Background Release


6 October 2003


NEW YORK, 3 October (UN Headquarters) -- The future of the multilateral treaty regimes for weapons of mass destruction and whether they meet the security concerns of all nations will be the core question for the First Committee (Disarmament and International Security), as it begins its general debate on Monday.

During the past year a number of events have challenged the existing disarmament and arms limitation regimes, among them:  the development of a policy calling for pre-emptive and, if necessary, unilateral action against the threat of weapons of mass destruction, which Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called a “fundamental challenge” to the principles on which, however imperfectly, world peace and stability have rested for 58 years; the war in Iraq; the declared withdrawal of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the subsequent removal of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) safeguards inspectors there; and the finding by the IAEA that Iran has failed to meet its obligations under the NPT.

The year was “painful for those of us who believe in collective answers to our common problems and challenges”, said the Secretary-General when he addressed the General Assembly on 23 September.  But, he said, it was not enough to denounce unilateralism, “unless we also face up squarely to the concerns that make some States feel uniquely vulnerable, and thus drive them to take unilateral action”.

Six months earlier he told a meeting of the Security Council’s Counter-terrorism Committee that with new threats to be faced, “or, perhaps, old threats in new and dangerous combinations -- new forms of terrorism, and the proliferation of mass destruction weapons”, it had never been more important to strengthen the multilateral regimes that have been developed to prevent the proliferation of such weapons.

The cornerstone of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, with 188 States parties, is the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The 1968 Treaty classifies States into two categories –- non-nuclear-weapon States and nuclear-weapon States and assigns different obligations to each, respectively, to eliminate nuclear weapons and not to acquire them.  The slow pace of nuclear disarmament, however, has heightened concerns that the Treaty has solidified an imbalance, rather than provide collective security resulting from the elimination of nuclear weapons.

“It seems dissatisfaction and a sense of unfairness on the part of some non-nuclear-weapon States is, in turn, weakening their eagerness to support the cause of non-proliferation”, Under-Secretary-General for disarmament Affairs, Nobuyasu Abe, told a United Nations disarmament conference in Japan.  “On the other hand, concern about the spread of weapons of mass destruction is prompting a resurgence of nuclear weapons”, he said.

“These trends are feeding each other to undermine the cause of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.  We have to stop this”, he urged, calling non-compliance with the non-proliferation regime, perhaps, the greatest security challenge of our time.  He warned that the NPT “faced serious threats of being undermined, if not unravelled”.

The Treaty also establishes safeguards under the IAEA to ensure that material is not diverted from peaceful uses to build nuclear weapons and Mr. Abe said the possibility that an NPT party would fully comply, at least superficially, with its IAEA agreement, but still one day announce that it had successfully acquired a nuclear weapon, was a “nightmare” that “may very well spell an end to the NPT”.  He cited as examples Iraq’s past efforts to acquire nuclear weapons and its unsafeguarded nuclear activities, as well as Iran’s intention to expand its nuclear programme and activate a uranium enrichment complex.

On 12 September, the IAEA Board of Governors adopted a resolution deeming it “essential and urgent” that Iran remedy all failures identified by the Agency and cooperate fully with it to ensure verification of compliance with its safeguards agreement by taking all necessary actions by 31 October.  Those steps include a full declaration of all material relevant to Iran’s enrichment programme.

That action followed a report in June by the Director General of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, in which he states that Iran had failed to meet its obligations under the Safeguards Agreement with respect to the reporting of nuclear material imported into Iran and the subsequent processing and use of the material, and the declaration of facilities and other locations where the material was stored and processed.

In another setback, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea declared its withdrawal from the NPT on 10 January, and subsequently informed the Security Council of its decision.  Mr. ElBaradei recently told the Agency’s Board of Governors that, since 1993, the IAEA has been unable to fully implement its comprehensive NPT safeguards agreement with that country and has never been allowed to verify the completeness and correctness of its 1992 declaration that it had declared all the nuclear material subjected to Agency safeguards.

United Nations’ involvement in Iraq’s disarmament began on 3 April 1991 with the adoption of Security Council resolution 687 (1991), which authorized the removal or rendering harmless, under international supervision, of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, ballistic missiles with a range over 150 kilometres, and related production facilities and equipment.  It also provided for a system of ongoing monitoring and verification of Iraq’s compliance.  The United Nations disarmament effort, which involved, first, the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) and then the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), culminated in Security Council resolution 1441(2002) warning of “serious consequences” for non-compliance with disarmament demands.  That effort was abruptly halted by the outbreak of hostilities in March.

