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UN: Official Sees Waning Will For Disarmament Treaties

  • Robert McMahon

World leaders addressing the UN General Assembly next week are expected to raise alarm about weapons of mass destruction and proliferation. But such concerns have so far not translated into reviving disarmament initiatives that have stalled since the late 1990s. The UN's new under-secretary-general for disarmament tells RFE/RL that he's troubled by the lack of progress on global arms control and disarmament efforts even as policymakers obsess over the threats posed by terrorism.

New York, 22 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Nobuyasu Abe occupies a bright, immaculate office on the 31st floor of the UN headquarters building, commanding broad views of New York.

But a pervasive gloom sets in as he discusses his job as the new under-secretary-general for disarmament affairs.

Abe, a career diplomat from Japan, is charged with promoting a wide range of arms control initiatives fostered under UN auspices.

This autumn he will try to spur progress in discussions in the UN General Assembly's disarmament committee. But in a recent interview with RFE/RL, Abe pointed to troubling signs on many fronts.

Earlier this month, the world's sole multilateral forum for disarmament negotiations concluded its fifth straight year without reaching agreement on a program of work.

Abe said the failures of the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament show that weapons reduction is no longer the priority issue it was during the Cold War era.

"There's not much public, popular pressure on the negotiators in Geneva or New York to get down [to] the work of disarmament negotiations. Indeed, from time to time there are different views among the negotiating states. That's quite natural. But if there's enough pressure they will work hard to get a compromise and they can start working, but unfortunately there's not much pressure," Abe said.

This year's session was close to reaching agreement on starting negotiations on banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. But China sought to add to the agenda the prevention of an arms race in outer space, leading to a stalemate. China has concerns about the extent of the U.S. national missile defense plan.

The United States does not want to link the issues in formal negotiations.

Abe is also concerned about the delayed entry into force of the treaty banning the testing of nuclear weapons. It was signed seven years ago but cannot enter into force until ratified by a number of key states, such as the United States, China, Iran, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea.

In addition, North Korea has now joined India, Pakistan, and Israel as non-parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Abe says the ongoing six-party talks with North Korea are crucial for maintaining the integrity of the NPT. He says the international community needs to establish a strong precedent for dealing with noncompliance with the treaty.

"If you try to hesitate from taking hard steps you may end up with a disastrous situation where you have a country succeeding in the nuclear program to acquire nuclear weapons, and test them or put them on missiles. Then the whole nonproliferation regime -- NPT treaty and things -- will all fall apart," Abe said.

The UN's regulatory body, the International Atomic Energy Agency, on 19 September again pressed North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program and allow international inspections.

The IAEA's governing board last week also issued a warning to Iran, saying it has until the end of October to prove it has no secret weapons program. If not, Iran's case could be referred to the UN Security Council, which could impose sanctions.

Abe says he's aware of the position among some developing states that acquiring nuclear arms is a way of gaining leverage with nuclear powers in the world. But he says a quicker path to stability would be through disarming.

"If you look at the countries today where there is that kind of argument, a great many of them are countries which have very serious problems. Look around, otherwise. Those countries who were considered to have nuclear potentiality early on when the treaty came into force but gave up that option, most of them are very prosperous, democratic, wealthy countries," Abe said.

Abe, a former Japanese ambassador to Saudi Arabia, is especially concerned about the failure of disarmament initiatives in the Middle East.

Although Iraq's nuclear ambitions are no longer a concern and Iran faces mounting scrutiny, Arab states are still pressing for Israel to reveal its atomic weapons programs. Israel has never admitted that it possesses nuclear weapons but has refused to sign the NPT.

There are also few adherents in the Middle East to the Chemical Weapons Convention. U.S. officials last week again accused Syria of seeking to develop chemical weapons.

The charged atmosphere in the Middle East, says Abe, makes it essential that disarmament measures advance, regardless of the state of political affairs.

"[The] Middle East is the biggest challenge in the world in terms of disarmament and non-proliferation. A number of those treaties, NPT, chemical weapons convention, biological weapons convention, these things you almost have a black hole in the Middle East," he said.

The UN disarmament chief says his department will place special emphasis on education programs spelling out the dangers of weapons of mass destruction. He believes a failure to comprehend the damages of atomic weapons is contributing to the sluggish pace of arms talks.

"I'm afraid the political leaders, people in the world today, are forgetting about the terrible damage that nuclear bombs cause so we are trying to maintain the memory and to propagate the magnitude of the damage of those weapons of mass destruction," Abe said.

Abe says even in his native Japan this awareness is lacking. He says there has been a decline in the number of visitors to memorials in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, cities destroyed in 1945 by the first atomic bombs used in warfare.