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International Peace and Security

Vienna, Austria

Rome, Italy

Let me begin by thanking the Di Vittorio Foundation for inviting me to participate in this seminar on 'Weapons of Mass Destruction and United Nations Reform'. The Di Vittorio Foundation has made substantial contributions to an informed debate on the relationship between scientific and societal issues, and its recent focus - on issues such as arms control, peace building and human security - I find both timely and relevant in view of current world events. I am also pleased to re-join, in this panel, my former colleague and Director-General of the United Nations Office at Vienna, Professor Pino Arlacchi, someone who has contributed much in his own right to our thinking on human security in general and drug control in particular.

In the aftermath of the recent conflict in Iraq, a central question the international community will have to face is whether the pre-emptive use of force should be the model to address threats of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and other threats to international peace and security, or whether alternatives exist that are less unpredictable in outcome and less costly in terms of human life.

Nuclear Deterrence: the Cold War and Its Aftermath

Until the end of the Cold War, a bipolar world maintained international security through a combined system of alliances, spheres of influence, global and regional multilateral institutions - including the United Nations - and ultimately a balance of power through nuclear deterrence. With the disintegration of the Soviet empire, however, a uni-polar world has emerged that has dramatically changed the landscape of international security, with the disappearance of the Cold War rivalries and many of the associated old alliances and spheres of influence.

But while in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War many preached the advent of a new world order - and expressed hope of a new paradigm of security that would be rooted in the UN system of collective security - these hopes have not materialized and that new order has not emerged. For while the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Empire has permitted the re-emergence of many nations and identities, it has also reawakened old ethnic, religious and national conflicts that, as a result of restraints and often oppression during the Cold War, had lain dormant both between and within nations.

And with the United Nations unable to adjust its system of collective security in time to cope with the changing realities and the new threats, many of the new conflicts have been mishandled, as in Burundi, Rwanda and Somalia, or dealt with by sidestepping the UN collective security system, as in Kosovo. And all the while, old conflicts such as those in the Middle East, the Korean Peninsula and Jammu and Kashmir, continue to fester.

But with all the changes in the international landscape since the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons have ironically continued to hold a position of prominence as the currency of ultimate power. For although a number of countries such as South Africa and Ukraine have given up their nuclear weapons or nuclear weapon ambitions, and although the Warsaw Pact has been dissolved, reliance on nuclear weapons for their deterrent effect continues unabated, under nuclear umbrella arrangements such as that of NATO - which now covers most of the countries of the defunct Warsaw Pact - and other Western-led alliances.

The Shift Toward Pre-emption

It is clear that, since the attacks of September 2001, the doctrine of pre-emptive strikes has gained in prominence in certain strategic thinking, because of the belief that relying on deterrence alone could fail, with catastrophic consequences. According to the new thinking, deterrence was a viable defence strategy during the Cold War because likely attackers were generally expected to behave 'rationally', given their interest in self preservation. But in the current climate, unanticipated opponents have emerged, and some of them cannot be easily deterred, as they are not interested in self-preservation.

Thus, despite the lessening of traditional threats based on conflicts among major powers, these threats have been replaced by the danger posed by international terrorist groups. Fears are increasing that radicals or terrorist groups might obtain weapons of mass destruction from unstable or hostile regimes. Thus, it is becoming apparent that the threshold for the use of force by States is in danger of being lowered below that established by the United Nations Charter.

The Current Picture: the arms control regime under stress

With these new threats and new strategic thinking, it is not surprising that the objectives embodied in the Treaty for the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), developed in the early seventies to control the further spread of nuclear weapons and to move towards nuclear disarmament, are under growing stress. Nearly 30 000 nuclear weapons continue to exist in the five nuclear weapon States (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States). And of the three countries that remain outside the NPT, two - India and Pakistan - have in recent years demonstrated their nuclear weapons capability, while the third - Israel - is generally presumed to have them. Most recently North Korea, a party to the NPT, has decided to renounce the Treaty, and is suspected of working to acquire nuclear weapons. And in the aftermath of the events of September 2001, as I have already noted, the proliferation threat gained a new dimension: the prospect of transnational groups seeking to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction.

