Nuclear Disarmament: A Challenge For New UN Chief – Analysis


By Alyn Ware*

The United Nations General Assembly has on October 13 affirmed António Guterres, the former Prime Minister of Portugal and UN High Commissioner for Refugees, as the next United Nations Secretary-General (UNSG). The UN Security Council had on October 5 nominated him for the position after considering 13 candidates.

Guterres will have a number of challenges as he prepares to take up the UNSG position in January 2017. These include implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, addressing climate change, managing the continuing global refugee crisis, ensuring progress on disarmament, curtailing armed conflicts in a number of countries and regions, and reducing the tensions between Russia and the West, and between China and its neighbours in East Asia.

The expertise of Guterres in managing the global refugee crisis appears to have been one critical factor in securing support for his UNSG candidacy from the five permanent members of the Security Council (China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA), any one of which has a veto over the final selection of the UNSG. It is widely recognized that Guterres has managed this issue incredibly well in very difficult circumstances.

However, the fact that Guterres never directly challenged the nuclear weapons policies of the P5 during his term as Prime Minister of Portugal, might also have been an influential factor in him getting the Security Council endorsement ahead of the other candidates. The P5 are all nuclear-armed, and are the ones most responsible for a continued lack of progress in achieving multilateral nuclear disarmament.

“How Guterres addresses nuclear disarmament as UN Secretary-General, will be a critical question,” according to Jonathan Granoff, President of the Global Security Institute. “The objective to eliminate nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction was agreed by all UN members in the very first resolution of the UN General Assembly. The unconditional obligation to achieve this goal was unanimously affirmed by the World Court. But so far this objective has not been met and humanity still lives under the existential threat of nuclear annihilation. The UN Secretary-General has a responsibility and mandate to act on this core global issue.” 

There was strong public sentiment that this should have been the time for a female Secretary-General. All the previous UNSGs have been men, and the President of the UN General Assembly had specifically requested that women be among the candidates nominated.

As such, there were a number of female candidates who appeared to have a good chance at the top UN job. This included Helen Clark, Head of the UN Development Program and former New Zealand Prime Minister, and Christina Figueres, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. They had recently facilitated extremely important international agreements – the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the new Sustainable Development Goals. In addition, a poll of UN staff around the world on who would be the most effective UN Secretary-General put Helen Clark as a clear favourite from within the UN for the position. Guterres and Figueres were second and third in the UN staff poll.

However, both Clark and Figueres and their countries, have been strong advocates of disarmament – a position that might have impacted on possible support from the P5 members for their candidacy. The P5 countries are not only the main nuclear-armed States, they are also amongst the world’s largest producers and merchants of conventional weapons. New Zealand has banned nuclear weapons, whilst Costa Rica has gone even further and abolished their army. The prospect of a UNSG with experience and a strong commitment to disarmament might not have been so favourable to the P5.

So does this mean the Guterres will be weak on nuclear disarmament as UN Secretary-General? Not necessarily.

Ban Ki-moon, the retiring UNSG, was also not very strong on nuclear disarmament when he was elected as UN Secretary-General, but became more so while in office.

As Foreign Minister of South Korea, a country in an extended nuclear deterrence relationship with the USA, he had joined with other nuclear-reliant countries in opposing a number of United Nations nuclear disarmament initiatives and resolutions.

And, in one of his first initiatives as UNSG, Ban announced that the UN Department for Disarmament would be folded into the Department of Public Information (effectively closing the office) and the position of UN Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament would be cancelled.

However, Ban reversed this decision following strong appeals from non-nuclear States and civil society, who argued that nuclear disarmament was a primary objective of the United Nations. He established a UN Office of Disarmament Affairs and re-instated a top-level position – the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs at the level of Under-Secretary-General.

Ban then took a number of initiatives, which have resulted in him being probably the most active UNSG ever on nuclear disarmament. These include the development and promotion of a Five-Point Proposal for Nuclear Disarmament, co-chairing a UN Security Council Summit on nuclear disarmament with President Obama, visiting key locations such as Hiroshima and the former nuclear test site in Kazakhstan, and direct outreach to parliamentarians and civil society on this issue.

Encouragement to Antonio Guterres from non-nuclear States and civil society will probably be important to ensure that he also takes a strong leadership role on this issue like Ban Ki-moon. As such, the Co-Presidents of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, a global cross-party network of legislators, sent a letter to Guterres on October 13 appealing to him to place nuclear disarmament as one of his top priorities.

