Breaking the deadlock on nuclear disarmament

May 20, 2009

John Duncan – John Duncan is the United Kingdom Ambassador for Multilateral Arms Control and Disarmament. He comments regularly via Twitter and on his own Blog. The opinions expressed are his own. -

Nuclear disarmament has been rather knocked out of the foreign affairs headlines over recent weeks by more immediate concerns over potential pandemics, the Indian election and the endgame of the long running conflict in Sri Lanka. But last week while the world’s media were looking elsewhere the international arms control and disarmament community took a remarkable step to break what has been called the “Decade of Deadlock”.

For more than ten years, interminable wrangling over arcane procedural points has prevented agreement over even the agenda for the major Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty which takes place in New York every 5 years. Hardly surprising then that the last Review Conference in 2000 2005 ended in stalemate. Many feared that the next one in 2010 would suffer the same fate.

However diplomats meeting in New York at the preparatory meeting (known as a PrepCom) which concluded on Friday surprised many by rapidly agreeing the agenda and procedural issues for next year’s conference. It seems they had at last heeded the calls for action by senior world leaders, both past (see the numerous op-eds by Messrs Gorbachev, Shultz, Kissinger, Rifkind and others) and present (Presidents Obama, Medvedev, Sarkozy) and Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s call to see the nuclear debate as intrinsically linked to the other momentous challenges we face in today’s world and that these challenges are best addressed together.

In their Arms Trade Treaty initiative, the British have shown that modern grand coalition diplomacy can succeed, working with countries as diverse as Argentina, Kenya and Japan to confront the scourge of conventional weapons proliferation, which so seriously undermines international efforts to promote peace and prosperity in the worlds poorest regions.

The challenge for nuclear proliferation is as just as great where the UK aims to turn common purpose into common action in our shared global society by securing agreement on a comprehensive multilateral strategy to allow nations safe and secure access to civil nuclear power, reduce the risk of proliferation from civil programmes and achieve real progress in multilateral nuclear disarmament.

But is a community who have spent quite so long arguing over technicalities well placed to deliver the sort of political vision in the nuclear field set out in President Obama’s Prague Speech earlier this year? Only time will tell. Emerging blinking into the harsh light of the policy debate last week in New York clearly caught some unawares. Despite coming close to an unprecedented agreement on a series of detailed policy recommendations on the substance of the debate for next years Review Conference, I suspect that we will indeed need the President’s proposed Nuclear Security Summit to inject some more of that vision and energy into a community which “has seen it all before”.

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon was doing his part this week in Geneva flanked by the Algerian and Swiss Foreign Minister’s calling for another part of the multilateral diplomatic architecture, the Conference on Disarmament to get down to work on a new Fissile Material Cut Off Treaty, a basic building block, together with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, that would cap the further development of nuclear weapons and set us on the path towards a world free of nuclear weapons.


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