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Putting Teeth in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Regime

Vienna, Austria

It is a pleasure for me to deliver the 2006 Karlsruhe Lecture. My wife asked me a few days ago why I was so excited to be visiting a group of distinguished dentists. I told her it was the first time for me to open my mouth in front of dentists and actually be able to speak.

But more seriously, I believe it is important that our common challenges in the search for global security are outlined to dentists - as well as to people from every profession and background. We are one human family, connected as never before, and facing an uncertain future. As one family we will succeed together, to live in peace and dignity, or we will fail together.

Today my talk will be focused on what can be done to strengthen the existing order for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and move towards nuclear disarmament.

But I also will explain why, in my view, this order will be of limited value if we fail to understand and address the major causes of insecurity in our world. If we want to "put teeth", real teeth, into the nuclear arms control regime, then not only must we examine the structure of the regime, but equally important, we must examine the social and security environment in which this regime operates.

Twentieth Century Changes: Technology and Multilateralism

The 20th Century brought a number of fundamental changes to the international security landscape. I would like to discuss two of those changes because of their particular relevance to our efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons.

Technological Superiority: The Coming of the A-Bomb
The first change was "technological". With the advent of submarines, fighter jets and missiles, traditional borders and barricades no longer afforded the same protection. Advances in technology figured prominently in the scale of devastation wrought in Europe and elsewhere during the two World Wars; they made it clear that technological superiority was key to military dominance.

The atomic bomb took that axiom to its ruthless extreme. The destruction of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were grim manifestations of the power of the atom.

The development of nuclear weapons also made clear that unrestrained global conflict would never again be an option. This reality was best expressed by Albert Einstein: "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought; but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones."

Socio-Political Evolution: The Rise of Multilateralism
The second 20th Century change was socio-political: the rise of multilateral alliances and institutions — both global and regional — as a means of keeping the peace.

Alliances between countries were not a new concept. However, the 20th Century alliances were different. As with wartime alliances, they were formed as a way to achieve greater strength against common enemies. But as peacetime alliances, they had an additional objective: to create the conditions and institutions to prevent and solve conflicts through peaceful means.

The League of Nations founded in 1919 eventually proved ineffective. But many of its basic objectives were inherited by the United Nations. Economic and social development. Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. The resolution of disputes through peaceful means. The regulation and reduction of armaments. And combating aggression through a system of collective security.

These two phenomena — advances in military technology, culminating in nuclear weapons, and the emergence of multilateral institutions, culminating in the United Nations and its system of organizations — became defining characteristics of the 20th Century security landscape.

The Cold War Security Framework and Its Aftermath

The Cold War security framework was, on its surface, symmetrical. Two superpowers, each backed by an enormous arsenal of nuclear weapons, each stockpile shaped to offset the threat of the other. Two blocs of nations — the alliances under NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Even within the evolving global alliance of the United Nations, East–West tensions frequently were the constructs through which decision-making was channeled.

The Post-Cold-War Era
The structure of the current global security system, by contrast, is somewhat asymmetrical. One remaining superpower. One military alliance of note - NATO, its membership expanded to include many countries of the former East Block.

In terms of the "protection" afforded by nuclear weapons, States continue to fall into two camps, of "insiders" and "outsiders". The "insiders" are those States that either possess nuclear weapons or are protected by a nuclear weapons holder. The "outsiders" are everyone else.

For some regions, the post-Cold-War security landscape has improved. In Europe, for example, a process of rejuvenation and democratization has continued to develop and expand eastwards, and a generally improved security system is being built based on integration and cooperation.

For many other regions, however, the security situation has deteriorated - driven by a number of factors.

First, the re-emergence and escalation of old conflicts. Since the end of the Cold War, ethnic and other conflicts that were once held in check have erupted to the surface. The recent wars in the former Yugoslavia are but one example. And longstanding regional conflicts, most notably in the Middle East, in South Asia and on the Korean Peninsula have continued to fester, and at times seem on the verge of yet another eruption.

Second, for the developing countries of the world, poverty and associated problems of lack of good governance — ranging from ineptness to tyranny — continue to influence the security environment. Standards of living are low. The resources are scarce to support development and the required institutions and infrastructure are lacking. The results in some cases are the stifling of civil rights and human rights abuses; and in other cases, civil wars and ethnic cleansing.

