Towards a World without Nuclear Weapons: Challenges and Perspectives


Address By Ambassador Sergio Duarte – TRANSCEND Media Service

Thank you for the invitation to address this important and timely meeting. As a retired officer of the Brazilian Foreign Service, it is with special pride and honor that I return to this institution, where I spent a large part of my forty-eight years in the diplomatic career.

I was asked to provide a bird’s eye view of the three main topics of this Seminar, namely the contribution of the Treaty of Tlatelolco and ABACC to the security of Latin America and the world, the prospects for the 2020 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and the impact of the recent adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. I shall try to discharge the nearly impossible mission of dealing with these issues in the twenty minutes allotted to me but first may I be allowed to make a few general comments.

Seventy-one years have elapsed since the first Session of the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 1 on dealing “with the problems raised by the discovery of atomic energy”. It called for the elimination of nuclear weapons and all other weapons adaptable to mass destruction. Over those seven decades, the international community has successfully outlawed chemical and bacteriological weapons, but the problems related to the use of nuclear energy still defy humankind and have grown ever more complex. The high hopes of decades past based on the use of the atom to provide a clean, reliable and inexhaustible source of electric energy have been obscured by environmental and safety concerns due to disastrous accidents in civil nuclear facilities, coupled with the still unresolved question of the safe disposal of waste. The international security issues related to the military use of the explosive power of atomic fission and fusion proved even more intractable. There are still close to 15.000 nuclear weapons in the hands of nine States. 4.150 of those are deployed with operational forces and about 1.800 are kept in a state of “operational alert”. We are not told much about the status of the remaining ones.

Nuclear weapons started to proliferate in 1945 with the first experimental detonation of an explosive device intended to be used in war. Today, the horizontal dimension of nuclear proliferation seems to have been brought generally under control. However, vertical and technological proliferation continue unabated in the form of the relentless development of ever more sophisticated and destructive nuclear weapons. The economic aspect of the current “modernization” trend is particularly disturbing. Recent projections by the Arms Control Association estimate the cost of the nuclear weapons program in the United States alone over the next thirty years at somewhere around 1.35 trillion dollars, adjusted for anticipated inflation. By way of comparison, the cost of the implementation of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations just two years ago was set at a similar figure – 1.4 trillion dollars.

It is fair to recognize that over the past seven decades the international community has managed to achieve a certain degree of conceptual advancement and even some substantive progress in matters related to the control of nuclear weapons. Several agreements are now part of the corpus of positive international law and have helped to establish some important principles and rules in this area.

For instance, Latin America and the Caribbean States have been in the forefront of the quest for international regimes aimed at preventing the spread of – and at eliminating – nuclear weapons. One year before the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons – the NPT – was endorsed by the General Assembly the countries in our continent undertook to use the nuclear material and facilities under their jurisdiction exclusively for peaceful purposes and at the same time prohibited the testing, use, manufacture, production and acquisition of such weapons in our region. This example was later emulated by four other inhabited areas of the world. Nuclear weapon free zones now encompass the entire African continent and large parts of Oceania as well as of Southeastern and Central Asia, spanning 113 nations plus Mongolia. Similar zones free of nuclear weapons have been proposed for the Middle East, Northeast Asia and the Arctic regions. The South Atlantic has been declared a zone of peace and cooperation.

OPANAL, the agency established to ensure compliance with the obligations contained in the Treaty of Tlatelolco, has played an important role in fostering nuclear cooperation among Latin American and Caribbean countries and has actively sought partnerships with other nuclear free zones. OPANAL has consistently worked to strengthen the rather flimsy assurances given by the nuclear weapon States in the two Protocols attached to the Treaty.

Twenty-five years ago Argentina and Brazil signed the Guadalajara Agreement creating the Argentine-Brazilian Agency for the Accounting and Control of nuclear materials – ABACC in the Portuguese/Spanish acronym. A few months later the Quadripartite agreement involving Brazil, Argentina, ABACC and the IAEA came into being. The creation of the Common System of Control of Nuclear Materials permitted not only the reinforcement of confidence  through the mutual inspection of nuclear activities but also joint projects that enhance the strategic dimension of the bilateral relationship such as the current development of the Brazilian Multipurpose Reactor and of the Argentine RA-10 reactor. In a joint editorial published in July last year to commemorate the anniversary of ABACC, the Ministers of External Relations of the two countries stressed that the dynamics of Brazil-Argentina cooperation highlights not only the uniqueness of their bilateral relations but also their contribution to the region and the world at large with regard to security and non-proliferation. Our experience today serves as a model of how impasses could be overcome in other regions.

The Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons is of course another landmark agreement. It is considered as the cornerstone of the multilateral non-proliferation regime. Over the 47 years since its entry into force the NPT has attracted near-universal membership. The unique conditions prevailing in the world in the 1960’s enabled the two superpowers to negotiate this agreement and steer its passage through the Eighteen-Nation Disarmament Committee and the General Assembly. Such conditions are no longer present today. Most States have come to realize that their own security and that of the world at large would be better served by ensuring the absence of nuclear weapons, not only in their own territories but everywhere else. International peace and security cannot remain forever hostage to a precarious balance of terror.  The system of safeguards established by the NPT together with the IAEA has been so far instrumental in preventing the alarming predictions about horizontal proliferation from becoming reality, but the Treaty was ineffective to bring about nuclear disarmament. The obligation contained in Article VI of the Treaty remains unfulfilled.

For several disturbing reasons, the forthcoming Review Conference of the Parties to the NPT assumes great importance. Tensions between the two major nuclear powers, as well as in other regions, have increased since the failed 2015 Review Conference. A new and acute focus of stress emerged in Northeast Asia as the DPRK stepped up its nuclear weapon program and both Pyongyang and Washington engaged in mutual accusations and provocations to the point of explicitly threatening each other’s total destruction. A nuclear confrontation would entail catastrophic consequences for the whole world. Alarming signs are seen in some States where sectors of public opinion openly advocate the acquisition of indigenous nuclear capabilities. The agreement between the P5+1 and Iran, known under the acronym of JPCOA, is under severe strain and many fear for its sustainability. The use of nuclear devices by extremist groups became a frightening possibility. Last, but not least, for over twenty years now the Conference on Disarmament has been unable to achieve agreement even on a program of work, raising questions about its usefulness and permanence.

The first Session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2020 NPT Review Conference took place last May. As in previous similar occasions, its outcome did not produce any agreed result. A second session will be held in April next year. The third – and last – session, in 2019, is supposed to deal substantively with the issues at hand. Yet, experience shows that substantive questions are left to be discussed at the Review Conference itself, and then again not always in a constructive, let alone productive mood. Five out of the nine Review Conferences so far have failed to achieve agreement on a Final Document. Many Parties believe that the “strengthened review process” agreed in 1995 as part of the package that permitted the indefinite extension of the NPT has outlived its usefulness.

Another reason for concern is the fact that the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), remains in a legal limbo. This instrument was adopted over twenty years ago but is still not formally into force due to the lack of signature and/or ratification by eight of the 44 States specified in its Article XIV. Nevertheless, the CTBT set a standard of behavior that has been observed by all States in the 21stcentury with the only exception of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. This treaty is a powerful measure to prevent proliferation and it is hard to understand why some of the States already possessing nuclear weapons still resist transforming their self-declared testing moratorium into a legal obligation under international law.

The ominous trends described above bring into question the artificial division of the world established by the NPT. The world community is split between two blocks of States with different and largely opposing agendas. One group values nuclear weapons and regards them as essential for their own security and that of their allies, and even for the security of the whole world. The other considers such weapons militarily ineffective, morally indefensible and abhorrent on humanitarian grounds. In their view, the mere existence of nuclear weapons constitutes a threat to international peace and security.

While both groups agree on the desirability of achieving nuclear disarmament their diametrically opposed positions on matters related to security reflect a basic disagreement. The former argues that nuclear weapons have been responsible for keeping peace and stability since the end of World War II. This argument neglects recurrent strife and instability in many parts of the globe and does not take into account the inherent dangers and risks resulting from the use or misuse of nuclear weapons, by design or by accident. Although not discarding the possibility of using atomic weapons in the circumstances they deem adequate, nuclear armed States still insist that their main purpose is to deter aggression. Having established what they consider an exclusive and indefinite right to retain their arsenals, they adamantly deny every other nation similar means of safeguarding their own security. Even as they agree on disarmament as an “ultimate objective”, nuclear States and their allies maintain that the conditions for progress do not exist at present. Those States contend further that the way to move forward is to seek agreement on partial measures that seem feasible to them. One such measure, defined by their proponents as the “next logical step” would be a prohibition on the production of fissionable material for weapons purposes. In fact, as proposed, a ban on the production of fissionable material would be redundant from the point of view of non-proliferation and innocuous from the point of view of disarmament, for the simple reason that non-nuclear weapon States are already prohibited under the NPT from acquiring atomic weapons and the envisaged ban would leave intact the huge stocks of that material amassed by the nuclear weapon States. The other group contends that the conditions for progress have never been clearly spelled out, leading to the conclusion that the real intention is to postpone indefinitely any engagement in meaningful negotiations of concrete measures of nuclear disarmament. All attempts to start action in this direction at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva have met with strong resistance from the nuclear weapon countries. Indeed, the word “disarmament” seems to have disappeared from the lexicon of the armed States and their allies.

