Obama Seeks U.N. Backing for Nuke-Free World


U.S. Pres. Barack Obama speaks with British Prime Minister Gordon prior to the Security Council Summit on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. Credit: Bomoon Lee | IPSNuclear Abolition News | IPS

By Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS (IPS) - When Barack Obama chaired a summit meeting of the Security Council Thursday - a historic first for a U.S. president - his primary motive was to push for his ambitious, long-term agenda for "a world without nuclear weapons". JAPANESE

A resolution adopted unanimously by the 15 members of the U.N.'s most powerful political body expressed grave concern about the threat of nuclear proliferation and the need for international action to prevent it.

Providing specific time frames, he said, the next 12 months "will be absolutely critical in determining whether this resolution and our overall efforts to stop the spread and use of nuclear weapons are successful".

"Today, the Security Council endorsed a global effort to lock down all vulnerable nuclear materials within four years," Obama told the heads of state participating in the meeting.

The United States, he affirmed, will host a summit meeting next April to advance this goal further and help all nations achieve it.

Obama singled out Iran and North Korea, urging "full compliance" on existing Security Council resolutions that call on both countries to cease their nuclear weapons programmes.

Still, he said, "this is not about singling out individual nations. It's about standing up for the rights of all nations who do live up to their (nuclear) responsibilities."

The resolution adopted Thursday, however, did not mention either Iran or North Korea by name, although most statements in the Council did.

"That was perhaps the price paid for getting the support of China and Russia for the adoption of the resolution," an Asian diplomat told IPS.

Both veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council have continued to be protective of Iran and North Korea primarily because of their political, economic and military interests with both would-be nuclear powers.

"If Iran and North Korea were singled out in the resolution," the diplomat said, "it was very unlikely the United States would have had a unanimous resolution."

But several speakers continued to condemn North Korea and Iran in their statements - perhaps to compensate for the shortcoming in the resolution.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy pointedly said: "We are facing two major proliferation crises, in Iran and North Korea."

Year after year, he said, they have been worsening. "How, before the eyes of the world, could we justify meeting without tackling them?"

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown proposed that countries should form a global bargain on nuclear weapons, including tougher sanctions on countries such as Iran and North Korea, while offering civil nuclear power to non-nuclear states ready to renounce plans for nuclear weapons.

He also called for a commitment from countries with nuclear weapons to reduce their arsenals.

The five declared nuclear powers - all permanent members of the Security Council - are the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia. The undeclared nuclear powers include Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea (with Iran knocking at the door).

John Burroughs, executive director of the New York-based Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy, told IPS that U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, who piloted the resolution, was clear that the resolution would not be about particular countries.

But this could have been worked out with Russia and China ahead of time, he said.

"From my perspective, whether the countries are named is a false controversy. The resolution is about norms applicable to all countries, and it's supposed to be also a resolution about disarmament as well as non-proliferation, and it is to some degree," Burroughs said.

So it is not intended to be a resolution about particular proliferation situations.

The resolution also makes perfectly clear, without naming the countries, that they should comply with the relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions.

"Why not have a controversy about why countries that have not complied with disarmament commitments are not named, to go along with the controversy about naming Iran and North Korea?" Burroughs asked.

Dr. Ian Anthony, research coordinator at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), one of the world's best known arms control and disarmament think tanks, said the resolution establishes a framework for international cooperation to tackle a complicated set of problems over an extended period.

The willingness of the Security Council to remain engaged in implementing this programme of work will be seen by the wider UN membership as a key indicator of whether they should play an active role in relevant projects, he said.

"The main challenge for the Security Council will be to sustain their engagement and to implement the package of measures listed in the resolution in the face of competing priorities and urgent challenges in the economic and financial sphere, climate change and in relation to other urgent issues," Anthony told IPS.

Burroughs said that while the resolution did not name Iran or North Korea, it makes quite clear that the Security Council will retain its role in policing compliance with non-proliferation obligations.

But he pointed out that the resolution still lacks a call for a halt to production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons by all states possessing nuclear arsenals, pending negotiation of a treaty.

"It appears that China prevented its inclusion," Burroughs said.

A halt to production of fissile materials in South Asia would be significant because it would essentially end the serious quantitative nuclear arms race there, he added.

"India and Pakistan are the only states known to be currently producing materials for weapons (Israel might be), but China may want to preserve the option," he added.

SIPRI's Anthony argued that the discovery that not all states entered into agreements in good faith was a serious blow to the basic principle on which arms control rests, namely that agreed rules of self-restraint would be respected by all parties under their own responsibility.

In addition, he said, the threats posed by non-state actors planning acts of mass impact terrorism were not historically a part of arms control discussions.

"Arms control has tried to adapt to changes in the security environment by increasing confidence in compliance with existing agreements and by denying groups planning mass impact terrorist attacks access to the most dangerous capabilities," he added. Thursday's Security Council meeting indicates that the United States wants to exercise responsible leadership within a multilateral framework.

"This is the best way to try and establish a fair, inclusive and effective implementation of the multitude of new legal, political and operational tools created in recent years, many of which are noted in the preamble to the Security Council Resolution," Anthony added.

In a historic speech he made in Prague last April, Obama spoke of a world without nuclear weapons.

Burroughs said one point found in the Prague speech is notably lacking in the resolution: reduction of the role of nuclear weapons in security strategies.

Nor are there innovations regarding arms control/disarmament or the role of the Security Council in that regard.

For example, he said, there is no initiation of a disarmament process involving states possessing nuclear arsenals; no establishment of a subsidiary body on non-proliferation and disarmament, or support for reform of the Council to make it more effective in responding to violations of non-proliferation and disarmament obligations.

Additionally, there are no steps to fulfill the Council's responsibility under the U.N. Charter to propose plans for disarmament.

In contrast, there is detailed elaboration and development of non-proliferation and anti-terrorism measures.

In sum, while the resolution robustly asserts and develops the Security Council's role in preventing the acquisition of nuclear weapons by additional states and by terrorists, its current significance lies mostly in the signal that the Obama administration intends to pursue the existing arms control agenda.

To live up to Obama's Prague commitment, the resolution will need to pave the way for a more ambitious effort, not only to contain the spread of nuclear weapons, but to end reliance on them by existing nuclear powers and set in motion the process of their elimination, Burroughs declared.