Third, the gap between North and South, rather than narrowing, is becoming more visible. Not only is there a continuing reliance on nuclear weapons for the protection of a limited few, but the global distribution of wealth and consumption also continues to be far from equitable. The "upper class" of the world - the wealthiest 20% - consume 80% of the resources. Over $1 trillion is spent annually on armaments, but less than 10 per cent of that amount - a mere $80 billion - on official development assistance to the developing parts of the world. Meanwhile, two-fifths of the world´s population lives on less than $2 per day. And 850 million people go to bed hungry every night.

These factors appear in different combinations in different countries and regions. In some cases, the local population bears a double burden: the "internal" hardships brought about by poverty, poor governance and repression; and the "external" hardships driven by the unwillingness or inability of the international community to engage fully to help resolve decades-long conflicts. Naturally, a pervading sense of humiliation, injustice and despair exists in these regions.

Responses: Sub-National, National and International
This post-Cold-War environment has produced a number of responses - at the sub-national and national level - which, in turn, influence the evolving security situation.

At the sub-national level, terrorism has planted its footprint on the new landscape. The conditions I have just described have made various countries and regions a fertile breeding ground for recruitment of disaffected youth by extremist groups. Violence perpetrated by such groups has risen to appalling levels, resulting in horrific tragedies from New York to Madrid, Istanbul to Bali. Extremist groups have grown increasingly sophisticated, both in their approach to technology and their ability to carry out complex missions - and have expressed a clear desire to acquire nuclear weapons.

At the national level, a number of countries have taken strategic steps towards becoming members of the "insider" club of those relying on nuclear weapons - as a means of reducing their vulnerability or projecting their power. India, Pakistan and Israel have succeeded, while remaining outside the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Other countries, such as North Korea, Iraq and Libya, have made clandestine efforts while being members of the regime, and North Korea seems to have succeeded. Iran continues to assert that its nuclear programme is entirely for peaceful purposes, but the fact that the programme was conducted so long in secret, and particularly that important aspects of it have not been clarified, has created a confidence deficit regarding its nature and its direction.

In the face of this changing security landscape and its varied security threats, the response by the international community has been ad hoc. Rather than a systematic collective effort to adapt to new threats and challenges, the actions of both States and multilateral institutions have tended to be uneven and uncoordinated.

Re-Engineering The Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Regime

Against this backdrop, we can better assess the effectiveness of existing mechanisms to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons - and we are also more equipped to identify the needed adjustments.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has for more than three decades formed the centrepiece of the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime. The Treaty has 189 members - an almost universal membership, with the notable exception of India, Israel and Pakistan. The NPT provides important security benefits - by giving assurance that, in the great majority of non-nuclear-weapon States, nuclear energy is not being misused for weapon purposes. The NPT is also the only legally binding agreement in which the five nuclear-weapon States party to the Treaty have committed themselves to move forward towards disarmament.

But much has changed since the NPT came into being. In the area of security, in addition to the renewed drive to acquire nuclear weapons on the part of States and extremist groups, globalization has brought with it two unwelcome developments: (1) the spread of nuclear technology and know-how; and (2) the emergence of clandestine nuclear procurement networks. These trends make the current challenges to the regime quite acute.

To address these challenges, I would offer five practical measures - adjustments to our current modus operandi. Let me briefly discuss each measure in turn.

Measure One: Tighten Controls for Access to Nuclear Fuel Cycle Technology
The task of restricting access to sensitive nuclear technology has grown increasingly difficult in recent years.

Globalization - with its reduction of trade barriers, interlinked financial networks, and ease of travel and information exchange - has made the industrial marketplace more complex and fluid. Far more countries have sophisticated engineering and industrial capacity. Six decades of research have created broad diversity in nuclear technology, making it more difficult to track procurement and sales. Electronic communication has simplified the transmission of component designs and the exchange of operating expertise. Many types of sensitive nuclear equipment are "dual use" - meaning that they could have both civilian and military applications - which makes it harder to justify export restrictions and, more importantly, to control trade of these items.

This creates a markedly different situation from that anticipated by the founders of the NPT in 1970. Under NPT rules, there is nothing illegal about any State having enrichment or reprocessing technology - processes that are basic to the production and recycling of nuclear reactor fuel - even though these operations can also produce the high enriched uranium or separated plutonium that can be used in a nuclear weapon.

