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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)


Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

24 May 2005

If more people were aware of the very serious nuclear risk, they would not tolerate what was going on right now in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, former United States Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara, said today at a Headquarters briefing just days before the Treaty review’s conclusion.

Despite the end of the cold war some 15 years ago, he said United States nuclear weapons policies were essentially what they were when he was Secretary of Defence 40 years ago. He would characterize the policies of the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in one sentence: “They were immoral, illegal, militarily unnecessary, very, very dangerous in terms of accidental or inadvertent use, and destructive of the non-proliferation regime”. Moreover, the combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons would lead to their use.

Joining Mr. McNamara were: Elisabet Borsiin-Bonnier, Sweden’s Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament; Paul Meyer, Canada’s Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament; and Friedrich Groening, Germany’s Deputy Commissioner for the Federal Government for Arms Control and Disarmament. Jonathan Granoff, President of the Global Security Institute and Vice-Chair of the American Bar Association’s Committee on National Security, moderated the panel.

Opening the press conference, Mr. McNamara urged journalists to read his article in the current issue of Foreign Policy, entitled “Apocalypse Soon”, because he thought the danger facing today’s world with respect to nuclear weapons was far greater than most politicians or military and civilian security experts really understood. In those circles, quite credible individuals had said that they had never been more fearful of a nuclear detonation than now.

He noted, for example, that former United States Secretary of Defence and current Director of Stanford University’s security programme, William Perry, had stated that there was a greater than 50 per cent probability of a nuclear detonation on United States soil within the decade.

The United States had deployed about 6,000 strategic nuclear warheads, he said. Each one on average had a destructive power of roughly 20 times that of the Hiroshima bomb, which killed something on the order of 100,000 civilians. Of those 6,000 weapons, 2,000 were on hair trigger alert, ready to launch on a 15-minute warning by the decision of one man –- the President of the United States. The so-called “football” was at his side 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It contained codes that Mr. McNamara and others had introduced in the 1960s, which permitted the arming of the warheads on alert status. That was a very dangerous situation. The Russians presumably had the same number of warheads and the same procedures.

The objectives of the non-proliferation review should be to strengthen the Treaty and to ensure that North Korea and Iran did not become nuclear powers, he said. There was a high probability, indeed, a certainty, that the Conference would fail to achieve those objectives. If Iran and North Korea continued their present programmes, other nations would follow. Iran and North Korea would not be the end of proliferation. In Asia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan might follow the same path. In the Middle East, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria might do the same.

He urged nations to recognize that that problem was not the sole responsibility of the United States, or only of interest to it. “You make a mistake with nuclear weapons, you use them, you’re going to destroy nations”, he said. There was no learning period. The indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons would lead to their use. So, the issue of proliferation should not be seen solely as an issue for the United States. He strongly urged that it be dealt with by the United Nations Security Council. It should ask the Secretary-General to monitor proliferation and to report to the Council when he believed the risk was increasing. At such times, he should recommend the action required to reverse the trend.

The Secretary-General’s statement to the NPT review was superb, the best statement on the problem by an international official, he said. The Security Council should assume responsibility to prevent proliferation, and the Secretary-General should act as an agent of the Council towards that goal. He had indicated to Mr. McNamara, at least, that he would move in that direction. The Council should state that no nation not now possessing nuclear weapons would be allowed to acquire them, and States possessing them would not be allowed to increase their forces. The United States and Russia should be directed to remove their nuclear forces from hair-trigger alert and from preparation for launch-on warning.

That was very, very dangerous, he said, citing the existence of episodes in the last few years where there had been a real risk of warning and launch. Russian security experts had stated that, for lack of financing, their command and control systems were not fully under control. So, the Russian Federation and the United States should be directed to remove their weapons from high-alert and launch-on warning. That was absolutely essential if detonation was to be avoided in the coming years. In addition, the five declared nuclear Powers should state that they would follow a policy of no first-use.

He said that the United States had never made that statement, not in his seven years as Defence Secretary, and not in the 40 years since. Further, the nuclear Powers should reinstate and make explicit their negative security assurance pledges -- that they would not initiate the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon States. The United States had not made that specific, and had said the contrary at times. He was not charging that to the Bush Administration; those failures had occurred before the Bush Administration. Finally, those States should accelerate reductions in the level of their nuclear forces.

