“New Imperatives and Openings for a Nuclear Weapons-Free World” - Opening address by Minister of State Gernot Erler

29.01.2009 - Speech

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Mr Chairman,


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me cordially welcome you in the name of the German government. I am very pleased that with the support of the German Foreign Office this year’s Article VI forum on nuclear disarmament takes place in Berlin, at the Rathaus Schöneberg. When US President Kennedy held his famous speech here in 1963, underlining the determination of the free world to stand up for Berlin, the existential threat of nuclear weapons was present in everybody’s mind. Today, almost twenty years after the end of the Cold War, the acute feeling of insecurity of those times has faded. The menace of nuclear weapons being used has receded. But we must not be deluded: it has not gone away. In fact, stemming the proliferation of nuclear weapons continues to be one of the most pressing questions in international security policy. In today’s world with complex and new evolving security threats, the need for action has actually increased:

  • In spite of important reductions since the end of the Cold War, the estimated number of nuclear warheads is still at an incredible 25.000, more than 90 per cent of which are held by the USA and Russia. Several of the nuclear armed states continue to expand or modernize their nuclear arsenal and delivery systems.
  • The world stockpile of weapons-usable fissile material is roughly 2.500 tons. This material could be used to produce an incredible further 200.000 nuclear bombs. Obviously it must be kept safely under lock and key. The risk of terrorists trying to get hold of fissile material has emerged as a new, unprecedented threat.
  • Thanks to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the international community has managed to limit the number of possessor states of nuclear weapons. Let me mention again President Kennedy who in the early 1960’s pointed at the possibility that the number of nuclear-weapon states might rise to 15 or 20 within a decade. While this prediction thankfully proved incorrect the danger is far from banned. We have witnessed the development of clandestine nuclear programmes. We are confronted with the risk of countries breaking out of the NPT and striving for nuclear weapons. In spite of the endeavours made by the international community, the proliferation threats of the Iranian nuclear programme as well as the North Korean case remain unsolved. Both are major challenges to the international non-proliferation regime. We expect North Korea to follow through with the dismantling of its nuclear installations and the verification of its nuclear activities.
  • Iran must, in order to restore confidence, suspend critical activities, as requested by the UN Security Council, and fully cooperate with the IAEA.
  • If the international community does not succeed here, there is a real risk of new arms races that threaten regional and world security. The questions concerning Syria and the nature of the facility bombed by the Israeli air force illustrate the seriousness of this threat.
  • Basically the same countries which are of concern with regard to nuclear proliferation activities are also active in enhancing their capabilities in the production of missiles. The proliferation of ballistic missiles as possible means of delivery for nuclear weapons continues, in spite of efforts in the context of the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Hague Code of Conduct. Not only other regions of the world, but also Europe is increasingly confronted with the security challenges of combined weapons and missile proliferation.
  • The proliferation cases at hand demonstrate that we need new concepts to prevent military abuse of legitimate nuclear energy production. We are faced with a situation where rising energy needs and climate change considerations lead to renewed interest in nuclear power. A growing number of countries is examining the expansion or the launch of civil nuclear programmes. The Director General of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, spoke of no fewer than 50 countries that have informed the IAEA of considering to introduce nuclear power, with 12 countries actively preparing nuclear energy programmes. Such a “nuclear renaissance” could dramatically increase the number of states that are interested in proliferation sensitive nuclear technology. IAEA Director General ElBaradei has spoken of the emergence of “virtual” nuclear weapon states once countries master the entire nuclear fuel cycle including enrichment and reprocessing. Even if - as we hope - all those countries refrain from any military program, all these additional nuclear facilities need to be secured against terrorists.

It is important that countries develop their nuclear energy industry under the highest standards of safety and proliferation security. This is the reason why Germany is actively engaged in the development of new concepts, aiming at multilateral solutions to the nuclear fuel cycle. The German proposal of an international enrichment facility under IAEA control intends to offer countries an assured and proliferation-safe access to nuclear fuel and fuel cycle technology, while fully respecting their full rights under the NPT’s article IV. I am glad we will hear more about these ideas in the course of this conference.

