A New Agenda for Nuclear Disarmament: Q&A with Jayantha Dhanapala

The United Nations must reassert its role in multilateral nuclear disarmament, according to Jayantha Dhanapala, President of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs and former UN Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs. “It’s only the United Nations which provides the machinery that can really do something about it. A fresh initiative is vitally needed in order to ensure that we start talking again on this very important question.”

Speaking to the International Peace Institute’s Jimena Leiva-Roesch, Mr. Dhanapala highlighted the links between disarmament, climate change, and terrorism and urged the international community’s leadership to start moving in the right direction.

“Because of the fact that the nuclear weapon is such a hugely destructive weapon, I think it’s important for us to get our act together,” he said.

The interview was conducted on the margins of the ICM’s retreat on weapons of mass destruction, nonproliferation, and disarmament, held in Geneva, Switzerland on February 4-5th.

As the UN celebrates its 70th anniversary, what efforts could be made to renew the multilateral system that covers disarmament and nonproliferation?

Seven decades after the first UN General Assembly resolution dealt with the subject of weapons of mass destruction, it is really important to reassert the role of the UN in multilateral disarmament. It has been very much an area where there has been very little progress, particularly because of the strained relationship between the two major nuclear weapon states, the United States and Russia.

It is very important that we jumpstart not only multilateral disarmament, but also bilateral disarmament between these two important nuclear weapon states. It’s only the United Nations which provides the machinery that can really do something about it. A fresh initiative is vitally needed in order to ensure that we start talking again on this very important question.

What type of initiatives do you think is needed to restart the multilateral system?

The machinery that was created for the discussion of multilateral disarmament and the negotiation of it was really set up by the first special session devoted to disarmament in 1978. That’s a very long time ago, so it is necessary that we look afresh. The Independent Commission on Multilateralism is an opportunity for recommendations to be made which can be considered by the UN, and hopefully some fresh initiative can be taken. So it’s a question not only of creating new avenues, because the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, we know, has been—for almost 20 years—paralyzed into inactivity. And that is not a good thing for that organization. But more than that, I think they need to look afresh at the agenda for disarmament and see what are the priority items that must be addressed? Meanwhile, we have extremism of various forms arising, dangers of non-state actors acquiring weapons of mass destruction and so many other new developments such as the application of new technologies which, if applied to weapons of mass destruction, could be completely catastrophic for the global community.

In your keynote address you made the recommendation that a group of scientists could start working on a nuclear weapons convention?

Yes, I think it’s important to take this issue outside the political firmament and entrust it to scientists who know what they’re talking about. We had a group of scientific experts working on the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban long before there was any political agreement on having a Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban, and that work was done dispassionately and very scientifically, producing very good results. It was confined to excellent scientists from various countries and chaired by a Swedish scientist, Ola Dahlman.

We can do the same thing, because everybody’s talking about a nuclear weapons convention, and the nuclear weapon states who have the weapons are naturally concerned as to how there will be a verification. If any one country cheats with regard to a nuclear weapons convention, then the whole convention is completely vitiated. So you need to have assurances that a nuclear weapons convention can be verified—just as much as we have a very good verification system, a very intrusive verification system with regard to the Chemical Weapons Convention. The same thing could be devised, but you need hard scientists who know what they’re talking about to devise such a system and to give the political negotiators the confidence that a nuclear weapons convention is feasible and can be verified.

Has the UN shown leadership and how can it do it better?

I believe it has shown leadership. Kofi Annan, when he became secretary-general, embodied in his reforms of the UN structure the reestablishment of the Department of Disarmament Affairs and he invited me to lead it. I think that showed extraordinary leadership. It was not a very popular move with the great powers, but he went ahead and did it.

Under his leadership, we were able to have new vistas with regard to small arms and light weapons, and we had a very good conference in 2001 and a program of action, which is still being implemented. So we were able to do a lot of things. We started work on missiles, on having discussions on nuclear weapons.

But I think after that, Ban Ki-moon also showed great leadership because he had a five-point plan on nuclear disarmament, which included the possibility of having a nuclear weapons convention. It was not very popular with the nuclear weapon states, but he went ahead and did it. He’s spoken repeatedly on the subject of nuclear weapons. The fact that his proposals have not been taken up, of course, is no reflection on him. But it is important that the UN, with the moral compass that it has in the international community, should constantly point in the right direction. And the UN has done that.

Finally, how do you see the future of disarmament and nonproliferation in the multilateral system?

In the short term, I am very pessimistic. This is the final year of President Obama’s presidency. Even though his speech in Prague was very optimistic and gave us all hope for a nuclear-weapon free future, nothing very much has happened since the first START agreement with Russia. And the relationship has deteriorated over Crimea and Ukraine. But more than that, I think there is no great political will, particularly because of the debate between the Republicans and the Democrats in the United States. So the sole surviving superpower is not really enthused about the nuclear agenda, and consequently we have to wait until the election of a new president. If that president has any desire to resume the pace of progress, then the prospects will be good. But we have to depend so much on the great powers.

Unless, of course, there is a catastrophe. And that is what I dread—that there will be a catastrophe caused by the use of a dirty bomb by a terrorist group, which could then make everybody sit up and think. A wake-up call, rather like what happened with 9/11. And then, you realize the enormity of the challenge and the need for urgent action. But we don’t need to wait for that, we should intelligently be able to anticipate it.

There are links between all the existing problems. There are links between climate change and the disarmament issue. There are links between terrorism and the disarmament issue. So we have to focus on this and ensure that humankind progresses in the right direction, and the leadership of the international community must start working.

The open-ended working group on disarmament that is going to be started this year is a unique opportunity for the international community to get together—both the nuclear weapon states and the non-nuclear weapon states to work in a common direction. Of course, there are a number of issues that have to be worked out. It’s not easy, it’s not simple, but it is possible. We were able in Paris, in December, to come to agreement on climate change because we saw that it is really in the common interest of humankind to do that. Similarly, with regard to this very important issue of facing mutual destruction as it were, because of the fact that the nuclear weapon is such a hugely destructive weapon, I think it’s important for us to get our act together.