As for the Treaty’s article VI on nuclear disarmament, in the United States it was the law, having been signed by the President and ratified by the Senate. Still, it was totally unrealistic to believe that article VI would be implemented in the foreseeable future by the United States and other nations. Failure to implement article VI, however, should not be a basis for accepting proliferation. He had personally recommended moving towards elimination or near-elimination of nuclear weapons. He had strongly favoured that, but he could guarantee that that was not going to happen soon.

“We should not allow non-implementation of commitments to stand in the way of stopping proliferation”, he said. The declared nuclear Powers should stop development of new weapons and not initiate action to prepare for weapons testing. The current United States Administration had asked Congress for funds for both of those activities. The undeclared nuclear States -- Israel, Pakistan, India, and possibly North Korea -- should be asked to make similar pledges. There were no acceptable military actions by which the United States could respond to North Korean or Iranian moves towards proliferation. That must be addressed through diplomacy, and the United States should agree to meet bilaterally with both countries in the context of the “Asian 6” and the “European 3” talks under way.

He said that both North Korea and Iran clearly feared that the United States wanted to achieve a regime change, given what they saw happen in Iraq. The United States should address that head on, and it could only do that bilaterally. It was inconsistent and ineffective for the United States to demand disarmament while indicating it was pursuing regime change simultaneously. Iran had insisted on its rights under the Treaty to enrich uranium fuel. The “European 3” should ensure it would supply the necessary fuel or permit Iran to produce that fuel under strict International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections.

Ambassador Borsiin-Bonnier said she favoured the NPT in its entirety, for without it, the world would be a lot worse off. Before the cold war, everybody focused on the NPT’s security benefits. Now, there was a certain complacency about the security and the dangers, for which she blamed a very uninformed public. There was also a lack of awareness among politicians about the persistence of real dangers. Their spread, while slightly different from the cold war, was taking new shapes, which were perhaps even more dangerous than before. The NPT was law, and usually when individuals stretched or broke the law, the conclusion was not that the law had been flawed, but that something had been wrong with enforcement.

Taking stock of the NPT, she said there had been nuclear proliferation and clandestine weapons programmes under cover of the Treaty. There remained an abundance of nuclear weapons and, what was worse, perhaps new ones were being developed. Those were the dangers, the ways in which the Treaty -- the law -- was being stretched. But, the recipe was not to say there was something wrong with that law, but to strengthen implementation and respect for the law. The NPT Conference was experiencing a lot of problems, as well as some very good discussions and flow of ideas. For the first time, the parties were talking about what to do when a State threatened withdrawal from the Treaty. They were looking at what could be done to sharpen the verification machinery, and at the dangerous aspect of the nuclear fuel cycle. But, the big danger was lack of interest and engagement.

While reminding correspondents of the crucial benefits that had flowed from the Treaty, Mr. Meyer also drew attention to the fact that the Treaty was under severe stress and facing serious assaults on its integrity. For it to retain its authority, the States parties had to shrug off their complacent attitudes and begin to take immediate action. The credibility of the Treaty and of the commitments made in subsequent reviews were crucial, and the trend towards nuclear disarmament must be “exclusively downwards”. States’ behaviour had to reflect the commitment to diminish the role of those weapons in security policies. The United States could play a key leadership role in that regard.

Mr. Meyer also called attention to the Treaty’s institutional deficit. Unlike most contemporary multinational accords, the NPT lacked the basic rudiments of institutional support –- there was no annual meeting of States parties, no executive council or secretariat, and so forth. And, the preparatory process really had an inherent tendency “to kick any difficult issue down the road to the reviews held once every five years”. That was untenable and inexcusable. He also emphasized the need for enhanced accountability.

His delegation had submitted practical proposals in that regard, including reconfiguring the pattern of meetings to provide a one-week annual conference of States parties, he said. Before a party withdrew, it was crucial for States parties to bring their collective diplomatic pressure to bear. There should be annual implementation reports, and civil society’s role should be enhanced. Whatever the outcome, there must be a renewed focus on the serious challenges facing the Treaty and renewed commitment to take some corrective action.

Germany’s Ambassador, Mr. Groening, said that no State had the ability or the resources to meet today’s challenges on its own. All States needed an effective international regime to counter the threats that nuclear weapons and their proliferation posed to the world’s common security, and the NPT played a central role in that regard. The European Union’s member States had decided on a common position in April, which represented a legal act for the Union. The position -- agreed by, among others, two nuclear Powers, two States from the New Agenda Coalition, and members of a military alliance -- was an effort to bring a middle position to bear in the Conference’s outcome.

