Defusing Looming Arms Race Critical for Global Security, Secretary General Warns, as General Assembly Marks International Day to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons
With Friction Rising among Major Powers, Speakers Urge Russian Federation, United States to Extend New Strategic Offensive Arms Reduction Treaty without Delay
The world must return to the path of nuclear disarmament towards strengthening global security and diffuse a looming arms race among nations with atomic arsenals, the Secretary‑General told the General Assembly at a high‑level meeting commemorating and promoting the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.
“For the sake of all of our security, the world must return to a common path towards nuclear disarmament,” António Guterres said, emphasizing that countries must fulfil their disarmament commitments and take practical steps to reduce risks. With rising friction among the major Powers, such steps are more necessary than ever before, as the world today lives in the shadow of nuclear catastrophe. While some countries view nuclear weapons as vital to their survival, the total elimination of these arms is vital to life on this planet. Progress towards their total elimination has stalled — and is at risk of backsliding — amid growing distrust and tensions among nuclear‑weapon States, which threatens to provoke a nuclear arms race based, in part, on faster, stealthier and more accurate weapons. Moreover, the only treaty constraining the size of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals is set to expire in 2021.
For these reasons, he said it is imperative that the Russian Federation and the United States extend without delay a new Treaty on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (START) for a duration of 5 years, he said. Stressing that the Nuclear Non‑Proliferation Treaty remains the cornerstone of the disarmament and non‑proliferation regime, he called on States Parties to ensure a meaningful outcome that strengthens the bastion of non‑proliferation instruments. He also looked forward to the entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Stressing that COVID‑19 has exacted a huge toll on human life, and exposed the fragility of the global ability to act in a common cause, he called for a strengthened, inclusive and renewed multilateralism built on trust and international law, with human security at its centre.
Volkan Bozkir (Turkey), President of the General Assembly, recalled that the United Nations was born out of an era of devastation, including the 226,000 people killed in the United States atomic bomb attack in Japan. Indeed, the Assembly’s very first resolution passed in 1946 aimed to achieve global nuclear disarmament. However, nuclear weapons continue to pose a grave threat to international peace and security, and there is no alternative but to eliminate the weapons themselves. It is therefore unfortunate that the architecture developed over decades is under significant strain, with rising global tensions. “Amid such challenges to the non‑proliferation architecture, we must ensure, efforts are focused on returning to the common goal, of a world free of nuclear weapons, through practical realizable goals and commensurate actions,” he said.
Drawing attention to some available tools to help reach this goal, he recalled that the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, adopted in 2017, is the first multilateral legally binding instrument for nuclear disarmament to have been negotiated in 20 years. The Secretary‑General’s Agenda for Disarmament seeks to engage stakeholders in innovative discussions, and 2020 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Treaty on the Non‑Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which has been the cornerstone of the global disarmament and non-proliferation regime. All States parties attending the 2021 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference must take that opportunity to renew their commitments, engage in inclusive dialogue and take practical steps in nuclear disarmament. “We cannot afford to waste any more time,” he said. “Nuclear disarmament must remain a priority to all of us. We must continue to pursue our common goal, of a world free of nuclear weapons.”
Throughout the day, Heads of State and Government and senior officials shared their views on the state of the global disarmament regime — most via pre‑recorded video due to COVID‑19 restrictions at United Nations Headquarters — 75 years after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with non‑nuclear‑weapon States calling for commitments from those possessing nuclear arsenals.
Ann Linde, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden, pressed the United States and the Russian Federation to extend a new START Treaty, emphasizing that a broader follow‑on agreement could also include China. For its part, Sweden launched the Stockholm Initiative for Nuclear Disarmament with 15 other non‑nuclear States, aiming for a results‑oriented disarmament agenda. There is no valid excuse for the delay in signing the Comprehensive Nuclear Test‑Ban Treaty, she said, noting that as chair of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors, Sweden supports efforts to preserve the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear programme. She called on Iran to return to full implementation of its responsibilities under that accord, likewise urging the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to uphold its obligations and take steps to denuclearize.
“The world is weary of an era of converging global conflicts,” said Danny Faure, President of Seychelles, amid a global downturn and pandemic. As the leader of a small nation where peaceful coexistence reigns, he expressed deep concern about the human consequences. “Seychellians can disappear within a fraction of a mini-second,” he said, as can their unique biodiversity, which is already at the mercy of climate change. “Our presence erased. Our future denied,” he warned.
Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Cuba, rejected the United States’ withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, stressing: “These are unilateral actions with grave international consequences.” He also rejected its attempts to restore the Monroe Doctrine, stressing that Cuba is proud to be part of the first world region to declare itself a zone of peace.
