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​UN disarmament expert - U.S. MD systems plans push the world closer to another arms race

Nuclear war - it was a nightmarish horror for the generation of 60s. Once considered forgotten, the treat of utmost elimination of mankind by its own hands rises again. International bodies are trying to push the possessors of this most deadly weapon to get rid of it - but are they successful? Is there any hope that nuclear war peril will one day vanish away never to come back? And does the world of 21st century even need nuclear weapons? We ask these questions to UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs. Angela Kane is on SophieCo today.

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Sophie Shevarnadze:Angela Kane, it’s really great to have you on our program today.

Angela Kane: Thank you.

Sophie Shevarnadze:There are around 17,000 nuclear warheads in the globe right now. How many of these nuclear weapons are actually needed to destroy the world?

Angela Kane: Oh, I think that there are, like, maybe, in the single digit number to really destroy the world. I think the bombs these days are much more powerful than they were at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so you don't’ really need a lot of weapons to destroy the world and we all know what horrible consequences there would be if a nuclear weapon would explode, either intentionally or accidentally, but certainly, 17 thousand is what we would call “overkill”.

Sophie Shevarnadze:I know you’ve said that when people think about nuclear damage they usually think “Fukushima”, they think “Chernobyl” - but what happens when an actual bomb explodes, like it happened many years ago? What actually happens? Can a state deal with the consequences?

Angela Kane: It’s interesting that you’re asking me that, Sophie, because just in the last 2 years, or year and a half, there have been two major conferences on what we call “The humanitarian consequences of a nuclear explosion”, and this was an initiative taken by Oslo, last year, and there was another follow-up conference in Mexico that was held in December, and in about 2 weeks time there’s going to be a third conference in Austria; and what the scientists have said is that it is impossible for the world, for humanity, for any country, for many countries, for region, to actually deal with the effects of the nuclear explosion.

Sophie Shevarnadze:So when it comes to nuclear weapons, we’ve seen massive reduction ever since the Cold War, but now everyone’s trying to frantically modernize its nuclear arsenal - so it does seem like the world's got to nowhere - what do you think?

Angela Kane: Well, this is one of the issues that is going to be very strongly under discussion when we have the Non-proliferation Treaty Review conference which starts in April next year - this is a review conference that is based on the non-proliferation treaty, and it takes place every 5 years. The large number of member states, the overwhelmingly large number of member states who don’t possess nuclear weapons are saying that one of the articles in the NPT treaty is actually to outlaw or to eliminate nuclear weapons, to reduce the nuclear weapons - so they are asking very strongly the same question that you’re asking - why is it needed? But the modernization is also needed because some of these weapons, when they’re too old, they become unstable, so they need to be phased-out, or they need to be upgraded, or they need to modernized. So, this is actually a spiral of increasing expenditure that, I think we’ve seen in recent articles, have been actually brought to the attention of the world community - how expensive it actually is, to possess nuclear weapons.

Sophie Shevarnadze:I think you’ve also said that when it comes to the disarmament field, it is in stagnation, and there is no meaningful negotiations - I mean, yes, the UN have many committees, it has many conferences, but there’s actually very little disarmament going on - so are those just empty words?

Angela Kane: No, they’re not. I think that when it comes to disarmament, this is not something the UN itself can actually do. This is something where the member states have to take the action and it is very clear that both Russian Federation and the U.S. have the largest numbers of nuclear weapons - so everyone looks to them, and I will not deny that there have been tremendous reduction since the Cold War ended. I think we must give credit to the large numbers that have come down - but is it still too many? In my opinion, and in that opinion of many other countries - absolutely. It still needs to come down - and do we actually need nuclear weapons? Do we need it as a deterrent or do we need it as a threat? What do we need it for, particularly if member states, those nuclear weapon states have said they will not be the first ones to use them.

Sophie Shevarnadze:Well, we’re going to talk about why we need nuclear weapons and why we don’t - but before that, I remember that one of President Obama’s first promises, when he became president, was actually to work towards nuclear disarmament - you praised his speech on Global Zero in 2009 - but what’s going on in America right now is a complete opposite. Would the U.S. be ready to disarm?