Also reflected in the European position was the need to maintain the Treaty’s balance, he said. It must be ensured that States abide by their non-proliferation commitments and bring new momentum to nuclear disarmament, which seemed to have lost momentum in recent years. Existing possibilities for verification must be improved, for which he stressed the need to universalize the IAEA’s Additional Protocol and make it the new verification standard for the NPT. It must also be ensured that civilian nuclear energy was not misused for military purposes, since anyone who mastered the fuel cycle also had the option of developing a weapons programme.

He said that the need to tackle that challenge, however, did not mean that the Union was questioning the right to nuclear energy for civilian purposes. Germany had opted to phase out nuclear power, but that had been a national decision. A response must be developed to the real proliferation risks, which could arise from the closing of the fuel cycle. Everyone was aware of enormous dangers posed by the possible acquisition by terrorists of nuclear weapons, so the utmost must be done to prevent that, including a strategic consensus by the Security Council on how to deal with severe Treaty violations.

A critical assessment must be made of nuclear disarmament, and the nuclear-weapon States must reaffirm their unequivocal undertaking to that process and back that up with confidence-building steps and real action, he urged. The aim of Germany’s policy had remained a world free from the nuclear weapon threat. But, aware that those weapons’ elimination would not be achieved overnight, his country had adopted a step-by-step approach, as agreed at the 2000 NPT review with 13 decisive, practical steps. Those must remain the benchmark on which nuclear disarmament must be measured. The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty must enter into force. Until that happened, the nuclear-weapon States must maintain their nuclear testing moratoriums, and not spur any doubts in that regard.

Asked about the non-papers from the Conference’s Main Committees, specifically whether the Ambassadors saw a basis for agreement, Ms. Borsiin-Bonnier said that some of those non-papers nowadays were papers. It remained to be seen whether they were “shot down”. There was no way, at this late date, to operate on the outer parameters or fringes. When nearly 190 countries had only a matter of hours to reach agreement, they had to work on what could be called the “middle ground”. That was what was happening now. A middle ground, however, did not mean lukewarm; it was a way of finding a focus on certain areas in the immediate future.

She said there were hundreds of people downstairs from across the globe focusing on the issues. “We are alive and kicking”, she added. Of nearly 190 countries, only a handful were trying to delay. The rest were seriously working on the issues and would not stop the day after the Conference, with or without papers to show for their efforts.

Replying to another question, Mr. McNamara said he strongly agreed with the Swedish Ambassador that the Review Conference was very important to strengthening the Treaty. But, while working on that, the proliferation that was taking place should not be overlooked. That was the immediate problem, which had to be dealt with. He was an American citizen and very proud of his country, but if his country stood in the way of either strengthening the Treaty or dealing effectively with proliferation, everyone should organize around that. That was why had had suggested that the Security Council assume responsibility for preventing proliferation and that the Secretary-General act as an agent of the Council in that regard. In a further step, all like-minded States should do the same.

He said, “If the United States was standing in the way, we must organize around it, or the human race, including the United States, could pay a terrible penalty. So let’s make that a number one priority.”

Asked what he proposed if the permanent Security Council members were in conflict on that matter, he said he understood that the United States had veto power. Then, like-minded States would have to organize. How would the countries like it if North Korea became nuclear, if Japan became nuclear, Taiwan, South Korea, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran -– he could not predict with certainty that those States would also become nuclear, but “there is a high probability that one or more of them will”.

“It is a very, very dangerous time, and here we sit arguing about what to do -- let’s do it. There are things that can be done, and that’s what we ought to be talking about”, he stressed.

Replying to a question about what kind of message should be sent to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Mr. Meyer said that it was essential for the Conference to send a clear message of concern regarding that first defection in the Treaty’s history. That should not be allowed to stand. North Korea, for its own security interest and that of its region and the world, should return to compliance with the NPT. The preferred vehicle for such diplomatic action was the six-party talks, but all States parties should give voice to that concern.

On the Iran question, Mr. Groening said there was a process under way elsewhere and he was not able to comment on that. It was in motion, in negotiation, but he could assure that the parties involved in the “EU-3” were working very hard to find a solution to a problem that had been declared.

Mr. McNamara added that, with respect to North Korea, everybody should make clear that the objective was not a regime change. That country would be given a non-aggression pact, not just by the United States, but by other appropriate nations, as well. Those two fundamental points should be established.

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