War in Ukraine looms over UN meeting on legacy of nuclear arms treaty


UNITED NATIONS – There were already plenty of issues to tackle when a major UN meeting on the landmark nuclear non-proliferation treaty was originally scheduled to take place in 2020.

Now the postponed pandemic conference finally begins on Monday as Russia’s war in Ukraine has reignited fears of a nuclear confrontation and heightened the urgency of trying to strengthen the 50-year-old treaty.

“This is a very, very difficult time,” said Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

Russia’s invasion, complete with ominous references to its nuclear arsenal, “is so important to the treaty and is really going to put a lot of pressure on it,” she said. “How governments react to the situation will shape future nuclear policy.”

The four-week meeting aims to generate consensus on next steps, but expectations are low for substantial agreement – ​​if at all.

Still, Swiss President Ignazio Cassis, Prime Ministers Fumio Kishida of Japan and Frank Bainimarama of Fiji, and more than a dozen foreign ministers from the nations are among the expected attendees from at least 116 countries, according to an official. the UN who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly before the conference.

In force since 1970, the Non-Proliferation Treaty enjoys the broadest support of any arms control agreement. Some 191 countries have joined.

Nations without nuclear weapons pledged not to acquire them, while nuclear-armed Britain, China, France, Russia (then the Soviet Union) and the United States agreed to negotiate with a view to one day eliminating their arsenals. All supported the right of everyone to develop peaceful nuclear energy.

India and Pakistan, which did not sign, later recovered the bomb. North Korea followed suit, which ratified the pact but later announced it was withdrawing. Non-signatory Israel is suspected of having a nuclear arsenal but neither confirms nor denies it.

Nevertheless, the Non-Proliferation Treaty has been credited with limiting the number of nuclear newcomers (US President John F. Kennedy once predicted up to 20 nuclear-weapon nations by 1975) and serving as a framework international cooperation in disarmament.

The total number of nuclear weapons in the world has fallen by more than 75% from the peak of the mid-1980s, largely due to the end of the Cold War between the United States and the former Union Soviet. But experts estimate there are around 13,000 warheads left around the world, the vast majority in the United States and Russia.

Meetings to assess the operation of the treaty are supposed to take place every five years, but the 2020 conference has been repeatedly delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The challenges have only grown in the meantime.

When launching the war in Ukraine in February, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that any attempt to interfere would have “consequences you’ve never seen” and stressed that his country was “one of the nuclear powers most powerful”. Days later, Putin ordered Russia’s nuclear forces to be put on high alert, a move that UN Secretary General António Guterres called “chilling”.

“The prospect of a nuclear conflict, once unthinkable, is now back in the realm of possibility,” he said.

Events in Ukraine create a tricky choice for the upcoming conference, said Patricia Lewis, a former UN disarmament research officer who currently works at international affairs think tank Chatham House in London.

“On the one hand, in order to support the treaty and what it stands for, governments will have to confront Russia’s behavior and threats,” she said. “On the other hand, it risks dividing treaty members.”

Another uncomfortable dynamic: the war has heightened some countries’ apprehensions about the lack of nuclear weapons, especially since Ukraine once harbored but relinquished a hoard of Soviet nuclear bombs.

Conference attendees may stress alternative security strategies or point out the costs and dangers of acquiring nuclear weapons, but “it’s important not to be too preachy,” said Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.

“The idea that we can just look other countries in the face and say, ‘You’re better off without the bomb’ – that’s a bit of a tough argument to make right now categorically,” said O’Hanlon, a senior researcher specializing in defense and security.

Ukraine is not the only hot topic.

The United States and Russia now have only one treaty restricting their nuclear weapons and have developed new technologies. Last year, Britain raised a self-imposed cap on its stocks. China says it is modernizing – or, according to the United States, expanding – the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal.

Daryl Kimball, who heads the nonprofit Arms Control Association in Washington, can’t remember another time when the nonproliferation treaty was revised with “so much difficulty in so many different areas, and where we have seen such serious tensions between the main players.”

US Ambassador Adam Scheinman, Presidential Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, said Washington hopes for a “balanced” outcome that “sets realistic goals and advances our national and international security interests.”

“You can have no doubt that Russia’s actions will affect the climate of the conference and the prospects for an agreed outcome document. Other difficult issues can also complicate this. But I am prepared to be somewhat optimistic,” he said in a telephone press briefing.

The Associated Press has sent inquiries to Russia’s UN mission about Moscow’s goals for the conference. There was no immediate response.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said his country is willing to work to improve global nuclear governance and maintain international order and will “firmly safeguard the interests and the legitimate security and development rights of China and the developing world.”

While the world cannot speak with one voice, disarmament advocates say a strong statement from a large group of countries could send a significant message.

In recent years, frustration over the Non-Proliferation Treaty has catalyzed another pact that bans nuclear weapons outright. Ratified by more than 60 countries, it entered into force last year, but without any nuclear-armed nations on board.

At a recent meeting in Vienna, participating countries condemned “all nuclear threats” and signed a long-term plan that includes consideration of an international trust fund for those harmed by nuclear weapons. .

Fihn, whose Geneva-based group campaigned for the nuclear ban treaty, hopes the vigor in Vienna will serve as inspiration – or advice – for countries to make progress at the UN conference.

“If you don’t make it here,” she said, “we go on without you somewhere else.”

Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and AP reporter Liu Zheng in Beijing contributed to this report.

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