Nuclear-Armed Foes Unite Against UN Call to Shed Their Bombs

  • U.S, Russia, North Korea all join effort to defeat resolution
  • It’s awkward for Obama, whose advocacy won a Nobel Peace Prize

A deactivated Titan II nuclear ICBM at the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, Arizona.

Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

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

Those nuclear-armed states and the three others -- China, France and the U.K. -- 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 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 U.S. 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 U.S. would refuse to participate in the negotiations over a nuclear ban if it passes, Robert Wood, the U.S. special representative to the UN’s Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament, said Oct. 14.

‘Regional Security’

“How can a state that relies on nuclear weapons for its security possibly join a negotiation meant to stigmatize 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 U.K.’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.

U.S.-Russia Treaty

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 $1 trillion over the next 30 years to modernize 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 neutralize the U.S.’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 U.S. lobbied NATO allies such as the Netherlands to vote against the resolution, according to European diplomats.

Land Mines Ban

“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 U.S. 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.”

— With assistance by Ilya Arkhipov

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