Unfortunately, the insufficient progress in nuclear disarmament and the proliferation threats I just referred to have not yet met a unanimous response by the international community. To the contrary: differences of perception and diverging priorities with regard to non-proliferation and disarmament objectives have led to the failure of the 2005 NPT review conference. They continue to challenge the on-going review process. Renewed failure at the next conference in 2010 would seriously further erode the credibility not only of the NPT but of the multilateral non-proliferation and arms control system as a whole.

All these developments point to one conclusion: The international community cannot afford to be passive. We need a renewed effort to strengthen the international non-proliferation regime in all its aspects - including nuclear disarmament.

It is encouraging that in spite of the worrying developments I have just named the debate on nuclear disarmament has been given new impetus. I refer of course to the arguments presented by the four elder statesmen Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry and George Shultz which you will be familiar with. Just two newspaper articles have had an overwhelming echo. Without disrespect towards the many in this room with a long record of personal commitment to disarmament - one of the reasons for this echo is certainly that it did not come from the ‘usual suspects’. Their practical line of reasoning exposes the deficiencies of established nuclear policies under changed and further evolving circumstances. Starting from a very sober and pragmatic assessment the four restate the case for complete nuclear disarmament as the only sustainable solution to ensure our security.

I believe the notion of sustainable security is important. As foreign minister Steinmeier recently put it when calling for urgent progress in nuclear disarmament and arms control: “Europe's and the world's security in the 21st century will not be ensured by the weapons of the past century. On the contrary.” He also called for a European answer to the ideas formulated by the group of four. I am glad that four German elder statesmen - Helmut Schmidt, Richard von Weizsäcker, Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Egon Bahr - have answered the call and presented their own ideas in support of the vision of a nuclear weapon free-world. They urge us to return to the audacity shown by Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavik to rid the world of the nuclear threat and to overcome the thinking in cold war categories. They call for a new co-operation in the northern hemisphere from Vancouver to Vladivostok to promote security and stability and suggest a range of specific questions - such as missile defense, the European security architecture, nuclear doctrines, tactical nuclear weapons - that need to be addressed. I hope the German reply to the American four will cause others to join in and feed a very necessary debate.

The broad debate that we need on the role of nuclear weapons in future security policy and how to create the conditions for further nuclear disarmament must also be conducted within NATO. Not the least due to our insistence disarmament and non-proliferation will be on the agenda of the NATO summit this spring. Germany has been active to point out that ever since the Harmel report NATO has combined a policy of military strength with a commitment to dialogue and the reduction of tensions. NATO’s strategic concept is based on a broad understanding of the term security. The Alliance states very clearly that in today’s security environment the significance of nuclear forces has decreased. Consequently NATO member states have reduced the number of substrategic nuclear weapons in Europe by more than 85 % since the beginning of the 1990’s. This mutually reinforcing process of reducing the reliance on nuclear weapons and their actual numbers must be continued.

Already today the arguments advanced by the protagonists of “global zero” have had a considerable impact and have been instrumental to create new openings for nuclear disarmament. We are honoured to have one of the authors of the seminal article on ‘the logic of global zero’, Jan Lodal, today among us. In the speech he made here in Berlin last July President Obama expressed his support for the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. In that speech he vowed to work towards drastically reducing nuclear arsenals and to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. We are encouraged by the way in which he has taken up this pledge in his inauguration speech: ‘With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat’. Together with the commitment by the new secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, in her Senate hearings this gives us hope that the new administration is prepared to set a new direction in nuclear weapons policy, reflecting the changed security conditions of the 21st century, and to take seriously its commitment under the NPT to pursue nuclear disarmament. That new impulse to multilateral arms control and disarmament is urgently needed.

