Sleep-walking on nuclear non-proliferation & disarmament

Gareth Evans

The short point to make is that for the last ten years the world has been sleep-walking when it comes to issues of nuclear proliferation and disarmament. The threats are very real. There are still something like 27000 nuclear warheads in the existing nuclear armed states, there is a real risk of further proliferation with new countries acquiring weapons capacity and status.

There is a real risk as we now know since 9/11 of terrorist actors of one kind or another, with a determination to cause huge damage by getting access to nuclear material and using that to create even greater havoc and devastation.

There is also the risk associated with a rapid expansion of civil nuclear energy in the decades ahead if we are not very careful to ensure that that expansion is associated with very stringent safeguards and security measures.

So there are a lot of things to be concerned about - the issue of nuclear weapons did not go away with the end of the Cold War. The trouble is that for the last ten years we just haven't been seriously addressing these issues at all.

Outside the framework of the Non-proliferation Treaty two new countries have acquired weapons, India and Pakistan, joining Israel which has long had them (although not acknowledging that). We've also had problems with North Korea breaking out from that Treaty after having been a member of it for many years, and we have the present problems with Iran - uncertainty about its intentions.

We've had a complete failure over the last decade to advance disarmament and arms control negotiations between the US and Russia. The Conference on Disarmament in Geneva has ground to a halt, taking no action at all to negotiate anything for more than the last decade. We had the failure of the 2005 Non-proliferation Treaty Review Conference to agree on any language at all. We had the 2005 World Summit of the United Nations when 150 leaders failed to agree on any language at all.

That's the bad news. The good news is that everybody now senses there is a new opportunity to take some really serious action on both the non-proliferation and the disarmament front.

Most of that optimism is associated with the new Administration in the United States under President Obama, who in the few months that he has been in office has made very clear his commitment to fundamentally changing direction.

President Obama's Summit with President Medvedev of Russia has already born specific fruit with their agreement to immediately initiate a further round of negotiations for deep reductions in the strategic arsenals of Russia and the United States. As a result we go into the Review Conference of the Non-proliferation Treaty next year with a little bit more optimism than we might otherwise have had.

But the truth of the matter is that these issues are not going to be fixed by the US alone - or by the United States and Russia, even though between them they have about 95 per cent of the world's nuclear warheads - 95 per cent of the 27000 that I referred to.

The truth of the matter is that we will not make major progress unless there is commitment to this from all major states in the world - there has to be that buy-in and commitment to doing things on both the non-proliferation and the disarmament side.

So that's why this Commission was initiated - to gather up a global constituency, not just the United States-Russia, but to bring together high level players from all around the world to come together and think through what kind of an action agenda would be required if we were to make major progress in solving the problem of proliferation and ultimately getting to zero, that is, ultimately eliminating nuclear weapons completely.

We believed that there was a need to start a high level political debate among all the key governments and a need to find a way of energising civil society so that we have some bottom up commitment from the public's around the world, not just from key governments: these convictions were the rationale for creating this new high level Commission.

[Click here to read the full transcript of the press conference]