Conference on Disarmament begins 2011 session

This year’s Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva opened its session on January 25th with Ambassador Marius Grinius in the President’s Chair. He, like others before him, has his work cut out for him since the CD has yet again not been able to agree upon a programme of work. Following the UN Secretary-General’s speech on January 26th and a general debate, thematic discussions on core issues began. The first of these on February 1st covered nuclear disarmament as a topic. Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of delegations participating in the discussion highlighted nuclear disarmament as their top priority in the CD. New START was welcomed but many states called for further reductions, particularly in non-strategic nuclear weapons. Ambassador Lauber of Switzerland noted that achievements in disarmament seem “rather modest compared to the overall scope of the problem” and argued that “efforts are random instead of systematic and coordinated.” He further argued, “disarmament steps are often results of budget cuts or consequence of technological changeover rather than the conception of a long-term plan to one day give up all these weapons.”

Several countries spoke favorably of a legally-binding agreement to prohibit nuclear weapons or a NWC, such as Pakistan, Argentina, Algeria, Chile, Iran, South Africa, Indonesia, Egypt, Austria, and Switzerland. While the degree of commitment to such a process continues to vary, several delegations highlighted the UN Secretary-General’s five-point proposal for nuclear disarmament, which includes such a legally-binding agreement.

The Swiss delegation argued that nuclear weapons are fundamentally immoral because they cause massive and indiscriminate destruction in terms of human lives, material resources, and for the environment, and that they are illegal with regard to international humanitarian law. Their indiscriminate effect “violates without exception all fundamental principles and rules of international humanitarian law.” Austria also highlighted the NPT outcome document’s reference to international humanitarian law.

Ambassador Marschik of Austria, who was the chair of the Subsidiary Body I on nuclear disarmament at the NPT Review Conference in 2010, noted that the NPT action plan called for negotiations and discussions of core issues at the CD. However, he asked if the CD really could deliver and shared concerns that this body is becoming obsolete. He argued that in a changing international environment, the institutions must adapt or perish.

A full report on discussions in the CD can be found at Reaching Critical Will. Also Reaching Critical Will’s Guide to the Conference on Disarmament 2011 can be found here.

Nuclear Weapons: At What Cost?

Cover of Nuclear Weapons: At What CostNuclear weapons were supposed to provide ‘more bang for the buck (US dollar)’. The facts, expertly researched and presented by Ben Cramer in the book Nuclear Weapons: At What Cost, demonstrate the opposite. Military expenditures have increased in every country ‘joining the nuclear club’. The nine nuclear weapon States collectively spend about US$90 billion annually on nuclear weapons programmes. This is about 8% of the global military budget – or about the amount required to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals of ending hunger; providing universal primary education; reducing child and maternal mortality by 2/3rds, ensuring environmental sustainability (including combating climate change), achieving greater gender equity, and combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other major diseases.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in his five-point plan for nuclear disarmament, lists this opportunity cost of nuclear weapons as an important point in building the political momentum for disarmament. The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation has produced a chart on what could be accomplished globally with the annual $55 billion the U.S. spends on nuclear weapons.

In February 2010, US President Obama requested an increase in funding for the US nuclear weapons complex (See Obama budget seeks 13.4 percent increase for National Nuclear Security Administration). According to a November 2010 White House Fact Sheet An Enduring Commitment to the U.S. Nuclear Deterrent, the US Administration’s plan “to invest more than $85 billion over the next decade to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.. [is a] level of funding unprecedented since the end of the Cold War.” According to some analysts this additional funding ‘was the price exacted by the U.S. military-industrial complex and its representatives in the Senate for Senate ratification of the new START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) on December 22, 2010’.

US Rep Ed Markey and a number of other Congress members sent a letter to the House Appropriations Sub-committee criticizing specific aspects of the funding request, including the increase in funding requested for the production of plutonium pits and uranium processing that could be used to manufacture new nuclear warheads, and the decrease in funding requested for warhead dismantlement. Markey and the co-authors argued that the government should prioritise nuclear security funding for warhead dismantlement and stockpile reduction to support multilateral disarmament, rather than the modernization and production of warheads which are a stimulus to proliferation.

See also Nuclear Security Spending: Assessing Costs, Examining Priorities by Stephen Schwartz and Deepti Choubey.