World's nuclear powers boycott UN talks on weapons ban

The United States is one of almost 40 nations skipping UN talks to create a treaty banning nuclear weapons. Washington and a number of allies say provocations from countries like North Korea make a treaty unrealistic.

More than 100 countries on Monday launched the United Nations' first round of talks on an outright nuclear weapons ban. It would be considered a diplomatic milestone and among the greatest strides towards disarmament, if there weren't some notable absentees - namely the world's nuclear powers.

Politics | 23.12.2016

Last October, Britain, France, Israel, Russia and the US all voted against the UN's proposal to create a legally binding treaty banning nuclear weapons. The remaining nuclear powers - China, India and Pakistan - all abstained and also intend to boycott the talks. More than 30 other countries have announced plans to skip the negotiations, including Japan, the only country to have suffered a nuclear attack, in 1945.

Meanwhile, the countries leading the call for a prospective ban include Austria, Ireland, Mexico, Brazil, South Africa and Sweden. Hundreds of NGOs have also backed efforts towards a ban.

Those countries leading Monday's talks have cited the ever-growing threat of nuclear disaster - exemplified by mounting tensions over North Korea's nuclear program and an unpredictable new administration in Washington - as reason for agreeing a form of ban, even without the world's nuclear powers.

Margot Wallstrom, the Foreign Minister of Sweden, one of the countries leading the disarmament efforts, said the most important aspect of the talks was making progress on the nuclear issue. "I expect that this will take a long time, let's not be naive," she said at the UN last week. "But it's very important in these days when you see more of this rhetoric, and also sort of power demonstrations, including threatening to use nuclear weapons."

"Quite a high number of countries are actually interested in saying we have to break the deadlock that has been on this issue for so many years," she added.

Nuclear powers justify absence

The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, told reporters that the world's nuclear powers were skipping the negotiations so they could instead remain committed to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, an agreement signed in the 1970s that aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

"There is nothing I want more for my family than a world with no nuclear weapons," Haley told reporters. "But we have to be realistic. Is there anyone that believes that North Korea would agree to a ban on nuclear weapons?"

Nikki Haley UN Botschafterin

The US and her nuclear counterparts see little point of a treaty banning nuclear weapons.

Haley added: "In this day and time we can't honestly that say we can protect our people by allowing the bad actors to have them and those of us that are good, trying to keep peace and safety, not to have them."

Britain's ambassador to the UN, Matthew Rycroft, justified the UK's absence on the ground that it did not believe negotiations would progress towards global nuclear disarmament. His French counterpart, Alexis Lamek, said security conditions were not right for an outright ban.

Related Subjects

The state of nuclear affairs

Even without the world's nuclear powers at the table, this week's talks could have an impact on the international communities' slow-moving nuclear disarmament process.

Beatrice Fihn, director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, an international coalition of NGOs, said there was a "good chance" of a treaty being adopted, even if not during the first phase of negotiations and not including the world's nuclear powers.

"Even if major (nuclear weapon) producers don't sign it, (treaties) have a big impact," Fihn said. "Look at Russia denying using cluster bombs in Syria. Why? They did not sign (the cluster munition ban), but they know it's bad."

Nevertheless, the rhetoric around nuclear weapons has escalated in recent years - from talk of disarmament to demonstrations of power.

In 2009, then-US President Barack Obama vowed to reduce the role of nuclear weapons, with the goal of eventually eliminating them. However, last year, in the final months of his presidency, he urged NATO members to boycott the UN's treaty talks, saying a ban would obstruct cooperation and hamper the alliance's capacity to respond to a nuclear threat.

President Donald Trump took that rhetoric further in a tweet shortly before he took office in January by seemingly threatening a nuclear arms race with China, saying "we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all."

Last week, a White House aide said the administration was reviewing the US' pledge towards a world without nuclear weapons - an aim required by a key arms control treaty. 

dm/kl (Reuters, AFP, AP)


Earthquake drills part of school life in Japan

Elementary schoolchildren across Japan take part in monthly earthquake drills. They learn to get under their desk and hold onto its legs until the tremors stop. Some youngsters are given disaster prevention hoods, which can cushion fragile heads from falling objects. Multistory schools even have chutes for children to slide down to safety.


Japan leads the way in emergency warnings

Many countries, including the US, have emergency warning systems that can override radio and TV broadcasts with vital public information. But Japan has gone a stage further with its Earthquake Early Warning System. Using the latest technology, it can predict a major tremor up to 50 seconds before it happens. The warnings are broadcast instantaneously, as every second counts when saving lives.


Every home's got a panic room!

In Switzerland, all residential buildings built since 1963 are required to have a nuclear bunker. The shelter must be able to withstand a blast from a 12-megaton explosion at a 700-meter distance. In Singapore, one room in most state-built flats is reinforced to serve as a bomb shelter - although not nuclear-proof. In 2012, the government rejected calls to drop the requirement.


Lessons learned from previous disasters

The 2004 Asian earthquake and tsunami took the world by surprise. The first major tidal wave in the Indian Ocean in 600 years killed 250,000 people. The Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System, which was set up following the disaster, has already saved lives in subsequent emergencies. In Thailand and Sri Lanka, new signs point residents towards higher ground in the event of another killer wave.


Norway, a reminder to all

Most large cities hold regular terror drills to allow emergency services to prepare for a real attack. But what happens if a rural area is targeted? In 2011, Norwegian authorities were ridiculed for taking more than an hour to reach Utoya island, where Anders Breivik shot dead 69 people. But subsequent plans to station fast-response helicopters around the country have been scaled down, over costs.


Health scares can lead to knee-jerk reactions

Over the past decade, growing fears about possible flu pandemics prompted several countries, including Germany and the US, to stockpile medicine. In 2009, billions of euros were spent to build up reserves of the drug Tamiflu, only for its effectiveness against Swine Flu to be later questioned. Critics also warned that many doses could never be used as they had already expired.


Disasters and disruption to law and order

The survivalist movement, where people actively prepare for emergencies, began in the 1930s. But the internet and the 2007/8 financial crisis helped speed up the global spread of its often apocolyptic warnings. Preppers, as they're known, prioritize worst-case scenarios and then work out ways to survive these threats. Pole Adolf Kudlinski collects tools and supplies for his prep farm (pictured).


Will iodine help in case of a nuclear disaster?

Belgium, the Netherlands and the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia are stockpiling iodine tablets in case of a radiation leak. Belgium has admitted its ageing nuclear reactors, near the German border, are to remain in service until 2025, despite growing safety concerns. After the Brussels attacks, fears are mounting that "Islamic State" (IS) may be planning to build a so-called dirty bomb.


That twister is how close?

Smartphone apps and text messages are now being used to deliver emergency information to the public in several disaster-prone countries, including India and The Philippines. In the US, the Wireless Emergency Alert system can deliver details about national threats, news of local disasters like tornadoes, earthquakes and hurricanes, and alerts about abducted children. Author: Nik Martin