Nuclear Warfare Risk at Highest Point in Decades, Secretary-General Warns Security Council, Urging Largest Arsenal Holders to Find Way Back to Negotiating Table

Meetings Coverage

Security Council

9579th Meeting (AM)


18 March 2024

Delegates Stress Non-proliferation Architecture Must Be Strengthened

With geopolitical tensions escalating the risk of nuclear warfare to its highest point in decades, reducing and abolishing nuclear weapons is the only viable path to save humanity, the UN chief told the Security Council, as delegates expressed deep concern about the continuous erosion of the international non-proliferation architecture.

“There is one path — and one path only — that will vanquish this senseless and suicidal shadow, once and for all. We need disarmament now,” said António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, urging nuclear-weapon States to re-engage to prevent any use of a nuclear weapon, re-affirm moratoria on nuclear testing and “urgently agree that none of them will be the first to use nuclear weapons”.

Further, he called for reductions in the number of nuclear weapons, led by the holders of the largest arsenals — the United States and the Russian Federation, “who must find a way back to the negotiating table” to fully implement the New Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms — or START Treaty — and agree on its successor.

“When each country pursues its own security without regard for others, we create global insecurity that threatens us all,” he observed. Almost eight decades after the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons still represent a clear danger to global peace and security, growing in power, range and stealth. States possessing them are absent from the negotiating table, and some statements have raised the prospect of unleashing nuclear hell — “threats that we must all denounce with clarity and force,” he said. Moreover, emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and cyber and outer space domains have created new risks.

From Pope Francis, who calls the possession of nuclear arms “immoral”, to the hibakusha, the brave survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to Hollywood, where Oppenheimer brought the harsh reality of nuclear doomsday to vivid life for millions around the world, people are calling for an end to the nuclear madness. “Humanity cannot survive a sequel to Oppenheimer,” he warned.

Citing September’s Summit of the Future — and the Pact that will emerge — as an important moment for the world to gather around concrete reforms to the global disarmament architecture and the bodies and institutions that uphold it, he stated: “Only by working together can the prospect of a nuclear holocaust be eliminated.”

Citing an example of such cooperation, Robert Floyd, Executive Secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, said that the number of nuclear tests globally fell from over 2,000 to fewer than one dozen after the Treaty’s establishment in 1996 thanks to its “fair and transparent” nature. Detailing some of the instrument’s provisions, he said it prescribes a global network of 337 monitoring facilities that can detect any significant explosion, anywhere on Earth, almost immediately. While there was “one high-profile deratification” in 2023, two additional States have signed the Treaty and eight more have ratified it since 2021. “One step backwards, but nine more steps forward — the trend is clear,” he observed.

However, he said that something else has changed since 2021. New wars have promoted a sense of unease, nuclear weapons are back in the public consciousness, there are concerns that one State is accumulating worrying amounts of highly enriched uranium, reports indicate increased activity at former nuclear test sites and there are suggestions that some States might even consider using a nuclear weapon. Underlining the need for “certainty through transparency”, he said the Treaty’s entering into force would result in a world “with much more security and — maybe — even more peace”.

Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, Director of the International Organizations and Non-Proliferation Programme at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation , stressed that the briefing the Council has not received — and must never receive — is one on the effects and consequences of a new use of nuclear weapons. “A briefing that could tell of tens of thousands killed in the blasts; hundreds of thousands suffering and dying from radiation sickness (…); millions displaced and many, many more at risk of starvation due to the medium and longer terms effects on climate, agricultural production, and food markets around the world,” she said.

While this scenario seems unthinkable, she said, the risk of nuclear weapon use is higher than it has been in decades, as the nuclear taboo is undermined by reckless rhetoric and threats, especially those issued in the context of an active military conflict. Moreover, the world is now witnessing a recommitment to nuclear weapons, an increase in the value attached to them that challenges the norm against their pursuit and acquisition and contributes to proliferation pressures.

Appealing to the five permanent Security Council members — all of whom possess nuclear-weapon — she stated: “It is in your hands […] to make sure that the nuclear taboo holds and that this Council and its future iterations never have to receive the kind of briefing I described earlier.” In the world of heightened nuclear threat, “be the peacemakers”, she declared.

In the following discussion, many Council Members — among them the representatives of Switzerland, Ecuador and Algeria — underscored that the global non-proliferation architecture must be strengthened, highlighting the crucial role of relevant landmark treaties — including the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and the Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Numerous speakers — including the representatives of Malta and Guyana — also stressed the need to ensure women’s participation in disarmament discussions and decision-making.

