War in Ukraine hangs over UN meeting on nuclear weapons treaty legacy

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UNITED NATIONS (TBEN) — There were plenty of issues to talk about when a major UN meeting on the landmark Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was originally set to take place in 2020.

Now, the pandemic-delayed conference finally begins Monday, as Russia’s war in Ukraine has rekindled fears of a nuclear confrontation and increased the urgency to try to strengthen the 50-year treaty.

“It’s a very, very difficult moment,” said Beatrice Fihn, the executive director of the Nobel Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

The invasion of Russia, accompanied by ominous references to its nuclear arsenal, “is so important to the treaty and will really put a lot of pressure on this,” she said. “How governments respond to the situation will shape future nuclear policy.”

The four-week meeting aims to reach a consensus on next steps, but expectations for a substantial – if any – agreement are low.

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

The Non-Proliferation Treaty, in force since 1970, has the broadest support of all arms control agreements. Some 191 countries have joined.

Nuclear-less nations promised not to acquire them, while nuclear-armed Britain, China, France, Russia (then the Soviet Union), and the United States agreed to one day negotiate to eliminate their arsenals. All endorsed everyone’s right to develop peaceful nuclear energy.

India and Pakistan, which did not sign, continued to pack the bomb. So did North Korea, which ratified the pact but later announced it would withdraw. Non-signatory Israel is believed to have a nuclear arsenal, but neither confirms nor denies this.

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Nevertheless, the Non-Proliferation Treaty has been credited with limiting the number of nuclear newcomers (US President John F. Kennedy once envisioned as many as 20 nuclear-armed countries by 1975) and as a framework for international cooperation on disarmament.

The total number of nuclear weapons worldwide has shrunk by more than 75% from a peak in the mid-1980s, largely due to the end of the Cold War between the US and the former Soviet Union. But experts estimate that there are still about 13,000 nuclear warheads worldwide, the vast majority in the US and Russia.

Meetings to review how the treaty works were set to take place every five years, but the 2020 conference was repeatedly postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The challenges have only grown in the meantime.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the war in Ukraine in February, he warned that any attempt at interference would lead to “consequences you’ve never seen” and emphasized that his country is “one of the most powerful nuclear powers”. Days later, Putin ordered Russia’s nuclear forces to be more alert, a move UN Secretary-General António Guterres called “horrifying”.

“The prospect of a nuclear conflict, once unimaginable, is now possible again,” he said.

Events in Ukraine pose a tough choice for the upcoming conference, said Patricia Lewis, a former UN disarmament research officer who is now at the Chatham House international affairs think tank in London.

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

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Another uneasy dynamic: The war has heightened fears among some countries that they do not have nuclear weapons, especially since Ukraine once housed a large number of Soviet nuclear weapons, but gave up.

Conference participants may emphasize other security strategies or emphasize 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 hard argument to carry right now,” said O’Hanlon, a senior fellow who specializes in is in the field of defense and security.

Ukraine is not the only hot topic.

North Korea recently appears to be preparing for its first nuclear weapons test since 2017. Talks about reviving the deal aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons are in limbo.

The US and Russia have only one treaty to limit their nuclear weapons and have developed new technologies. Britain raised a self-imposed limit on its stock last year. China says it is modernizing — or, as the US claims, expanding — the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal.

Daryl Kimball, head of the nonprofit Arms Control Association in Washington, can’t recall another time when the Non-Proliferation Treaty has come under review with “so many difficulties in so many different areas, and where we’ve seen such serious tensions between the major players.”

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

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“There is no doubt that Russia’s actions will affect the climate at the conference and the prospects for an agreed outcome document. Other difficult problems can also complicate this. But I am willing to be somewhat optimistic,” he said in a telephone briefing.

The The Bharat Express News sent questions to Russia’s UN mission about Moscow’s goals for the conference. There was no immediate response.

In Beijing, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said his country is committed to working to improve global nuclear governance and maintain international order and that it “is protecting China’s legitimate security and development interests and rights.” and will firmly protect the developing countries”.

If the world can’t speak with one voice, disarmament proponents say a strong statement from a large group of countries can send a meaningful message.

In recent years, frustration with the Non-Proliferation Treaty has led to another pact that outright bans nuclear weapons. It was ratified by more than 60 countries and came into effect last year, albeit with no nuclear-armed nations on board.

At a recent meeting in Vienna, the participating countries condemned “all nuclear threats” and signed a lengthy plan that included the creation of an international trust fund for people harmed by nuclear weapons.

Fihn, whose Geneva-based group campaigned for the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty, hopes the force in Vienna will serve as inspiration — or notice — for countries to move forward at the UN conference.

“If you don’t do it here,” she said, “we’ll go elsewhere without you.”

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United Nations The Bharat Express News writer Edith M. Lederer and Beijing TBEN journalist Liu Zheng contributed to this report.