UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today urged world governments to end the “long inertia” at the Geneva disarmament talks and free up much of the money spent on arms for alleviating hunger, disease and other ills in impoverished nations.
A new coalition of nuclear-activist nations said that moving quickly in Geneva on a treaty to shut down all production of uranium and plutonium for atomic bombs is an “essential step” toward global nuclear disarmament.
Negotiations for the long-proposed Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, currently blocked by Pakistan at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, should instead “be pursued with vigour and determination”, said the 10-nation group, led by Japan and Australia and including Germany, Canada and Mexico.
Mr Ban addressed foreign ministers at an unusual high-level meeting he convened in an effort to build political momentum for action at the Geneva talks, which Japanese foreign ministry spokesman Satoru Satoh dubbed “the sleeping conference”.
The UN chief noted that in the past decade world military spending had risen by 50% to more than 1.5 trillion US dollars (£1 trillion). “Imagine what we could do if we devoted these resources to poverty reduction, climate change mitigation, food security, global health and other global development challenges,” he said.
“Disarmament and non-proliferation are essential across the board, not simply for international peace and security.”
The 65-nation, 31-year-old Conference on Disarmament, the world’s only multilateral forum for nuclear arms diplomacy, has not produced anything substantial since the 1996 nuclear test-ban treaty, a pact now on hold because key nations including the US have not ratified it.
A fissile-material treaty has been proposed since the 1990s, after decades in which nuclear powers accumulated hundreds of tons of plutonium and highly enriched uranium – sitting today in deployed or disused weapon warheads, in storage, in fuel stores for nuclear-powered Russian ice-breakers and US missile submarines, in research reactors and elsewhere.
Experts believe there is enough material in the world for 160,000 bombs, increasingly worrying global authorities at a time when international terrorists talk of “going nuclear”.
The US administration of President George Bush opposed negotiating a cut-off pact, arguing that it would not be verifiable, since that would require an objectionably intrusive regime.
President Barack Obama reversed that stand after taking office last year, and the Geneva conference finally agreed on an agenda. Pakistan at first allowed the process to move forward, but this year it blocked further work, its privilege under conference rules requiring a consensus of all members.
Arch rival India has a larger stock of fissile material than Pakistan, and a greater capacity to build warheads. The Islamabad government consequently wants a treaty that not only cuts off future production, but reduces current stocks of bomb material.
“It presents us with a clear and present danger,” Pakistan’s Geneva negotiator, Zamir Akram, said last January of the cut-off idea.
At the moment, only Pakistan and India – and possibly Israel and North Korea - produce fissile material for weapons. The US, Russia and other major nuclear powers have declared unilateral moratoriums on production.
As the year dragged on, some in Geneva, including the Americans and French, suggested that a negotiating process might have to be established outside the disarmament conference to work on a fissile material treaty. Anyone rejecting such talks would become more internationally isolated.