The danger of proliferation was raised by United States President George Bush when he addressed the General Assembly on 23 September and proposed the adoption by the Security Council of a new “anti-proliferation” resolution.  “Because proliferators will use any route or channel that is open to them, we need the broadest possible cooperation to stop them”, he said, adding that the text should call on all Member States to:  criminalize the proliferation of mass destruction weapons; enact strict export controls consistent with international standards; and secure any and all sensitive materials within their own borders.

President Jacques Chirac of France, also before the Assembly, called for a high-level meeting of the Security Council to address the non-proliferation issue.  He also proposed the establishment of a permanent team of weapons inspectors.  He demanded that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea dismantle its nuclear weapons programme completely, verifiably and irreversibly and he urged Iran to cooperate with the IAEA on nuclear inspections.  Calling for a summit-level meeting of the Council to draft a plan against proliferation, he said “we must strengthen our means of action in order to ensure compliance”.

Compliance with treaty obligations also informed the discussion of the Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters.  It emphasized the urgency and importance of preserving and consolidating existing multilateral disarmament norms and it called for the convening of an expert group to examine and establish procedures for the Security Council to deal more effectively with future non-compliance cases.  It also recommended that the United Nations identify the best way to preserve the expertise and knowledge of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), which had been established by the Security Council to disarm Iraq of its proscribed weapons.

Another pressing concern of the First Committee is the delayed entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which opened for signature in 1996.  In a message in September to the third conference to facilitate the Treaty’s entry into force, the Secretary-General said, “our world can ill afford to fail, or even to be unduly delayed in achieving a comprehensive nuclear-test ban.  Delay increases the risk that nuclear testing might resume.  And it jeopardizes efforts to take further steps towards the goal of nuclear disarmament”.

To date, 169 States have signed the CTBT and 105 have ratified it.  Of the States whose ratification is needed for its entry into force (the 44 Annex 2 States), 32 have ratified it.  Two nuclear Powers -- the United States and China -- have signed but not ratified the Treaty and the United States no longer supports it.  The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, India and Pakistan, also Annex 2 States, have not signed it.  The Final Declaration of the recent Conference reaffirmed the Treaty’s importance and entry into force for the “systematic and progressive” efforts towards nuclear disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation.

The Committee will also consider the status of the bans on chemical and biological weapons.  Concerning the latter, after States parties to the Biological Weapons Convention failed in 2001 to conclude talks begun seven years earlier on a verification protocol, a new process was established by the Fifth Review Conference of the Convention.  States parties will meet annually, until the 2006 Review Conference, to discuss and promote common understanding and effective action on specific topics related to better implementation.

Each of these meetings will be preceded by a meeting of experts.  The first such expert meeting, which was held in Geneva from 18 to 29 August, considered adoption of necessary national measures to implement the Convention’s ban and national mechanisms to establish and maintain the security and oversight of pathogenic micro-organisms and toxins.

Regarding chemical weapons, the Secretary-General, in his message to the First Review Conference of the States Parties in April, said that “recent events have made clear the urgent need to ensure the complete universality of the Treaty”.  Though the Convention has 155 States parties, universality remains a challenge, with a number of key States, particularly in the Middle East, remaining outside of it.

On conventional weapons, the Secretary-General says in a note before the Committee “There is nothing ‘small’ or ‘light’ about the consequences of the uncontrolled spread and misuse of small arms and light weapons”.  There are more than 600 small arms and light weapons in circulation worldwide, and of 49 major conflicts in the 1990s, 47 were waged with those weapons. Small arms are responsible for more than 500,000 deaths each year, including 300,000 in armed conflict and 200,000 more from homicides and suicides.

Opening the First Biennial Meeting of States to Consider the Implementation of the 2001 Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects, held in July in New York, the Secretary-General, in his message, said that those arms killed about 60 people an hour, or half a million people per year.  More than 100 States have presented national status reports, just two years since the adoption of the action plan.  But, the United Nations considers that more efforts are needed, however, to evolve binding legal norms.