Rising concern over the humanitarian and environmental consequences of any use of nuclear weapons coupled with frustration over the lack of tangible results in nuclear disarmament prompted several States, including Brazil, to push forward a proposal to negotiate a treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. As we know, this instrument was successfully negotiated and adopted last July at the United Nations. Fifty-three States so far have signed and three have already ratified it.

The negotiation of that treaty was also fiercely opposed with varying degrees of vehemence by the possessors of nuclear weapons. Among other alleged defects, these States pointed out: a) that the concept of the Treaty fails to take into consideration the global security environment; b) that it would be ineffective; c) that the process of its negotiation was divisive, rather than consensual; d) that the prohibition is not a substitute for reductions in current arsenals; e) that it undermines the NPT, and finally, f) that a progressive, step-by step approach is a more suitable path to achieve nuclear disarmament.

To counter these contentions supporters of the Treaty point out: a) that the ban was not conceived in isolation of the existing security conditions and that its adversaries neglected to attend the preparatory conferences where their concerns could have been voiced, and preferred instead to indict the process from the start and boycott the negotiations; b) that in fact past efforts have been ineffective in producing a clear, legally binding commitment to eliminate nuclear weapons; c) that the new treaty does not create divisions among States but simply calls attention to the longstanding gulf that has been exacerbated by the perceived disregard of the nuclear weapon States for their obligations; d) that the Treaty will obviously not result in the automatic abolition of arsenals but will make the need for nuclear disarmament more visible and hasten multilateral action; e) that rather than undermining the NPT, the Treaty provides a path for its Parties to fulfill their legal obligation to pursue negotiations in good faith and bring them to a conclusion, as clarified by the ICJ in 1996. This is what is meant by in the expression “leading to their elimination” contained in the General Assembly mandate for the negotiation of the new instrument; and finally, f) the “step-by-step” approach favored by the nuclear weapon States and their allies over the decades has not resulted in a single multilateral measure of nuclear disarmament and has, in effect, served to justify the maintenance of the status quo.

Opponents of the Treaty contend further that it offers no solution to the grave threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program. This argument ignores, perhaps deliberately, that the most pointed approaches so far attempted to deal with the DPRK as an emerging nuclear weapon State have not been successful either.

Despite the enthusiasm of its supporters and the disparagement of its opponents, it is too early to assess the impact of the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty on the current debate on the ultimate achievement of nuclear disarmament. The history of the negotiation and the language of the final version of the Treaty show an endeavor to take every precaution in order to avoid any incompatibility between this instrument and the NPT. In the months after the opening of the instrument to the signature of States at the United Nations it will be possible to gauge the extent of international support to the Treaty. Upon ratification, individual countries will be able to consider the adoption of national legislation containing measures that can have an impact on the policies and practices of nuclear weapon countries. States will need to find a workable convergence between the existing normative basis and the new prohibition embodied in the Prohibition Treaty in order to ensure increased security for all nations and not for just a few armed ones and their allies.

May I conclude by recalling that the United Nations General Assembly decided to convene a UN High Level Conference on Nuclear Disarmament no later than in 2018 in order to evaluate progress and advance further the elimination of nuclear weapons. The current 72nd Session of the General Assembly is expected to decide on the holding of a preparatory meeting for this High-Level Conference as well as on further work on a Fourth Special Session on Disarmament. This coincides with the preparatory cycle for the 2020 NPT Review Conference. The very articulate and thorough Final Document of the First Special Session in 1978 needs to be updated. Recent UN High Level Conferences produced important multilateral progress on issues like climate change, oceans and migration. States should avail themselves of the opportunity to participate in a process aimed at bringing new impetus to the non-proliferation and disarmament debate and at promoting concrete progress towards the elimination of nuclear weapons, with the active support of civil society organizations.

Sergio Duarte, a Brazilian Ambassador (ret.), is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development  Environment

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