September 24 promises a couple of encouraging firsts. It will be the first time a US President has chaired a session of the UN Security Council, and for the first time the Council is expected to pass a resolution that will include substantive disarmament elements relevant to the nuclear arsenals of its five permanent members – all of which are nuclear weapon states. It is an important new start for the Security Council, even if on matters of practical substance it will be a fairly modest effort.

The UN Security Council has certainly not been shy about pronouncing itself on nuclear nonproliferation, or about imposing strict conditions on states viewed to be in violation of nonproliferation requirements, but it has been essentially silent on nuclear disarmament.[i] That will change when President Barack Obama chairs a session of the Security Council on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.

The US has now circulated a draft resolution[ii] which strongly affirms nuclear disarmament and the objective of “a world without nuclear weapons.” It recalls the Council’s 1992 Presidential Statement,[iii] not a resolution, which asserts that “the proliferation of all weapons of mass destruction constitutes a threat to international peace and security,” and both the 1992 statement and the draft resolution for the 24th “underline the need for all Member States to fulfill their obligations in relation to arms control and disarmament.”

The draft resolution for the September 24 session affirms the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) as “the essential foundation for the pursuit of nuclear disarmament,” again “underlining the need to pursue further efforts in the sphere of nuclear disarmament, in accordance with Article VI of the NPT.”

A major virtue of the resolution, and it is a big one, is that it marks a sharp American departure from the style, rhetoric, and substance of the Bush Administration’s approach to nuclear weapons and nuclear disarmament. In the Bush years the US was focused on denying that the NPT’s disarmament Article, Article VI, actually requires disarmament,[iv] but the current draft states clearly that the NPT rests on three pillars – disarmament, nonproliferation, peaceful uses. And it says there is a need to strengthen all three. Indeed, the draft resolution sees disarmament as a means “to enhance global security” – a formulation that harkens back to the 1992 statement that identified proliferation (including, implicitly, vertical proliferation) as a threat to security.

So far so good[v] – but then the focus clearly shifts to the nonproliferation pillar. Disarmament is the focus of only five of the 25 operational paragraphs of the draft. To be sure, many of the nonproliferation references and measures have important and positive disarmament implications, but direct commitments or calls for disarmament are confined to calls for further disarmament of existing arsenals, for the entry into force of the nuclear test ban Treaty, negotiation of a treaty on the production of fissile materials, a call for all states outside the NPT to join it, and a reaffirmation of negative security assurances.

All are important, but one unnamed European diplomat is quoted on Politico.Com as emphasizing that this resolution “should contain no wording that could be seen as weaker than what was agreed in previous resolutions.”[vi] It is a test the draft resolution does not pass. Inasmuch as the Security Council has not passed previous resolutions referencing disarmament by nuclear weapon states, this resolution is an important step forward, but the language here is certainly much weaker in important instances than that contained in commitments made by nuclear weapon states in the context of the NPT review process.

There is a welcome call for the Conference on Disarmament (CD) to negotiate a treaty banning the production of fissile materials for weapons purposes, but of course this is a call that is now decades old. There is almost universal agreement that there should be such a treaty, but it is largely the peculiarity of the CD process that keeps negotiations from happening.[vii] Paul Meyer’s recent review of this collective failure says it is time “to challenge CD member states’ apparently infinite capacity to tolerate stalemate at the [CD],” and he challenges nuclear weapon states, perhaps using the forthcoming Security Council session, to finally take action, for example by convening a diplomatic conference dedicated to a fissile materials treaty and focused on how best to get around the still moribund CD.[viii]

And even though the nuclear weapon states have all indicated that they are no longer producing fissile materials for weapons purposes, the draft does not call for a universal moratorium on such production pending the negotiation of a treaty (a call that would be directed toward India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan). The draft’s call for the test ban treaty to finally enter into force does call for a testing moratorium in the meantime.

The draft resolution refers to the Security Council resolutions on North Korea and Iran, but is silent on Resolution 1172 (1998), which called on India and Pakistan, in the wake of their 1998 test explosions of multiple nuclear devices, to end their nuclear weapons programs. Ignoring Resolution 1172 is a way of implicitly acquiescing to the nuclear weapon state status of India and Pakistan, yet, at the same time, the resolution calls on them, as well as Israel and North Korea, to join the NPT. That would mean joining as non-nuclear weapon states – again, it is an old call that has been, and will continue to be, utterly ignored. Yet another such call has little meaning. Promoting universality of the NPT is obviously welcome, but given that it is not about to happen, the urgent task now is to find ways of bringing the outliers meaningfully into the collective pursuit of the envisioned “world without nuclear weapons.”

The draft resolution notably makes no references to the substantial agreements reached in the 1995 and 2000 NPT review conferences. At those events nuclear weapon states not only committed to total nuclear disarmament, they promised interim measures to enhance transparency related to their arsenals, to undertake regular reporting to NPT member states on progress made in implementing Article VI, to de-alert deployed systems, to undertake unilateral disarmament initiatives, to make disarmament irreversible, to pursue more effective verification measures, to place surplus fissile materials under IAEA inspections, and so on – none of these pre-existing promises receive acknowledgement in the draft resolution.

The UN Security Council’s attention to nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation is to be celebrated, and that it will be led by the United States is doubly worthy of celebration. On matters of substance it will be a modest start, but on the political level it promises a genuinely new beginning.

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[i] For an account of the UNSC’s approach to disarmament, see: Ernie Regehr, “The Security Council and nuclear disarmament.” Jane Boulden, Ramesh Thakur, and Thomas G. Weiss, eds. The United Nations and Nuclear Orders, United Nations University Press, 2009, pp. 31-51.

[ii] The September 14 draft by the US is available at Politico.Com:

[iii] “Note By The President Of The Security Council, S/23500, 31 January 1992.

[iv] Christopher A. Ford, “Debating Disarmament: Interpreting Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 14, No. 3, November 2007.

[v] A good statement on what the UNSC resolution should include is offered by the Middle Powers Initiative (September 2009).

[vi] Laura Rozen, “Obama’s UN nonproliferation resolution,” 14 September 2009.

[vii] Two recent postings here focus on the CD stalemate:  “Finally, the UN’s Geneva disarmament forum gets to work,” 1 June 2009. “Has the stalemate returned?” 13 August 2009.

[viii] Paul Meyer, “Breakthrough and Breakdown at the Conference on Disarmament: Assessing the Prospects for an FM(C)T. Arms Control Today, September 2009.


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