We are one error away from catastrophe, UN chief warns at launch of new disarmament agenda
The UN chief has launched a bold if surprising initiative to promote a new agenda for disarmament of both nuclear and conventional weapons, including small arms. This at a time when several countries are being armed to the teeth and wars catastrophic for civilians are rife.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ push for disarmament by all countries for all kinds of lethal weapons also comes against a backdrop of increasingly severe risks for the spread of nuclear weapons.
Worse, banned chemical weapons have been used 83 times since 2014 and new kinds of banned biological weapons are easier to make.
“We are one mechanical, electronic or human error away from a catastrophe that could eradicate entire cities from the map,” he said, noting the 15,000 nuclear weapons stockpiled around the world with hundreds ready to be launched within minutes.
President Donald Trump’s cancellation today of the June Summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is the latest signal that the world may have moved a step closer to a US-North Korea war.
In fact, conflicts are multiplying and are enormously difficult to stop or even slow down, as in Syria and Yemen. The catastrophic impacts on ordinary children, women and men are burgeoning because explosive weapons are used in dense urban centers.
To sceptics, Guterres responded: “It is exactly because we face these risks that we need to understand that disarmament is an extremely important tool to reduce these risks, an extremely important tool to strengthen peace and security, and to create the conditions for sustainable development and the promotion of human rights.”
Despite his determination and optimism, he is playing a difficult hand since the Donald Trump administration has not offered support and Trump’s policies towards Iran, Syria, Yemen, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Palestine and North Korea are likely to worsen conflicts.
Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Emirates and Israel are buying advanced American and European-made conventional weapons hand over fist and Iran is girding for more conflict with the US, Israel and a Saudi-led Sunni Muslim coalition.
Yet, Guterres’ clarion call for disarmament deserves support and involvement by all those who want to prevent new wars and more intense suffering for innocent civilians caught in conflicts. In truth, without his gumption, disarmament might simply enter its death throes in these very perilous times for global peace.
His new disarmament agenda has three priorities: disarmament to save humanity, disarmament that saves lives, and disarmament for future generations.
The first priority — disarmament to save humanity is aimed at reducing and eliminating nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction.
“Our world is going backwards,” Guterres warned. There are no bilateral negotiations underway between Russia and the US for further nuclear arms reductions.
“Governments are pouring resources into updating old weapons systems, developing new ones, and entering into what many see as a new arms race, based on quality rather than quantity,” he said.
The second priority — disarmament that saves lives aims at reducing the impact of conventional weapons, from improvised explosive devices to ballistic missiles, rockets, artillery and illicit hand guns.
At the end of 2016, more than 65 million people were uprooted by armed conflicts that moved from open fields into cities. When explosive weapons are used in urban areas, some 90 percent of the casualties are civilians. They also have a devastating effect on hospitals, schools, and water and electricity supplies.
Disturbingly, there is no international agreement on limiting the use of explosive weapons in residential areas or common standards and operational policies for them. Guterres will launch initiatives on these and also to combat illicit circulation and trade in small arms at the national level and across borders.
His third priority — disarmament for future generations is aimed at preventing new weapon technologies from enabling dangerous and repugnant applications, like lethal autonomous weapons. “Human beings must remain in control of the use of force at all times,” he insisted.
One of the most difficult issues for his disarmament agenda will be the rising use of armed drones by the US and others. Ideally, there should be common standards to promote accountability, transparency and oversight but the new war doctrines of Trump, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping rely on drones and other remote systems for missile attacks.
Advancing technologies also open several potentially devastating perils. For instance, gene editing and synthetic biology, could enable new types of biological warfare while further development of hypersonic, ballistic missiles and space-based weapons will create new dangers.
Worse, a future major armed conflict is likely to be preceded by massive cyber-attacks and the creation of cyberweapons of mass destruction is on the horizon.
The UN’s disarmament efforts begun over 40 years ago have been at standstill for about 20 years. Hopefully Guterres will find some political will among governments to move forward now despite the indifference of Trump and top aides, John Bolton, Mike Pompeo and Niki Haley to most issues that the UN has valued for decades.