Chingiz Aidarbekov, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Kyrgyzstan, said his country is the initiator of and depository for the Treaty on a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in Central Asia. He welcomed ratification by the United Kingdom, China and the Russian Federation of the Protocol on negative security assurances and called on the United States to ratify it without delay. He also advocated the revegetation of uranium tailing pools.
Expressing disappointment over incipient conceptual approaches that set preconditions to disarmament, Sameh Shoukry, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Egypt, emphasized that “the path must be unconditional.” The failure to universalize the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons is significantly eroding the credibility of disarmament and non‑proliferation regimes, as well as international norms. The Treaty’s success is linked to its ability to adopt a balanced outcome document, especially on the creation of a nuclear‑weapons‑free zone in the Middle East. He pointed to the first United Nations conference towards that end, held for the first time in 2019 under Jordan’s presidency, calling it a consensus‑based process that could strengthen the disarmament regime.
On that point, Fuad Hussein, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Iraq, pressed Israel to engage in disarmament discussions, join the Non‑Proliferation Treaty as a non‑nuclear party, subject itself to the IAEA safeguard system and participate in the second round of discussions to create a Middle East weapons‑free zone. He clarified that convening this round — to be held in 2021 under Kuwait’s presidency — will represent a parallel process to international efforts, in a manner that guarantees peace and security.
Cyril Ramaphosa, President of South Africa, said that as the only country to have voluntarily abandoned nuclear weapons, his country is deeply concerned that Article VI obligations under the Non‑Proliferation Treaty remain unfulfilled. Recalling that nuclear‑weapon States pledged to eliminate their weapons, while non‑nuclear States reciprocated by deciding not to pursue their acquisition, he said the lack of progress undermines the disarmament bargain. He expressed support for the peaceful use of nuclear energy and applications.
Alexander Schallenberg, Federal Minister for European and International Affairs of Austria, said “it is depressing that we have to mark this anniversary in a world where nuclear weapons still exist,” with arsenals being upgraded and delivery systems developed. He expressed hope the Russian Federation and the United States will extend the START, with discussions in Vienna. “Nuclear deterrence does not improve security,” he said. “Let’s lay this myth to rest.” He expressed hope that the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will convene its first meeting in Vienna, upon its entry into force.
Along those lines, Kamina Johnson Smith, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade of Jamaica, said her country will shortly ratify that 2017 instrument. “We will do our part,” she assured. Nuclear weapons have no role in “the future we need.”
Other important perspectives in today’s commemoration were expressed by leaders whose countries experienced the trauma of nuclear testing, with David Kabua, President of the Marshall Islands, recalling that between 1946 and 1958, 67 nuclear weapons were tested on his country, the impact of which — on the human rights, land, culture and life of islanders — will last for generations. Along with the mistreatment and marginalization they suffered, the islanders face burdens that no other country should ever bear. The Marshall Islands would welcome effective, meaningful progress from major Powers and nuclear-weapon States, but any potential steps must result in timebound outcomes to eliminate the nuclear danger.
Clarifying that the Marshall Islands is not prepared to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, he expressed deep concern about provisions that place victim assistance and remediation only on those nations affected by nuclear tests. While the Government formed a national nuclear commission to coordinate the needs of impacted communities, the country did not cause this problem, and thus lacks the full capacity and resources to address it. It intends to pursue the 1963 Nuclear Test‑Ban Treaty, as early negotiations on this accord were affected by the Castle Bravo test on the Marshall Islands, he said.
Recalling that 34 nuclear blasts were conducted on and around Christmas Island in the 1950s and 1960s, Taneti Maamau, President of Kiribati, pledged to help create a nuclear‑weapons‑free world. While acknowledging geopolitical complexities around this idea, he said “a safe future for our grandchildren should be our common goal.”
Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, Prime Minister and Minister for iTaukei, Sugar Industry and Foreign Affairs of Fiji, speaking for the Pacific small island developing States, said more than 300 tests were conducted on these nations between 1946 and 1996 — in the atmosphere, on the ground and under water. Communities were forced to relocate from ancestral islands, prevented from using natural resources and faced health problems. Radioactive waste was either buried or dumped into the Pacific Ocean and will be present for decades. “Compensation will never be enough to correct the damage,” he emphasized.
Explaining that islanders consider themselves custodians of the Pacific Ocean, he said the sea “defines who we are” and provides the foundation for their economies. They envision an “ocean of peace and prosperity,” he said, pointing to the Boe Declaration on Regional Security, which recognizes climate change as the single greatest threat to Pacific peoples. Ending nuclear weapons will free much‑needed resources for communities vulnerable to climate change. “The world does not need nuclear weapons,” he said, pressing States to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. “It is morally right, and we owe it to ourselves, and our future generations.”