Also in 2001, a Group of Governmental Experts on Tracing Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons was established by the General Assembly.  It concludes, in its July report to the Secretary-General, that the development of an international instrument to enable States to identify and trace, in a timely and reliable manner, illicit small arms and light weapons was feasible.  It recommends that the Assembly take a decision at the current session on the negotiation of such an instrument.

The 2003 Group of Governmental Experts appointed by the Secretary-General to review the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms, which adopted its report by consensus on 1 August, recommended that Man-Portable Air-Defence Systems (MANPADS) be included within the scope of the Register.  The Register is a voluntary reporting instrument on the international transfers of major conventional arms, namely battle tanks, large-calibre artillery systems, armoured combat vehicles, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, and missiles and their launchers.

Although MANPADS fall within the category of small arms and light weapons, the agreement to include them, on an exceptional basis, was facilitated by heightened concerns following the 11 September 2001 events about such weapon systems falling into the hands of terrorists, particularly in light of recent reports of attempts by groups to acquire and use them against commercial airliners.  The experts agreed that transparency in the transfer of MANPADS was an essential element in broad-based international efforts to prevent their illicit transfers.

So far, 164 Member States have participated at least once in this voluntary reporting instrument, while a record number of 126 States submitted reports on arms transfers in 2001.  To date, 117 countries have participated in 2003.

Report Summaries

Before the Committee is the annual report of the Conference on Disarmament (document A/58/27).  The Conference met in Geneva from 20 January to 28 March, 12 May to 27 June, and 28 July to 10 September.  The Conference was unable to agree on a programme of work and did not establish or re-establish any mechanism on any of its specific agenda items, which included prevention of nuclear war and of an arms race in outer space, and new types of weapons of mass destruction.  It did, however, decide that the dates for its 2004 session would be 19 January to 26 March, 10 May to 25 June, and 26 July to 10 September.

The report of the Disarmament Commission for 2003 (document A/58/42) highlights the deliberations of its members during the substantive session held at Headquarters from 31 March to 17 April.  Talks focused on ways and means to achieve nuclear disarmament, and practical confidence-building measures in the field of conventional arms.  Although both were in their third year of consideration, no conclusions on either topic were agreed.

The report of the Secretary-General of the work of the Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters (document A/58/316) covers the Board’s discussion in two sessions on:  compliance, verification and enforcement of multilateral disarmament treaties; disarmament and human security; disarmament and development; rising military expenditures; review of the functioning and effectiveness of the Board; and open-source date for promoting disarmament and non-proliferation.

The Board, which met in New York from 5 to 7 February and in Geneva from 16 to 18 July, underlined the indispensable role of multilateralism in addressing the key challenges facing the world today in the field of disarmament and non-proliferation.  It also emphasized the urgency and importance of preserving and consolidating existing multilateral disarmament norms through adherence to treaties and fulfilment of legal obligations.  In that regard, the United Nations had a central role to play.

The Board underlined the importance of full compliance with treaty obligations by States parties in maintaining the strengthening the norm against weapons of mass destruction. It agreed that prevention was “pivotal” and should be pursued with the objective of avoiding any human suffering and insecurity in the first place.  It expressed its belief that a pre-emptive, coercive approach, or one based on regime-change itself, did not offer the most effective answer to the threat of proliferation.

It noted the importance of the issue of withdrawal from treaties in the context of possible non-compliance and decided that the issue needed a further, in-depth examination.  It recognized that ensuring compliance with disarmament treaties required not only efficient verification, but also removal of security threats or concerns, application of the principle of non-discrimination between States parties and political motivation of concerned parties to ensure the success of a treaty.

The Advisory Board, which also serves as the Board of Trustees for the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), also presented UNIDIR’s report (document A/58/259).

This year the Secretary-General combined the following topics into a single report (document A/58/162):  “Towards a nuclear-weapon-free world:  the need for a new agenda”; nuclear disarmament; reducing nuclear danger; and “Follow-up to the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons”.

Concerning the NPT, the report welcomes the accession of Cuba and Timor-Leste to the Treaty.  It also strongly urges the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to reconsider its decision to withdraw from the NPT, which was the first decision of its kind since the Treaty’s entry into force 33 years ago.

Regarding the CTBT, the report calls upon States that have not yet done so, especially those whose ratification is necessary for the Treaty’s operation, to sign and ratify it at the earliest possible date.