Developments are underway in some of the nuclear weapon States to move away from relying exclusively on offensive weapons, and instead to develop and add defensive systems - and to shift from a strategy based on reliance on nuclear weapons as a 'deterrent' to one based on their possible use. Plans are being implemented in the US to deploy a national missile defence system, which could have an impact on efforts to advance the cause of nuclear disarmament. Funds have also been authorized in the US for 'research' on the development of low-yield nuclear weapons that could be used in specified situations, such as destroying deeply buried military targets. And it is reported that discussions have taken place in some of the weapon States regarding the possibility of actually using nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon States that are deemed to be in violation of their non-proliferation commitments, or are suspected of developing weapons of mass destruction.

Faced with this new situation, must we conclude that it is futile to try to combat the spread of weapons of mass destruction and rely on a collective, rule-based system of international security - and that we have to acquiesce to living in a world plagued with the constant threat of a doomsday scenario? I certainly hope not. But reliance on a system of collective security that is not dependent on weapons of mass destruction will require bold thinking, a willingness to work together, and sustained political and civil society effort. The following steps, among others, are in my view urgently required.

First, we must modernize and revamp the collective security system of the United Nations Charter - in terms of both preventive diplomacy and enforcement action. This system was built half a century ago to establish world order on the basis of common values and principles: respect for human rights and basic human dignity; economic and social development for all; the settlement of disputes through peaceful means; and prohibition of the use of force except in self defence or as a collective security measure authorized by the Security Council. The system, however, has not worked as planned because of the Cold War, and its potential has never been fully realized. On the other hand, to abandon it is to squander the opportunities it can afford for a peaceful and safe world and revert instead to a Hobbesian world.

What must be fixed? To start, the Security Council should be reconstituted, to include the major political and economic powers in today's world. It is not realistic that countries like Brazil, Germany, India and Japan, for example, continue to be excluded from permanent or semi-permanent membership in the Council.

In addition, new working concepts, tools and methods are needed to ensure that the Council can effectively shoulder its role as the body with 'the primary responsibility' for the maintenance of international peace and security. For example, mechanisms should be in place for early intervention to settle emerging disputes through mediation, arbitration and other means - and forces should be at the disposal of the Security Council that are adequate to deal with the myriad post-Cold-War situations and disputes - from controlling borders to preventing civil wars to assisting in nation building. The forces required are not large in most cases, but their impact could be crucial in avoiding heinous crimes, such as the genocide and cannibalism we have seen in Rwanda and Congo, and in pre-empting these situations and disputes from becoming threats to international peace and security.

Smart sanctions should also be developed that target the offending government regimes rather than their subjects; some ideas that could be pursued include restrictions on senior government officials, such as travel bans, freezing of assets, and indictments before the newly established international criminal tribunal. And use of the veto power should be subject to agreed limitations - possibly only those situations in which the use of force is to be authorized - to prevent having the entire Council fall victim to squabbling among its permanent members. The Council must also regard efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, as well as the suppression of human rights, as clear 'threats to international peace and security', in order to be able to intervene early - and pre-emptively, where appropriate - in these situations. In addition to international terrorism, these are the two most serious threats to peace and security in today's world.

Second, we must create an environment in which the use of force, as foreseen in the UN Charter, is limited to situations of self-defence - in case of an armed attack - or enforcement measures duly authorized by the Security Council. Pre-emptive strikes without Security Council authorization, however tempting, can send the global community into uncharted and dangerous territory, and could easily be misused. Only an action by the Council will bring legitimacy and international support to such a measure. More importantly, these limitations will restrict the use of force to those situations where force is the last and only alternative.