There are high expectations about what the US can do:

  • US ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is long overdue. Bill Clinton signed the CTBT twelve years ago. The new administration has announced that it will reach out to the Senate to secure ratification at the earliest practical date. We are aware that it will need time to make the case in the Senate and mobilize the necessary two-thirds majority. But already the clear intention to engage for ratification of the treaty is an important signal. It greatly increases pressure on the other seven states whose participation is a precondition for its entry into force to reconsider their position. The CTBT is a perfect demonstration of the interconnection between disarmament and non-proliferation, serving both objectives at once. A universal and legally-binding prohibition of nuclear tests would be a strong barrier against further proliferation of nuclear weapons and give renewed confidence to non-nuclear weapon states that they have made the right choice.
  • President Obama has stated that he is in favour of further, negotiated and verifiable steps towards reductions in strategic as well as non-strategic nuclear weapons. We need a follow-up to the START Treaty which is due to expire in December this year. This follow-up instrument should not only preserve the verification procedures that are necessary to foster mutual trust and guarantee transparency and irreversibility - two major disarmament principles. It should also aim at significantly lower levels for warheads. Russian president Medvedev has expressed his readiness to replace START by a legally-binding follow-up instrument that would include lower levels. Even if a range of conceptual differences has to be overcome, there is prospect for agreement between the two powers. This window of opportunity must not be derailed by the confrontational attitude that we have seen last year when president Medvedev, as a response to the planned US missile defence system to be based in Poland and the Czech Republic, announced to place short range missiles in Kaliningrad. I am encouraged by recent reports indicating that Russia is reconsidering this decision in view of the new US administration. The US and Russia must renew their security partnership on the basis of a balance of interests.
  • We need a new impetus also in the multilateral arena. The Bush administration has not helped international efforts to negotiate a treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons by arguing that such a treaty would not be verifiable. Extensive research has been undertaken to demonstrate how an FMCT can be effectively verified. We need a renewed effort to finally engage in FMCT negotiations. It remains the logical next step, besides the CTBT, for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. In addition to cutting the production of fissile material for weapons, we must do more to increase the security, transparency and control over fissile material stocks worldwide. We are ready, together with all interested parties including the new US administration, to engage on these issues.

These steps are essential to preserve and strengthen the international non-proliferation regime. The NPT Review conference 2010 is a key target date in our common endeavours. We have only 15 months left to work towards a successful conference. We simply cannot afford to repeat the 2005 failure. The NPT remains the cornerstone of nuclear arms control and disarmament.

The viability of the NPT depends however on respect for the fundamental bargain underlying the Treaty: the interdependent relationship between non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament. I have disscussed present and future proliferation risks. But in order to overcome the current challenges to the NPT regime, a renewed commitment from the NW states to their nuclear disarmament obligations under article VI of the Treaty - their part of the bargain - is equally necessary if we want to avoid an erosion of non-proliferation. Disarmament and non-proliferation are interlinked.

The Review conference should agree on practical steps to strengthen both the disarmament and the non-proliferation pillars of the NPT. In doing so we can build on the steps that have already been identified by the 2000 NPT Review conference. We need to reaffirm the principles of irreversibility, increased transparency and accountability formulated in 2000 and apply them in the further capping of nuclear arsenals as well as in the securing of fissile material. We need a clear commitment to compliance and determined support for the diplomatic efforts to solve the current proliferation crises. Verification standards must be improved, and solutions found to prevent the misuse of civilian nuclear programmes for military ends.

We know what must be done. But to set things in motion and give a clear course, we need to mobilize the necessary political will. Widespread mutual mistrust between the various sides, Western and non-aligned countries, nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states, has to be overcome. Lip-service and tactical arrangements will not suffice, as we learned when the decisions of the 2000 Review Conference failed to get implemented. A common and sustained commitment to the objectives of the NPT is necessary. Reinvigouring the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons could re-establish the common sense of purpose amongst States Parties that is so urgently needed. Both the American as well as the German quartet of elder statesmen, all of them protagonists of practical policy or “Realpolitik” - a German language expression used worldwide-, have shown that this vision can be a powerful directive for practical policy. At a moment when new openings present themselves, this forum is a most timely opportunity to seek more concrete ways for implementing the set agenda.

With that in mind, I wish you all a very fruitful discussion and an enjoyable stay in Berlin.

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