Yoko Kamikawa, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Japan, the Council’s President for March, spoke in her national capacity to state that her country — the only one to have ever suffered atomic bombings — has been a global leader in the “quest to realize a world without nuclear weapons”. Detailing such efforts, she announced the establishment of a cross-regional group of friends that aims to maintain and enhance political attention towards a fissile material cut-off treaty, which would limit the quantitative improvement of nuclear weapons by banning the production of fissile materials.

The delegate for the United Kingdom said that his country — “the only nuclear-weapon State to have reduced to one delivery system” — has pioneered work in nuclear disarmament verification, championed transparency and advanced risk reduction. Further, it is one of the largest financial contributors to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization and hosts 13 of its monitoring facilities. London is also helping to expand access to peaceful nuclear technology and has given $4.3 million to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) technical cooperation fund in 2024, he added.

Also urging efforts to reduce stockpiled nuclear arsenals worldwide, his counterpart from France reported that Paris has reduced its arsenal to that “strictly sufficient for its security”. He warned that Iran’s nuclear weapons programme is accelerating as Tehran accumulates amounts of highly enriched uranium well above the limits set forth under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Underscoring that Iran can no longer ignore its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, he called on that State to respect its international commitments.

The representative of the United States echoed that, noting Iran’s failure to cooperate with the IAEA. Further, the Russian Federation has irresponsibly invoked dangerous nuclear rhetoric and walked away from several of its arms-control obligations; China has rapidly and opaquely built up and diversified its nuclear-weapon stores; and both States have defended — and even enabled — dangerous proliferators. She stressed that Washington, D.C., is willing to engage in bilateral arms-control discussions with Moscow and Beijing “right now, without preconditions — all they have to do is say ‘yes’ and come to the table in good faith”.

The speaker for China rejected the United States’ “totally groundless” allegations against his country, calling on Washington, D.C., to reduce its nuclear arsenal. Further, that country should play a “lead-by-example” role recognized by other parties — “rather than self-styled” — and abandon the threat and use of sanctions. He added that the United States’ nuclear-submarine cooperation with certain countries carries a high risk of nuclear proliferation, urging that “corrective measures should be taken to rectify it”.

More broadly, he underlined the need for the countries concerned to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their national security policies; renounce the deployment of a global missile-defence system; refrain from seeking to deploy intermediate-range missiles in the Asia Pacific or European regions; and stop “so-called extended deterrence”.

The representative of the Russian Federation said that today’s “absurd allegations” against his country are “completely divorced from reality”. Moscow “religiously” follows its nuclear doctrine, which clearly states the conditions under which such weapons can be used. He pointed out that having nuclear weapons is currently essential in “maintaining strategic balance”, underscoring that upending such balance “will plunge the world into endless wars and attempts to establish hegemony by force”. On strategic dialogue between the United States and his country, he said that any interaction will only be possible if Washington, D.C., and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) “review their anti-Russian course” and “remove all of the concerns that we have about our security”.

The speaker for the Republic of Korea cautioned that Pyongyang — “the world’s preeminent proliferator” — now has a markedly low threshold for using nuclear weapons. Additionally, its aggressive nuclear policy allows for pre-emptive strikes against his country. He, therefore, called on the Council to enforce vital global norms and to “lead by example”, stating that a permanent member’s military cooperation with Pyongyang, against the organ’s own decisions, would erode the Council’s authority and relevance.

For his part, Slovenia’s delegate expressed deep concern over the lowering of thresholds for the use and threats of the use of tactical nuclear weapons. “Maintaining an option for the first use of low-yield weapons in nuclear doctrines is irresponsible and simply wrong,” he insisted.

A nuclear war would be particularly unfair to Africa, said Verónica Nataniel Macamo Dlhovo, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of Mozambique, noting that none of the 54 African countries possess nuclear weapons. She called for a world that does not gravitate around the doctrine of nuclear deterrence and, instead, gives primacy to the development of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, with emphasis on energy transition and human medicine. She suggested the creation of a Global Compact — in the form of an incubator — through which nuclear knowledge and technology relevant to the progress of humanity are shared.

Francess Piagie Alghali, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Sierra Leone, observed that the possession of nearly all the world’s more than 12,000 nuclear weapons by a minute number of Member States, along with recent rhetoric threatening to use them, remains a significant concern. With the spectre of nuclear catastrophe looming over major conflicts in regions such as Ukraine, the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula, “the Council must take decisive steps to mitigate the risks of nuclear conflict”, she emphasized, adding: “A nuclear war can never be won and should never be fought.”


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John Pike