Thirdly, we must take concrete steps to delegitimize the acquisition or use of WMD. The existing situation is complicated because the nuclear weapon States continue to regard their own nuclear weapons as a hedge against not only nuclear, but also chemical and biological weapon threat, conversely, some non-nuclear-weapon States are reluctant to embrace the chemical or biological weapon bans, because of the nuclear division of the world into "haves" and "have-nots".

Clearly, a new approach is needed - an approach that applies to all WMD, with a number of essential features: universal adherence to conventions that ban WMD; a clear road map and the determination to eliminate all WMD in all States, to abolish over time the divide between the nuclear "haves" and "have nots"; new doctrines of security that do not rely on the deterrent effect or the actual use of nuclear weapons; and reliable enforcement measures, under the aegis of the Security Council, to effectively counter efforts by any country or transnational group to illicitly acquire WMD. These enforcement measures could include the possibility of holding a small arsenal of nuclear weapons under the collective custody of the permanent members of the Security Council to deal with such situations. And the overall approach must be supported by robust and intrusive systems of verification for all WMD conventions - which could be reinforced, in the nuclear field, by restrictions on the use of weapon-useable material (plutonium and high enriched uranium) in civilian nuclear programmes. These restrictions could include limiting the processing of such material - and the production of new material through reprocessing and enrichment - to international centres, under appropriate rules of transparency, control and assurance of supply.

Fourth, we must develop a comprehensive regime to ensure that WMD and their components will not fall into the hands of terrorists. This demands an effective global approach to the physical protection of nuclear and other radioactive material and associated facilities, better controls for chemical and biological agents, and an effective approach to export controls worldwide.

Fifth, we must address decisively those chronic disputes that create the greatest incentives for acquiring WMD. It is instructive that the majority of suspected efforts to acquire WMD are to be found in the Middle East, a hotbed of instability for over half a century. In any future Middle East settlement, it is essential that regional security arrangements be pursued as part and parcel of such a settlement, including: the establishment of a region free from WMD; limitations on conventional weapons; observation and peacekeeping forces; and security assurances and guarantees by the Security Council. The same should apply, mutatis mutandis, in any future settlement of longstanding disputes, including the ones on the Korean Peninsula and in South Asia.

Finally, we must work collectively to address global sources of insecurity and instability, including: the widening divide between rich and poor, in which two-fifths of the world's population lives on less than two dollars per day; the chronic lack in many parts of the world of good governance and respect for human rights - with despots taking shelter under the cloak of "sovereignty"; and the increasingly perceived schisms between cultures and civilizations. Effective amelioration of these conditions that give rise to insecurity will require adequate financial assistance by the developed countries - assistance that now shamefully stands at only one quarter of one percent of the combined gross national income of the developed countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Effective remedy will also require the dynamic involvement of international institutions, governments and civil society to disseminate practices of good governance, and to monitor respect for human rights. Global respect for human rights should be the overriding norm, irrespective of any consideration of political expediency or short term interests.

Increased effort must also be made to encourage interaction among cultures and people in order to promote mutual appreciation of our differences. Every effort should be made to appreciate that what unites us is far greater than what divides us - and equally that what separates us, in terms of our beliefs, customs and traditions, are differences in which we should take pride and which should not be scorned, but cherished. We should strive to sow the seeds of a universal belief that none of us as mortals holds a monopoly on the ultimate truth; and yet all of us are entitled to seek it, each in his or her own way.

This is a tall order. But if our aim is to spare our children the scourge of a new century of war in which humanity could self-destruct, we have no alternative.


I will conclude by re-emphasizing both the challenges and the opportunities of a new world security order. In our interdependent world no country, no matter how powerful, can address its security threats without international co-operation. Conversely, in our globalized society - with the rapid movement of people, goods and ideas, opportunities exist as never before for building a global village based on equality and mutual respect. But for this to take place, reliance on multilateral norms and institutions is simply a must.

Nearly a century ago, the failure of the League of Nations sowed the seeds of another destructive world war. If the United Nations - our human project - were to fail either through benign neglect or willful undermining, the result might well be catastrophic destruction on an unmatched scale.

Last update: 16 Feb 2018


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