UN chief warns global divisions, enhanced nukes are ‘recipe for annihilation’

Antonio Guterres reiterates call for banning atomic weapons’ tests, with 1996 global treaty yet to take effect while awaiting ratification by several countries, including Israel

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres addresses a news conference during the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, August 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres addresses a news conference during the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, August 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — An alarming rise in global distrust and division coupled with efforts by countries to improve the accuracy and destructive power of nuclear weapons is “a recipe for annihilation,” the United Nations chief warned Tuesday.

In a statement marking the International Day Against Nuclear Tests, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that with nearly 13,000 nuclear weapons stockpiled around the world, “a legally binding prohibition on nuclear tests is a fundamental step in our quest for a world free of nuclear weapons.”

The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty has 196 member states — 186 have signed it and 178 have ratified it, including eight in the last 18 months. But the pact has not taken effect because it needs ratification by the eight nations that had nuclear power reactors or research reactors when the UN General Assembly adopted the treaty in 1996.

At a high-level meeting of the 193-member assembly to observe the day there was no indication that those eight countries — the United States, China, Egypt, Iran, Israel, North Korea, India and Pakistan — were moving toward ratification.

Iranian diplomat Heidar Ali Balouji said his country “shares the frustration of non-nuclear weapon states against any delays in ending nuclear testing,” but he made no mention of ratifying the treaty. He said that “the cornerstone for ridding the world of nuclear threats” rests squarely with countries with nuclear weapons.

UN disarmament chief Izumi Nakamitsu told delegates she stood before them “with a sense of urgency” because while the treaty has provided the foundation for “the global taboo against nuclear testing,” trends are undermining it.

“The rising tide of nuclear risk threatens to engulf the hard-won gains in nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation achieved over the last three decades,” she said. “This includes the gains made against the testing of nuclear weapons” which has been done only by North Korea in the 21st century.

File: In an image from video released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on October 26, 2022, a Yars intercontinental ballistic missile is test-fired as part of Russia’s nuclear drills from a launch site in Plesetsk, northwestern Russia. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, File)

Robert Floyd, head of the UN nuclear test ban treaty organization, said, “Globally we’re facing challenging, worrying times.” But, he added, “Momentum towards universality is increasing: Recently, both Somalia and South Sudan made public commitments to sign and ratify the treaty.”

The Netherlands’ UN ambassador, Yoka Brandt, speaking on behalf of 28 mainly Western nations, said it is of “vital importance and urgency” to have the treaty enter into force.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its “threats of nuclear use and testing seriously undermine” and negatively affect disarmament and nuclear nonproliferation efforts, he said.

The group, where the United States is an observer, also condemned North Korea’s six nuclear tests since 2006 “in the strongest terms” and expressed deep concern that Pyongyang is reportedly preparing for a seventh test, Brandt said.

European Union Charge d’ Affaires Silvio Gonzato said Russia’s announcement of its readiness to conduct a nuclear test is inconsistent with its ratification of the treaty, “and risks undermining confidence in the treaty in these turbulent times.”

The EU also demands that North Korea comply with UN Security Council sanctions banning any nuclear testing, saying that the North “cannot and will never have the status of a nuclear weapon state,” Gonzato said.

The date to protest nuclear testing commemorates the closing of the former Soviet Union’s nuclear test site at Semipalatinsk, now part of Kazakhstan, on August 29, 1991.

This is the mushroom cloud of the first atomic explosion at Trinity Test Site, New Mexico, July 16, 1945. It left a half-mile wide crater, 10 feet deep at the vent and the sand within the crater had been burned and boiled into a highly radioactive, jade-green, glassy crust. (AP Photo)

Kazakhstan’s UN ambassador, Akan Rakhmetullin, reminded the world’s diplomats that following the first atomic bomb detonation in 1945, “at least eight nations have carried out a total of 2,056 nuclear tests, around one-quarter of them in the atmosphere, causing severe long-term harm and suffering to humanity and the entire planet.”

Kazakhstan is “extremely anxious” over increasing geopolitical tensions, threats to use nuclear weapons and “the trend towards nuclear sharing, which can lead to further proliferation and weapons accumulation,” he said.

Ambassador Teburoro Tito of the tiny Pacific island nation of Kiribati said the United States and Britain carried out 33 nuclear tests on Kiritimati, its atoll also known as Christmas Island, in the 1950s and 1960s.

The tests left a “tragic legacy” for the atoll’s 500 residents who received little protection, Tito said. Many complained afterward of untreatable illnesses and health complications, “most of which resulted in death,” he said. There were numerous cases of cancer, congenital disabilities and abnormalities with newborn babies, he said.

Tito urged the US and United Kingdom to support citizens of Kiritmati who “continue to suffer from not only physical medical problems caused by radiation exposure, but also post-traumatic and intergenerational harm from these weapons of mass destruction.”

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