The report also expresses regret that the protracted lack of agreement on a programme of work has blocked the resumption of substantive work by the Conference on Disarmament.  It urges the Conference’s member States to renew efforts and strengthen political will so that the deadlock might be overcome.

Referring to the proposal contained in the United Nations Millennium Declaration for convening an international conference to identify ways of eliminating nuclear dangers, the report notes that consultations with Member States show that the time has not yet come for such an event.  Nevertheless, Member States are encouraged to create the conditions that would lead to a global consensus and ultimately an international conference.

The report also contains responses from Antigua and Barbuda, Cuba, Mexico and Venezuela to General Assembly resolution 57/85, entitled “Follow-up to the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons”.

A note by the Secretary-General transmits the report of the Executive Secretary of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), which covers the year 2002 (document A/58/385).

The Committee will have before it, for the first time, a report on measures to prevent terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction (document A/58/208).  In it, the Secretary-General draws attention to the Policy Working Group on the United Nations and Terrorism, established at his request in October 2001 to identify longer-terms implications and broad policy dimensions of terrorism for the United Nations.  The Policy Group formulated recommendations on the steps the United Nations might take to address possible terrorism threats related to weapons of mass destruction, other weapons and technologies (document A/57/273-S/2002/875).  The present report contains replies from Member States and international organizations.

A report entitled “Missiles” (document A/58/117) transmits national positions on the issue from the following States:  Antigua and Barbuda; Argentina; Cuba; El Salvador; Mexico; Qatar; Russian Federation; and Venezuela.  (An addendum contains a reply from Iran.)

In his report on the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East (document A/58/137, Part I), the Secretary-General notes that the issue remains of considerable importance.  States parties to the NPT, during the second preparatory session for the 2005 Review Conference, reiterated their support for such a zone, reaffirmed the importance of the implementation of the 1995 Review and Extension Conference’s resolution on the Middle East, and recognized that the resolution remained valid until its goals and objectives were achieved.  The report also offers replies from Israel, Mexico, and Venezuela.

Part II of that report (document A/58/137, Part II) transmits General Assembly resolution 57/97, entitled “The risk of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East”, by which the Assembly calls upon Israel to accede to the NPT.  An annex to the report contains a copy of a resolution entitled “Application of International Atomic Energy safeguards in the Middle East” (document GC(47)/RES/13), that was adopted by the General Conference of the IAEA at its tenth plenary meeting.  That resolution calls upon all States in the region to take measures aimed at establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East.

The report of the open-ended Working Group to consider the objectives and agenda, including the possible establishment of the preparatory committee, for the fourth special session of the General Assembly devoted to disarmament (document A/57/848) notes that the Group failed to reach a consensus and, in that regard, underlined the need for the issue to be referred back to the General Assembly.

The report on the 1981 Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects (document A/58/163) gives information on the status of the Convention and its Protocols as of 10 July.  The amendment to article I, concerning the protection of States’ sovereignty, will enter into force six months after the date of deposit of the twentieth instrument of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession.  At the time of publication, 14 States had deposited their instruments.

The Committee will also be considering reports on tracing small arms (document A/58/138); the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms (document A/58/274); objective information on military matters, including transparency of military expenditures (document A/58/202); regional confidence-building measures in Central Africa (document A/58/177); strengthening security and cooperation in the Mediterranean (document A/58/132); the Ad Hoc Committee on the Indian Ocean (document A/58/29); and a consolidated report (document A/58/207) on assistance to States for curbing illicit traffic in small arms and collecting them, the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects, and consolidation of peace through practical disarmament measures.

The Committee also has before it the following reports/notes containing views of Member States:  promotion of multilateralism in the area of disarmament and non-proliferation (document A/58/176); conventional arms control at the regional and subregional levels (document A/58/130); transparency in arms and the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms (document A/58/203); and verification in all its aspects, including the role of the United Nations in the field of verification (document A/58/128).


Also:  developments in the field of information and telecommunications in the context of international security (document A/58/373); observance of environmental norms in disarmament and arms control agreements (document A/58/129); the United Nations Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Africa (document A/58/139); the United Nations Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Asia and the Pacific (document A/58/190); the United Nations Regional Centre for Peace, Disarmament and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean (document A/58/122); and strengthening of security and cooperation in the Mediterranean region (document A/58/132).

* *** *