An increasing number of countries have sought to master these parts of the "nuclear fuel cycle", both for economic reasons and, in some cases, as a good insurance policy for a rainy day - a situation that would enable them to develop at least a crude nuclear weapon in a short span of time, should their security outlook change. Whatever the reason, this know-how essentially transforms them into "latent" nuclear-weapon States. That is, regardless of their peaceful intentions, they now have the capability to create weapon-useable nuclear material, which experts consider to be the most difficult step towards manufacture of a nuclear weapon, and can use this capability as a deterrent. In today´s environment, this margin of security is simply not adequate.

Facing up to this vulnerability in the system, in 2004 I asked a group of experts to explore options for better control over these sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle. Their work and the ideas of others have helped to shape my thinking on how such controls might be put in place.

At the root of this measure is the concept of making these operations multinational, so that no one country would have exclusive control over the most sensitive parts of the fuel cycle. The first stage involves setting up a reserve fuel bank to be managed by the IAEA, so that every country in compliance with its non-proliferation commitments would be assured of getting the fuel needed for its bona fide peaceful nuclear activities.

By providing this assurance of supply, we can remove the incentive - and the justification - for each country to develop its own complete fuel cycle. We can then move towards an agreed moratorium on new national facilities, and begin work on multinational arrangements for enrichment, fuel production, waste disposal and reprocessing.

I have been encouraged by the range of supportive reactions to this initiative. The nuclear industry has been exploring strategies for fuel assurances. The US announced last September that it would make fuel available to be used under an assurance of supply scheme. Russia has also recently indicated that it intends to make fuel available to the IAEA, to be used as part of an Agency fuel bank. And President Putin has also announced that Russia is ready to establish international centres, operating under IAEA oversight, that would provide fuel cycle services, including uranium enrichment, on a non-discriminatory basis.

In my view, it is urgent that the international community develop a unified approach on this measure and begin moving forward. I should also point out that many countries are moving to introduce or expand their use of nuclear energy. A multinational approach to the sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle is therefore key to our efforts to prevent the emergence of more countries with the capability to develop nuclear weapons on short notice.

Measure Two: Accelerate Global Efforts to Protect Nuclear Material
A second measure is to accelerate global efforts to protect existing nuclear and radioactive material. It is essential that such material be kept out of the hands of extremist groups.

The IAEA´s Illicit Trafficking Database has, in the past decade, recorded more than 650 cases that involve efforts to smuggle such materials. I am relieved to say that only a relatively small number of these cases have involved high enriched uranium or plutonium. But this gives me little comfort. The sheer volume of activity makes it clear that such a marketplace exists. We must assume that, if an extremist group were to acquire nuclear or radioactive material, they would not hesitate to use it.

In late 2001, the IAEA launched a worldwide campaign to assist countries in enhancing the security of such material. In the years since, other international and regional organizations - as well as some private groups - have also taken a leading role in this effort. Protecting nuclear facilities. Identifying and securing powerful radioactive sources. Training law enforcement officials. Monitoring border crossings.

This effort is ongoing on every continent. In a little more than four years, experts estimate that perhaps 50 per cent of this work has been completed. But the vulnerability remains; we should always remember that security is only as strong as its weakest link.

Measure Three: Support Effective Nuclear Verification
A third measure is to ensure that the nuclear verification regime - the inspection and oversight mission of the IAEA - has the teeth it needs to be effective.

The primary key to effectiveness is the extent of access inspectors are given to information and locations. The discovery of a clandestine nuclear programme in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War made it painfully clear that the IAEA verification system was inadequate. At that time, IAEA verification activities were performed under legal agreements that focused IAEA verification primarily on the nuclear activities that a country had "declared" to the Agency. The limited rights of access to information and nuclear sites were not adequate for the IAEA to investigate whether there were "undeclared" activities.

The lessons learned in Iraq in the early 1990s prompted the international community to significantly expand the IAEA´s verification rights. These new rights were incorporated into a 1997 "additional protocol" to the basic verification agreement between each State and the Agency. This additional protocol gave IAEA inspectors expanded access to a country´s nuclear activities. Most importantly, it gave the Agency better verification tools to uncover possible "undeclared" activities.

But the introduction of the "model additional protocol" did not automatically solve the problem. The protocol only applies to those countries that actually subscribe to it. Today, out of the 189 countries that are party to the NPT, 118 still do not have additional protocols in force.

This half-hearted response, eight years after the adoption of the protocol, falls well short of our goal of a robust verification system. The Agency’s verification efforts cannot be fully effective until the additional protocol becomes the universal standard for verifying nuclear non-proliferation commitments. For this to happen, governments must take action, both by bringing their own agreements into force and by making sure that others do the same.

