THE UNITED NATIONS — The head of the United Nations warned the world on Monday that “humanity is just a misunderstanding, a miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation.”
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres gave the stark warning at the opening of the long-delayed high-level meeting to review the historic 50-year-old treaty aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and ultimately achieving a nuclear-free world. He cited in particular the war in Ukraine and the threat of nuclear weapons in the conflicts in the Middle East and Asia, two regions “towards catastrophe”.
António Guterres told many ministers, officials and diplomats attending the month-long conference on the review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that the meeting was being held “at a critical time for our collective peace and security” and “at a time of nuclear danger not seen since the height of the Cold War.
The conference is “an opportunity to define the measures that will avert certain disasters and put humanity on a new path towards a world without nuclear weapons”, the secretary-general said.
But Guterres warned that “geopolitical weapons are reaching new heights”, nearly 13,000 nuclear weapons are in stockpiles across the world, and countries seeking “false security” are spending hundreds of billions of dollars on “weapons apocalyptic”.
“All this at a time when the risks of proliferation are increasing and the safeguards to prevent escalation are weakening,” he said, “And when crises – with nuclear connotations – escalate from the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”
António Guterres called on conference participants to take several steps: urgently reinforce and reaffirm “the 77-year-old norm against the use of nuclear weapons”, work tirelessly towards the elimination of nuclear weapons with new commitments to reduce arsenals, address “simmering tensions in the Middle East and Asia” and promote the peaceful use of nuclear technology.
“Future generations are counting on your commitment to get out of the abyss,” he implored the ministers and diplomats. “Now is the time for us to take up this fundamental test and lift the cloud of nuclear annihilation once and for all.”
In force since 1970, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, known as the NPT, is the most widely adhered to of all arms control agreements, with some 191 member countries.
Under its terms, the original five nuclear powers – the United States, China, Russia (then the Soviet Union), Britain and France – agreed to negotiate for the elimination of a their arsenals and the nations without nuclear weapons have promised not to acquire them in exchange. for a guarantee of being able to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
India and Pakistan, which did not join the NPT, got 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. Nonetheless, the treaty has been credited with limiting the number of nuclear newcomers (US President John F. Kennedy once predicted up to 20 nuclear-armed nations) as a framework for international disarmament cooperation.
The meeting, which ends on August 26, aims to generate consensus on next steps, but expectations are low for a substantial agreement – if any.
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.
Other speakers at Monday’s opening include UN nuclear chief Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.
The five-year review of the NPT was due to take place in 2020, when the world was already facing many crises, but was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It takes place at a time of heightened fears of a nuclear confrontation, spurred by comments from Russia following its February 24 invasion of neighboring Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin then warned that any attempt to interfere would lead to “consequences that you have never seen” and stressed that his country is “one of the most powerful nuclear powers”. A few days later, Putin ordered Russian nuclear forces to be put on high alert.
Patricia Lewis, former director of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, who is now in charge of international security programs at international affairs think tank Chatham House in London, said that “threats of President Putin to use nuclear weapons shocked the international community”.
Russia is not only a signatory to the NPT, but a repository of treaty ratifications, and in January joined the other four nuclear powers in reiterating the statement of former US President Ronald Reagan and the former leader Soviet Mikhail Gorbachev that “a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought,” she told The Associated Press.
Lewis said the countries participating in the review conference will have a difficult decision to make.
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 the members of the treaty – some of whom have been convinced by Russian propaganda or at least are not as concerned, for example, as NATO states.”
And “Russia will no doubt vigorously oppose being named in statements and any outcome document,” Lewis said.