Several others pointed to the legal and moral duty to create a nuclear‑weapon‑free world, with Rodolfo Solano Quirós, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Costa Rica, recalling that “there are no right hands to handle these wrong weapons.”
Sabri Boukadoum, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade of Algeria, said that his county is still living with the human and environmental consequences of nuclear explosions carried out on its territory during colonial rule. The international community must not lose the opportunity of the Non‑Proliferation Treaty review conference to make progress towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons. He added that, as co‑chair of the eleventh conference on the facilitation of the entry into force of the Test‑Ban Treaty, Algeria is making a special appeal to all States that have not yet done so to join that instrument as soon as possible.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Iran, said that, 75 years after it dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States is developing new nuclear weapons and recklessly lowering the threshold of their deployment, while also blindly supporting an outlaw regime that is the sole possessor of nuclear weapons in Middle East. “The international community must compel Israel, which has aggression in its very DNA, to promptly accede to the NPT and destroy its nuclear arsenal,” he said, adding that Israel must also be compelled to submit to the same intrusive inspection regime that law‑abiding members of the Non‑Proliferation Treaty adhere to.
Putting the threat of nuclear weapons in the context of COVID‑19, Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr., Secretary of Foreign Affairs of the Philippines, said that while the pandemic “is not of our doing,” nuclear annihilation — even if it occurs by accident — would be entirely humanity’s fault, on a par with leaving several loaded revolvers in a kid’s playroom. He also warned that terrorists are trying to join the nuclear club “and it is madness personified”.
Faisal Bin Farhan Al‑Saud, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia, said that the international community must wage a common front against any country seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, particularly those who are funding and arming illegal terrorist militias. He urged the international community to shoulder its responsibilities with regard to Iran’s violations of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which he said has not dissuaded that country from its nuclear ambitions. He also regretted international action on establishing a nuclear‑weapons‑free zone in the Middle East and called on Israel to swiftly accede to the Non‑Proliferation Treaty.
Katrin Eggenberger, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Justice and Culture of Liechtenstein, said that nuclear weapons are perhaps more of a threat to humanity today than they have been in a long time. “The perceived strategic security of some is in fact the permanent insecurity of all,” she said, adding that the most fundamental humanitarian norms leave no space for the most destructive and indiscriminate of all weapons. Eliminating nuclear weapons is not a policy choice, but a legal and moral necessity as the world awaits urgent progress in disarmament negotiations, she said.
Paul Oquist Kelley, Minister and Private Secretary for National Policies of Nicaragua, associating himself with the Non‑Aligned Movement, said that it is unjustifiable that more is being spent on weapons than on overcoming the COVID‑19 pandemic and the economic depression that it has triggered. Worldwide defence spending in 2019 was more than $1.7 trillion, he said, the biggest amount since the end of the Cold War. The cost of an arms race in the twenty‑first century will reduce the financial oxygen needed to address climate change, achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and prepare for another pandemic, he said.
Mukhtar Tleuberdi, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan, recalled his country’s historic decision to renounce the nuclear arsenal that it inherited upon the demise of the Soviet Union. He also noted that his country still suffers from the effects of nuclear testing. Given the lack of progress on disarmament, there must be greater momentum to make the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons the new reality, he said, underscoring the role that youth engagement can play in ensuring success at the upcoming Non‑Proliferation Treaty review conference. “International solidarity is no longer a choice, but an obligation,” he said, calling for more resources to be directed towards healthcare, climate change mitigation and sustainable development.
While echoing the call for the total elimination of nuclear weapons, Sheikh Omar Faye, Minister for Defence of Gambia, stressed that there are many sources of radiation, which are a detriment to human health and the environment. The most significant of those include medical procedures such as X‑rays and radiation therapy as well as consumer products such as tobacco, building materials and security scanners. With IAEA assistance, Gambia is using the Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources as a guide to develop its own nuclear and radiation laws, he said.
Speaking on behalf of the Non‑Aligned Movement, Araz Azimov, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan, said that during their summit in Baku last year, leaders of the Movement’s member States stressed that progress on disarmament and non-proliferation in all aspects is essential for strengthening international peace and security. They also stressed the importance of ensuring that non-proliferation efforts run parallel to nuclear disarmament. Considering the humanitarian consequences, the only guarantee against the use of nuclear weapons is their total elimination. He called on the nuclear‑weapon States to take urgent and concrete action towards disarmament, adding that the improvement of existing nuclear weapons, and the development of new ones, by the United States and other countries violates their disarmament obligations. “It is time to take a new and comprehensive approach to nuclear disarmament,” he said, stressing the urgent need for concrete and systematic progress to that end.