Another key to making verification effective is the availability of sufficient resources. IAEA verification today operates on an annual budget of about €100 million - a budget comparable to that of a local police department. With these resources, we oversee approximately 900 nuclear facilities in 71 countries. When you consider our growing responsibilities - as well as the need to stay ahead of the game - we are clearly operating on a shoestring budget.

It was gratifying to note, in the report of a UN High Level Panel just over a year ago, that the IAEA was considered "an extraordinary bargain" - based on the Agency’s considerable success over time in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons on such a limited budget. But in my view, it would be still more gratifying to deliver even better services, which would require increased funding.

Whether the issue is access, information, or resources, if the IAEA is to be fully effective, the governments we serve must provide a level of support equal to the task we are asked to perform. Said differently, we are only as effective as we are allowed to be.

Measure Four: Reinvigorate Disarmament Efforts
A fourth measure is to reinvigorate nuclear disarmament efforts. This is the responsibility of the nuclear-weapon States. In my view, they should lead by example, and their efforts should by necessity extend to the three countries that remain outside the non-proliferation and disarmament regime altogether: India, Israel and Pakistan.

Nuclear disarmament strategies to date have focused on the negotiation of bilateral arms control agreements between Russia and the United States - as the holders of the two largest nuclear arsenals - and on multilateral agreements designed to curb nuclear weapons testing and the further proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The end of the Cold War brought impetus to these efforts. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), which came into force in 1994, made significant cuts in the level of deployed strategic weapons. But this progress unfortunately slowed as the 1990s progressed. START II, signed in 1993, has been abandoned. The conclusion of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1996 was considered an important milestone, but the rejection of the Treaty by the US Senate in 1999 was a sharp setback. And negotiations on a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty - which would cap the production of materials to be used in nuclear weapons - have come to a virtual standstill.

That is not to say that there has been no disarmament activity or effort on the part of the nuclear-weapon States in the last few years. Both France and the United Kingdom unilaterally reduced their deployed nuclear weapons nearly a decade ago, leaving them with a few hundred each. The Moscow Treaty of 2002 committed the USA and Russia to reduce their numbers of operationally deployed strategic warheads to between 1700 and 2200 each by the end of 2012. The number of submarines, bombers and ballistic missile launchers capable of delivering nuclear weapons has been reduced.

But the problem with many of these recent nuclear disarmament efforts is that they are neither verifiable nor irreversible. As security perceptions change, non-deployed weapons can be redeployed. The bottom line is that today, 15 years after the end of the Cold War, we still have 27 000 nuclear warheads in existence. Even more baffling is that the major nuclear-weapon States continue to operate with their arsenals on hair-trigger alert. In the case of a warning of a possible launch of a nuclear attack, their leaders would have only 30 minutes to decide whether to retaliate. The risk of the nuclear devastation of entire nations continues to hinge on a matter of minutes.

And reliance on nuclear deterrence shows no signs of abating. Statements continue to be made by officials from nuclear-weapon States regarding the need, for the foreseeable future, to retain both nuclear forces and the capabilities to sustain and modernize those forces - as well as actually "using" them in certain circumstances.

Some contend that this continued emphasis on the strategic role of nuclear weapons by some States bears no relevance to the willingness of non-nuclear-weapon States to keep to their non-proliferation commitments. I disagree. An atmosphere of cynicism regarding the nuclear-weapon States adhering to their disarmament commitments is becoming widespread, and the regime is increasingly perceived by many to be discriminatory.

Every five years, the parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty gather to review progress and determine how to increase the effectiveness of the regime. At the 2005 NPT Review Conference last May, the division in views was so sharp that parties failed to reach any agreement on how to respond to what is clearly some of the most serious and urgent security threats of our time. This state of affairs was repeated at the UN World Summit in September, where the final declaration on global challenges did not even mention nuclear non-proliferation or disarmament. To my mind, in order to maintain the integrity of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, there is an urgent need to change the strategic posture given to nuclear weapons, and to drastically reduce existing weapons arsenals.

Ultimately, however, success in achieving nuclear disarmament will depend on having in place a system of collective security that provides a credible alternative to nuclear deterrence. Such a system will in all likelihood rely heavily on an effective United Nations Security Council - which brings us to the next point.

Measure Five: Increase the Effectiveness of the United Nations Security Council
A fifth measure would be to strengthen the international body entrusted with the primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security: the UN Security Council.

