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New nuclear disarmament push

October 20, 2016

Fresh UN talks aiming to rid the world of atomic weapons are being sought for next year by 107 countries. Skeptics include Germany and Australia. Lobbyists expect conference plans to gel at the UN assembly next week.

Russland Teikowo RS-24 Jars Rakete
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) said on Thursday that 107 countries had declared themselves co-sponsors of a draft UN resolution known as L41 - seeking to set up talks on a total ban on nuclear weapons in New York next year.

Advocates of the three-page draft include Austria, Brazil, Indonesia, New Zealand, South Africa, Nigeria and Mexico, and outgoing UN chief Ban Ki-moon, who last month said that existing disarmament schemes had "come to a standstill" amidgrowing tensions.

The sponsors' resolution proposes two negotiating conferences to be held over 20 days - in March and then June 2017 - at UN headquarters and involving all UN member states as well as civil organizations.

Most nations agreed that prohibition was the only appropriate course of action, ICAN said earlier this week - although support from major nuclear players evaded the disarmament drive. 

The resolution to formally schedule the conferences was formally submitted to the General Assembly last week. Still diffident, said ICAN, were Germany and Australia.

Japan Gedenken der Opfer des Atombombenabwurfs auf Hiroshima
Prayers during this year's Hiroshima remembranceImage: picture alliance/dpa/K. Ota

Desirable but impracticable

Last month in Berlin, German foreign ministry spokesman Martin Schäfer said that the proposed new abolition treaty was "impracticable" because it would "devalue" the existing nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that binds Russia and the USA, which between them possess some 90 percent of the world's arsenals.

Such powers would "never accede to such as treaty," said Schäfer, acknowledging Germany's links within NATO.

Germany's stance did not contradict its long-term nuclear-free goal, Schäfer added, saying the existing NPT system contained essential verification safeguards.

That was why, he said, Germany had decided not to approve the new-style talks recommended in Geneva in August by a UN forum created back in 2012.

In 2012, Germany had voted in favor of the Geneva-based "open-ended working group" (OEWG). But, subsequently, it was among 22 nations, including France, Russia and the USA, which voted "no" on a draft of the convention.

Around 15,800 warheads worldwide

Spread around the world are some 15,800 atomic warheads, even though a founding resolution passed by the UN in 1946 sought total elimination - in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Infografik Atomsprengköpfe weltweit Englisch

German peace activists claim that up to 20 US warheads are located at Büchel, an airbase in the hilly, rural Eiffel region in western Germany.

US-ally Australia also sceptical

Last Monday, at a UN assembly session,Australian diplomat John Quinn said the proposed new treaty would be "ineffective" and even potentially dangerous because it risked undermining the NPT.

New treaty advocate, Einar Gunnarsson representing Iceland and other Nordic countries, warned that the world was at a critical juncture "under the shadow of international tension."

Asked about a total phase out earlier this year, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said that the world would have nuclear weapons "as far into the future as I can see."

Five-phase elimination

The proposed "Nuclear Weapons Convention" would require nations already possessing warheads to destroy their arsenals in five phases, first by taking their weapons off alert.

The deepest initial cuts would be made by the US and Russia - at their own cost. A fund would be established should smaller powers end up in financial difficulty.

The convention would also prohibit development, stockpiling and even threats to use nuclear weapons as practiced in the recent past by reclusive North Korea.

The UN would establish an agency to implement the convention, including a technical secretariat and an executive to coordinate consultations between signatory nations.

Tensions at worst since 1973

Last Friday, Russia's UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin said tensions with the US were "probably" at the worst since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

Last month, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited the Minot air force base in North Dakota, saying modernization of US atomic arsenal had top priority.

Ready in minutes

In Berlin last month, peace campaigners set up a mock nuclear installation in front of parliament.

"Most people do not realize that these nuclear weapons continue to exist - hidden away in missile silos and in submarines," said campaigning artist Joe Hill.

Roughly 1,800 of the 15,800 warheads around the world were able to be "launched in minutes," said Holger Güssefeld of the World Future Council.

"The launch of any one of these by accident, miscalculation or intent could cause catastrophic destruction," he said.

ipj/msh (Reuters, AP)