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U.N. chief takes aim at the 'scourge of war'

The U.N. secretary-general led off a major push to cut arms stockpiles — everything from "grenades to H-bombs" — in an attempt to eliminate warmongering.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres at the Web Summit 2017 in Lisbon, Portugal
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres at the Web Summit 2017 in Lisbon, Portugal (AN/Seb Daly)

GENEVA (AN) — United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres led off a major push to cut stockpiles of arms — everything from "grenades to H-bombs" — in an attempt to eliminate warmongering around the world.

At the University of Geneva, Guterres launched his campaign for global disarmament with a speech and 87-page document underscoring the need for nations to scrap nuclear arsenals and other weapons that could result in catastrophic mistakes.

"We are one mechanical, electronic or human error away from a catastrophe that could eradicate entire cities from the map," he said. “Disarmament prevents and ends violence. Disarmament supports sustainable development. And disarmament is true to our values and principles."

Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal and ex-head of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, rose to assume leadership of the entire U.N. system in 2017. He reminded everyone the Charter of the U.N. in 1945 — its foundational treaty at the end of World War II — specified a key mission was "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war."

“The United Nations was created with the goal of eliminating war as an instrument of foreign policy,” Guterres said. “But seven decades on, our world is as dangerous as it has ever been."

Guterres cited the report's findings and warned massive cyber attacks could cripple infrastructure and deliberately release diseases far more devastating than natural pandemics like Ebola in West Africa. The report found the global arms trade is flourishing with US$1.7 trillion a year in spending.

The U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic examined 83 alleged chemical weapons attacks. It determined at least 14 likely occurred and were crimes under international law. But the U.N. Security Council has not held someone accountable, Guterres said. Worst of all, he said, 15,000 nuclear weapons worldwide have been stockpiled since the Cold War, including hundreds ready to launch within minutes that could accidentally release.

Guterres urged the United States and Russia to extend a strategic arms control pact, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, which took effect in 2011 and is due to expire in 2021. They have the option of extending it for another five years if the two sides can resolve their differences. A key obstacle is U.S. anger at Russia’s meddling in the American electoral process.

Another area in Guterres' focus is the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987. The United States contends Russia violated it by developing nuclear-capable cruise missiles in the past decade, but American officials also researched new weapons in case the Russians did not relent.

Guterres welcomed efforts by the European Union and others to salvage the Iran nuclear deal, known as the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, that U.S. President Donald Trump administration's abandoned. Four of the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent members — Britain, China, France and Russia — plus Germany and the European Union stayed in the deal. The Security Council, the U.N.’s most powerful arm, unanimously endorsed it in a resolution.

Guterres' campaign builds on a historic resolution the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved in 2009 at a summit-level meeting chaired by then-U.S. President Barack Obama. The resolution, also backed by China, Russia and developing nations, urged increasing efforts towards disarmament, preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and cutting the risk of nuclear terrorism.

That meeting of the 15-nation Security Council was only its fifth summit-level meeting among world leaders since the United Nations was established on October 24, 1945. Obama became the first American president to preside over a Security Council summit, which he said stemmed from an aspirational but "shared commitment to a goal of a world without nuclear weapons."

Last year, more than 120 countries approved the first-ever legally binding treaty to ban nuclear weapons. Survivors of atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 at the end of World War II hailed passage of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which is not yet in effect. Nine countries known or believed to possess nuclear weapons — Britain, China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia and the United States — withheld support.

Instead, they argued to strengthen the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. A cornerstone of global nonproliferation, it requires signatory nations not to pursue nuclear weapons in exchange for a commitment by nuclear powers to progress towards nuclear disarmament. Nations that lack nuclear weapons are guaranteed access to peaceful nuclear technology for generating electricity.

The Geneva-based International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons won the Nobel Peace Prize last year amid rising fears over North Korea’s nuclear and missile program and escalation in tensions between Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un. The campaign, known as ICAN, helped the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons gain approval at the United Nations.

Guterres urged all nations to meet their obligations and commitments under the NPT and called on more nations to join the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization's Preparatory Commission, which is charged with keeping a global watch on nuclear tests. It was created to support the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, signed in 1996, that is not yet in force.