Noting that the COVID‑19 pandemic has so far killed more than 1 million people, Erika Mouynes, Vice Minister of Multilateral Affairs and Cooperation of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Panama, said that even a small nuclear exchange between two countries could trigger a nuclear winter and the loss of 1 billion lives. It takes time for a pandemic to unfold, but just a few seconds to press a button and unleash a nuclear attack, she said, adding that the havoc triggered by COVID‑19 demonstrates how an incident in one place can impact the entire planet.
Harsh Vardhan Shringla, Foreign Secretary of India, said that his country believes that nuclear disarmament can be achieved through a step‑by‑step process underwritten by a universal commitment and an agreed multilateral framework. India remains convinced of the need for meaningful dialogue among all States possessing nuclear weapons in order to build trust and confidence. He underscored India’s support for the commencement of negotiations at the Conference on Disarmament on a comprehensive convention on nuclear weapons and a fissile material cut‑off treaty. Mahatma Gandhi, whose birth anniversary is today, said that “whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it,” and it is in that spirit that India is ready to work with other States to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons, he said.
The representative of Cameroon, speaking on behalf of the African Group, and associating himself with the Non‑Aligned Movement, emphasized the urgent need for the planet to be free of nuclear weapons. Africa welcomes the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which does not undermine the Non‑Proliferation Treaty, but rather complements and strengthens the nuclear non‑proliferation regime with that Treaty as its foundation. He called on all Member States, especially the nuclear‑weapon States and those under the so‑called nuclear umbrella, to sign and ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. He expressed deep concern about the slow pace of progress by the nuclear‑weapon States to eliminate their nuclear arsenals, reiterated the African Group’s commitment to the African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty (Treaty of Pelindaba) and called on all invited States and organization to participate in good faith in the second Conference on the Establishment of a Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East. He also emphasized the inalienable right of States to the peaceful use of nuclear energy and urged that humanitarian considerations feature in all discussions on nuclear disarmament.
The representative of Egypt, speaking on behalf of the Arab Group, and associating himself with the Non‑Aligned Movement, said that the continued existence of nuclear weapons and the non‑implementation of Article VI of the Non‑Proliferation Treaty represent a serious threat to international peace and security. He rejected arguments that possession of nuclear weapons is necessary for international stability, adding that the spread of COVID‑19 demonstrates what the world could have achieved had the enormous resources allocated to the arms race been directed instead to rational purposes. He underscored the special responsibility of nuclear-weapon States and those States which have not yet adhered to the Non‑Proliferation Treaty to expedite the Test‑Ban Treaty’s entry into force. Through joining the Non‑Proliferation Treaty and implementing their obligations, Arab States proved their good intentions, but the Middle East remains a non-proliferation challenge as Israel stands against the will of the international community and fails to comply with the Non‑Proliferation Treaty’s rules and norms. He called for intensified efforts to create a zone free of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, adding that the upcoming Non‑Proliferation Treaty should aim to agree a comprehensive and balanced outcome document.
In closing remarks, the General Assembly President said this meeting provided an occasion for the global community to reaffirm its commitment to global nuclear disarmament as a priority, while serving as a reminder of the urgency for action and that the weapons that killed hundreds of thousands of people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still readily available to the use of some States and that terrorist organizations are seeking to obtain them. Amid growing divisions and rifts in the multilateral disarmament architecture, much work remains to be done, and the United Nations is a critical partner, given its universal membership, and its long experience in grappling with these pressing issues. Every Member State must act without delay in fulfilling their disarmament and nonproliferation commitments, he said, highlighting that: “By acting together, we can achieve our shared goal, of a world free of nuclear weapons.”
The high‑level plenary debate also featured video remarks by Heads of State and Government and senior officials of Nigeria, Palau, Comoros, Mozambique, Equatorial Guinea, Kenya, Liberia, Antigua and Barbuda, Thailand, Namibia, Viet Nam, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Indonesia, Venezuela, Uruguay, Honduras, Peru, Mexico, Ireland, Colombia, Ecuador, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Ghana, Bolivia, Trinidad and Tobago, Guatemala, Mauritius, Malta, Timor-Leste, Lesotho, Côte d’Ivoire, Mauritania, Congo, Suriname, Madagascar, Maldives, Nepal, Bahrain, Botswana, Guyana, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Qatar, Argentina, Turkey and Cambodia.
The General Assembly declared 26 September the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons in its resolution 68/32 of 5 December 2013, devoting the observance to the furtherance of that objective in order to mobilize international efforts towards achieving a nuclear‑weapon‑free world.