The letter, cosigned by PNND Co-Presidents who are leading parliamentarians from around the world, highlights the specific connections between nuclear disarmament and the achievement of peace, security and the Sustainable Development Goals.

“The tensions exacerbated by nuclear threat postures prevent the global cooperation required to meet the SDGs. And the $100 billion spent annually on maintaining and modernizing nuclear weapons systems is sorely needed to instead address climate change and fund the other SDGs.”

In addition, PNND, Mayors for Peace and Religions for Peace plan to meet with Antonio Guterres early in 2017 to emphasise the importance of his leadership in this area, explore actions he could take, and present him with ‘A Nuclear-Weapon-Free World: Our Common Good’, a joint statement signed by parliamentarians, mayors and religious leaders. The statement ‘calls on world leaders to commit to nuclear abolition and to replace nuclear deterrence with shared security approaches to conflicts’ and ‘urges states to advance a nuclear weapons convention or framework of agreements that eliminate nuclear weapons.’

There is no moral justification for nuclear weapons,” said Ela Gandhi, one of the religious leaders endorsing the joint statement. Gandhi, who is the grand-daughter of Mahatma Gandhi and a Co-President of Religions for Peace, was speaking at the United Nations on the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.

People of faith the world over cannot but reject nuclear weapons – including their possession and the threat of their use – as an affront against God and creation.” The United Nations event was part of Chain Reaction – a series of civil society actions and events around the world demonstrating public support for a nuclear-weapon-free world and encouraging action at the United Nations.

As UN Secretary-General, Guterres would also have a strong mandate from the United Nations General Assembly and the majority of UN members to take leadership on nuclear disarmament. The first UN resolution putting forward the objective of nuclear disarmament has been followed by annual resolutions on the issue. And, later this October the UN is expected to adopt a resolution that will initiate UN-led negotiations on a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons leading to their elimination.

On the other hand, reliance by nuclear-armed States and their allies on nuclear weapons does not appear to be waning. Rising tensions between nuclear-armed states, including over the Ukraine and in the South China Sea, have led to heightened nuclear threat postures and re-affirmation of nuclear deterrence.

As such, most of the nuclear armed and allied States have indicated that they will not join the UN negotiations next year to prohibit nuclear weapons, which will severely limit its impact. If the new UN leader is to play an effective role in facilitating nuclear disarmament, he will need to be able to assist in managing or resolving these conflicts so that the countries currently relying on nuclear weapons, can build confidence that security can be met without them.

This is not impossible. The PNND letter to Guterres notes that international law and the United Nations provide “mechanisms to resolve conflicts and achieve security without reliance on nuclear weapons, or on any threat or use of force.” These include diplomacy, mediation, arbitration and adjudication.

Russia and the West might currently be at loggerheads over Ukraine, for example, but compare this with the territorial dispute between Russia and Norway over delineation of the continental shelf running from their north coasts all the way to the North Pole.

This was resolved through arbitration (Law of the Sea Tribunal) and diplomacy. The conflict between the USA and Iran had all the signs of another war in the Middle East, yet was resolved diplomatically with the help of a third party – the European Union.

The United Nations has played a key role in mediating nuclear-weapons-related disputes in the past – and in other disputes involving nuclear-armed countries,”says Rachel Day, research officer for Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament.

By promoting and employing diplomacy and conflict-resolution approaches to key conflicts, the new UN Secretary-General could help bridge the gap between non-nuclear states – many of whom are calling for unconditional abolition of nuclear weapons – and the nuclear-armed states, who say that peace and security is an important prerequisite for nuclear disarmament.”

By simultaneously promoting nuclear disarmament and the achievement of security by non-nuclear means, the new UNSG could ensure progress on both, and help achieve the aspiration of the first UN resolution for the elimination of nuclear weapons. This would indeed be an achievement of the highest order.

*Alyn Ware is Global Coordinator of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament. Co-founder of UNFOLD ZERO, a global platform on the role of the United Nations in achieving the peace and security of a nuclear-weapon-free world.


IDN-InDepthNews offers news analyses and viewpoints on topics that impact the world and its peoples. IDN-InDepthNews serves as the flagship of the International Press Syndicate Group

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