ratification—China, Egypt, Iran and US—while India, Pakistan and North Korea refuse to sign and Israel to ratify.”

He pointed out that the years 2020-2021 also saw a collapse in nuclear arms control, with the only bright spot being the TPNW reaching the threshold of 50 ratifications to trigger entry into force despite opposition by the US, among others.

There are currently 91 signatories and 68 states parties of the TPNW.

Since 1976, the annual flagship publication of the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) says, it has provided comprehensive, objective information for diplomats and the interested public on multilateral efforts to advance the cause of peace through the regulation, control and elimination of weapons.

In 2021, those efforts continued to face significant headwinds from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Beyond significantly limiting the ability of intergovernmental forums to tackle pressing concerns related to disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control in formal, in-person meetings, the pandemic complicated the delivery of humanitarian aid to conflict-scarred communities while eroding gains made in recent years towards greater economic and gender equality”, the Yearbook notes.

“Furthermore, even as COVID-19 underscored the urgent need for societies around the world to direct additional public resources into critical sectors such as public health, global military expenditures surged to a new, record-breaking high while armed clashes persisted.”

Dr M.V. Ramana, Professor and Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security, Graduate Program Director, MPPGA, School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, told IDN that looking at the listed achievements of 2021 from the vantage point of 2022 definitely makes it clear how easily progress in nuclear disarmament can be overwhelmed by actions of nuclear weapon states—primarily Russia in this case.

“With the possibility of nuclear war closer in 2022 than any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, it is easy to lose perspective of what a tremendous achievement the entry into force of the Ban Treaty (TPNW) has been.”

In fact, said Dr Ramana, the fact that nuclear threats have been regularly bandied about should remind us of the importance of the very first article of the TPNW that prohibits, inter alia, the threat of use of nuclear weapons.

The current state of affairs should also remind one of Article 12 that calls upon each State Party to “encourage States not party to this Treaty to sign, ratify, accept, approve or accede to the Treaty, with the goal of universal adherence of all States to the Treaty”.

“Of course, the likelihood of any nuclear weapon state acceding to the treaty seems close to zero at this point. But one should remember that some of the most impactful nuclear arms control treaties, which probably saved us from nuclear war during the Cold War, were signed in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” he noted.

The UN, while commemorating Disarmament Week, says “the excessive accumulation and illicit trade in conventional weapons jeopardize international peace and security and sustainable development, while the use of heavy conventional weapons in populated areas is seriously endangering civilians”.

New and emerging weapon technologies, such as autonomous weapons, imperil global security and have received increased attention from the international community in recent years, the UN warns.

As Disarmament Week seeks to promote awareness and better understanding of disarmament issues and their cross-cutting importance, the week-long observance, coincides with the anniversary of the founding of the United Nations. according to the Final Document of the General Assembly’s 1978 special session on disarmament (resolution S-10/2).

In 1995, the General Assembly invited governments, as well as NGOs, to continue taking an active part in Disarmament Week (resolution 50/72 B, 12 December 1995) in order to promote a better understanding among the public of disarmament issues.

“Throughout history, countries have pursued disarmament to build a safer, more secure world and to protect people from harm. Since the foundation of the United Nations, disarmament and arms control have played a critical role in preventing and ending crises and armed conflict. Heightened tensions and dangers are better resolved through serious political dialogue and negotiation—not by more arms.”

The UN also points out that measures for disarmament are pursued for many reasons, including to maintain international peace and security, uphold the principles of humanity, protect civilians, promote sustainable development, foster confidence and trust among States, and prevent and end armed conflict.

Disarmament and arms control measures help ensure international and human security in the 21st Century and therefore must be an integral part of a credible and effective collective security system.

“The United Nations continues to celebrate the efforts and involvement of a range of actors contributing to a safer, more peaceful common future through disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation efforts.”

In a world threatened by weapons of mass destruction, conventional arms and emerging cyberwarfare, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres presented a new agenda for disarmament to save humanity, save lives and secure our common future. [IDN-InDepthNews — 27 October 2022]

Image credit: UNODA