The U.N. secretary-general warned Monday at the start of a nuclear non-proliferation conference that the risks of more nuclear weapons is growing as guardrails to prevent escalation are weakening.
“Today, humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation,” Antonio Guterres told the opening of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference.
He warned that there are crises with nuclear undertones from the Middle East to the Korean Peninsula, as well as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
He said there are nearly 13,000 nuclear weapons stockpiled around the world.
“States are seeking false security in stockpiling and spending hundreds of billions of dollars on doomsday weapons that have no place on our planet,” he said. Noting that people are in danger of forgetting the lessons of World War II.
Guterres said he would travel to Japan to attend commemorations on August 6 at Hiroshima, where the United States dropped the world’s first atomic bomb 77 years ago in an effort to end that war.
Since it entered into force in 1970, the NPT has been a cornerstone of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Under it, parties are called on to prevent the spread of nuclear arms, promote disarmament as well as international cooperation on peaceful uses of nuclear power.
Guterres also urged nations to promote the peaceful uses of nuclear technology to advance development, such clean energy and medical breakthroughs.
“When used for peaceful purposes, this technology can be a great benefit to humanity,” he said.
Russian nuclear saber rattling
Russia’s threat to use nuclear weapons in its war against Ukraine was condemned at the meeting by leaders, as well as several regional groups, including those from the Pacific region and Nordic countries.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that in January the five nuclear powers – Britain, China, France, Russia and the U.S.—all affirmed that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.
“The very next month, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine,” Blinken said. “And it has engaged in reckless, dangerous nuclear saber rattling, with its president [Putin] warning that those supporting Ukraine’s self-defense “risk consequences such as you have never seen in your entire history.”
Blinken pointed to Russia’s seizure of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, Zaporizhzhia, saying they are now using it as a military base because they know the Ukrainians cannot fire back at their positions because they could hit a nuclear reactor.
“There is no place in our world—no place in our world—for nuclear deterrence based on coercion, intimidation or blackmail,” Blinken said. “We have to stand together in rejecting this.”
Japan’s prime minister echoed international concerns about Russia’s actions.
“The recent attacks on nuclear facilities by Russia must not be tolerated,” said Fumio Kishida.
“In attacking a country that gave up nuclear weapons, Russia is brutally violating the assurances it gave in the Budapest Memorandum,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said, referring to the 1994 agreement in which Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons left on its territory after the USSR’s collapse in exchange for security guarantees.
The head of the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said at the start of Russia’s invasion, he laid out seven pillars of nuclear safety that must not be violated during the conflict, including on the safety and security of facilities and the personnel that work at them.
“All these seven principles have been trampled upon or violated since this tragic episode started,” Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi told the meeting.
Russia is expected to speak later in the debate.
Parties to the agreement—there are 191, including the five recognized nuclear weapon states (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and the United States)—are attending the conference, which runs until August 26 and will review implementation and ways to strengthen it.
Ahead of the conference, President Joe Biden said in a statement that the United States is committed to the NPT, its obligations as a nuclear state, and working towards a nuclear-free world. He said his administration is ready to negotiate a new arms control framework with Moscow to replace New START when it expires in 2026.
“But negotiation requires a willing partner operating in good faith,” Biden said. “And Russia’s brutal and unprovoked aggression in Ukraine has shattered peace in Europe and constitutes an attack on fundamental tenets of international order.” He said Moscow should demonstrate that it is ready to resume work on nuclear arms control with the U.S.
At the conference, Secretary Blinken said the United States keeps its nuclear arsenal—which has shrunk 90% since the end of the Cold War—as a deterrence and would use it only in “extreme circumstances” to defend its own vital interests or those of its allies and partners.
More than 133 governments and nuclear organizations will speak at the debate that started Monday and continues through Thursday.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Reza Najafi is also due to speak this week. World powers have been trying to get Iran to return to the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the JCPOA.
Britain and France, which are a part of the agreement, along with the United States, which withdrew under former U.S. President Donald Trump but is seeking a mutual return with Iran, said in a statement that Iran must never develop a nuclear weapon.
“We regret that, despite intense diplomatic efforts, Iran has yet to seize the opportunity to restore full implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” they said urging Iran to return to the deal.
There was also concern about advances in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Secretary Blinken said Pyongyang is planning its seventh illicit nuclear test.
IAEA chief Rossi said he hopes his agency’s inspectors can return to North Korea after being expelled in 2009. “Without that, there will be no trust and there will be no confidence,” Rossie said.
Absentees at the review conference include Israel, India and Pakistan. All are believed to have nuclear weapons but are not NPT signatories.
Some countries also expressed unease about China’s growing nuclear arsenal.
“China’s arsenal is growing,” Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod said on behalf of Nordic countries. “We call on China to actively engage in processes on arms control as a responsible nuclear weapons state.”