Too often, the Security Council’s engagement is inadequate, selective, or after the fact. The tragedies of recent years in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Darfur are cases in point. In the case of Rwanda in mid-1994, the Security Council was unable to move much beyond hand wringing, with the result that 800 000 people lost their lives in the span of a few months. In the Second Congo War, the Security Council´s efforts in the interest of diplomacy and peacekeeping were not enough to prevent the deaths of an estimated 3.8 million people.

And whatever the lessons learned from these admitted failures, the more recent case of Darfur continues to suffer from the inability of the Security Council to muster sufficient peacekeeping troops and sufficient resources to prevent the continuing atrocities.

In specific cases of arms control, the Security Council´s efforts have not been very systematic or successful.

    • In the case of Iraq, the Council for over a decade imposed a series of blanket economic sanctions - which were manipulated to the advantage of the ruthless regime in power, and resulted in the death and suffering of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. The Council could not later agree, in 2003, on either the need for or the timing of the use of force in Iraq.


    • In the case of India and Pakistan, the Council in 1998 requested both countries to stop further nuclear testing and the development of their nuclear weapons programme. The resolution was not implemented by either country.


    • In 1981, Israel was also requested to submit all its nuclear facilities to IAEA safeguards. The resolution was not implemented.


  • The case of North Korea was reported to the Council first in 1993, and again in 2003, in connection with North Korea´s decision to withdraw from the NPT. While the Council in 1993 adopted a resolution asking North Korea to reconsider its decision to withdraw from the Treaty, it was not able to agree on how to respond to the North Korean decision to finally withdraw in 2003.

I should also note here that the Security Council has not engaged itself in the whole question of formulating a system for the "regulation of armaments", as mandated by Article 26 of the UN Charter. This is, admittedly, a complex assignment, given that the five permanent members of the Council are also the five nuclear-weapon States recognized by the NPT. But for the Council´s approach to be equitable - a key to its credibility - this mandate cannot continue to be ignored.

In sum, when dealing with threats of nuclear proliferation and arms control, the Security Council has too often fallen short. It has made little effort to address nuclear proliferation threats in context, by dealing with the ‘drivers’ of insecurity that give rise to proliferation. It has not responded or followed up effectively to the emergence of new countries with nuclear weapons. And it has not exercised its arms limitation mandate. It is clearly time for the Security Council to be reformed, expanded and strengthened, as part of the current efforts to reform and revitalize the United Nations.


The current challenges to international peace and security, including those related to nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear arms control, cannot be wished away.

The five measures I have outlined - tightening controls, protecting materials, supporting verification, reinvigorating disarmament and strengthening the Security Council - are all necessary and urgent steps. But to return to my opening theme, all of these measures affect each other, and all will fail to protect us if the root causes of insecurity are not addressed.

The longer we delay in placing sensitive nuclear operations under multinational control, the more new countries will seek to build such facilities. The longer we take to protect global stocks of nuclear and radioactive material, the higher the risk they will fall into terrorist hands. The longer effective verification authority is not universally in place, the more the potential for clandestine activity. As long as disarmament measures are not progressing meaningfully, efforts to strengthen nuclear non-proliferation will be poisoned by cynicism, and more countries will try to "join the major leagues". And the longer the Security Council is not acting systematically, equitably and effectively, as the guardian of international peace and security, the more its legitimacy will be undermined, and a sense of insecurity will continue to prevail.

In short, we will not succeed if we continue to treat the symptoms of insecurity and ignore or only pay lip service to the root causes. Asymmetry cannot remain the dominant characteristic in our approach to global security. The security concerns of all countries and regions must be acknowledged and addressed. The world has grown too small, and globalization has become a double-edged sword.

Will the reliance on nuclear weapons and the doctrine of "nuclear deterrence" continue to figure prominently in the security strategies of more and more nations? Or will more countries evolve towards a doctrine of "deterrence based on interdependence", similar to the one emerging in the European Union and Europe in general - the construction of relationships that contain threats and drive common interests so as to make the use of military force the least desirable and most costly option? It may not be an exaggeration to say that, ultimately, the international security landscape of the 21st Century will be shaped by how we choose to treat these two competing approaches.

The irony is that we know the problems, and we know the solutions. What is yet to come is the vision and leadership to overcome the hubris that threatens our mutual destruction, and to build a civilization rooted in the unity of the human family, the sanctity of all human life and the core values we all share - a civilization that is humane and just.

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Last update: 26 Nov 2019

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