Angela Kane: That’s a very good question, and I think in the disarmament community there is disappointment that it hasn’t gone any further on the part of President Obama, who as you said, did come in with a tremendous promise of “yes, we will disarm, we don’t need nuclear weapons, we will take down the numbers” - and there was an engagement, also, with the Russian Federation. Now, to my mind it is also possible to unilaterally disarm, but I will not deny that the climate right now in the U.S. politically makes it very difficult for President Obama to disarm unilaterally. Nevertheless, I think it is an important aspect that we shouldn’t lose sight of - that we don't need that many weapons, we don’t need nuclear weapons at all, and there must be made an effort...unless someone starts, and unless someone actually takes the first steps, it will not go anywhere: so, all we can do, as member states, as UN - we can say “please, go ahead to where’s the rational”, and the humanitarian consequences of nuclear explosions is important in Vienna, because the P5 did not participate in the last two conferences - but this time, the U.S. has said yes, they will participate.

Sophie Shevarnadze:Can I ask you something - realistically speaking, who would want to give up their nukes?

Angela Kane: Well, there are member states who had given up their nuclear weapons - I mean, think of several of the former Soviet republics, they’ve given up their nuclear weapons when they became independent states and entered the UN, and you also have South Africa, for example, who gave up nuclear weapons - I mean, they did have a very serious nuclear weapons development program, and they gave it voluntarily. Brazil - it was never quite confirmed, but on the other hand everyone thought Brazil also had nuclear weapons, Argentina… So there were actual development programs in those countries and they were given up, and I don’t think those countries are seen as any less powerful or any less potent in the international community, because they don’t possess nuclear weapons. I don’t think your status is actually dependent on possessing nuclear weapons. Some countries think so, clearly, but on the other hand I don’t think this is a very good way forward in the international relations.

Sophie Shevarnadze:Now we understand that any country with industrial capability can attempt to create a nuclear bomb, a nuclear weapon, and they can get there in 10 years time, if they wish. Usually, states that embark on nuclear programs are states that think, and they believe, that it’s the only way they can insure their own security - would you say they are wrong?

Angela Kane: I think so, because when you have… security does not really depend on nuclear weapons. I am very sorry that not all countries are members of the non-proliferation treaty and under IAEA safeguards. For example, we’ve got four states that are outside of that, and that is India, Pakistan, Israel and the North Korea. I know that right now there are very intense negotiations going on with Iran about their nuclear possibilities, program. But Iran is a member of the IAEA, and therefore is subject to safeguards, is subject to inspections, and I would wish that other countries would all belong to the NPT treaty and therefore have a certain degree of transparency that would show what is it. Now, let me add another aspect, and that is that there is another initiative that is being taken under the Nuclear Security Summit, which basically means that you safeguard nuclear materials - so you don’t have highly enriched uranium, but you exchange it for low-enriched uranium. So, there are efforts being made to safeguard nuclear materials; but if there were no nuclear materials, there were no nuclear bombs, we may not need that. So, again, it would point at the same direction - and that is nuclear disarmament.

Sophie Shevarnadze:Nuclear weapons also do serve a deterrent to armed conflicts - because, look, there’s India and Pakistan, they had three major wars before they became nuclear powers, and none after they become nuclear powers. U.S. and USSR never went to war with each other - so, maybe it is worth for security safety?

Angela Kane: I would reject that totally. I think that this day and age, when the world is so interconnected, through trade, through migration, through political relations, these are not really “silo” states, these states are embedded in the international community, they’re embedded in the regional treaties, they’re embedded in regional arrangements, they’re embedded in the international arrangements. So there’s such a web of activity that for countries really to go to war - I think it is something, that, hopefully, is becoming very quickly totally arcane. You have a lot of countries that are at war, but many of them are internal wars, they’re not with their neighbors.

Sophie Shevarnadze:Is it really arcane - because all we hear right now is that we’re back to the Cold War era, because the relations between Russia and the West are so tense, and there are many experts that believe that could bring back fears of the nuclear war.

Angela Kane: I must say that no one has actually voiced that concern, in the meetings and in the conversations that I’ve had. I think that yes, the relations have cooled considerably and I hope that they would warm up again, but let me refer to last year - you had a tremendous good cooperation in the question of the Syrian chemical weapons, between the U.S. and Russian Federation. We would not have a elimination of chemical weapons in Syria, were it not for those two countries being the major motors behind this effort. So, things are possible, that are very-very positive in this field, so it’s not all negative - I think it’s like looking at the glass that is half-full and half-empty, and, as working in the UN, I would look at the half-full glass rather than the half-empty glass. I think one must build on the positive and not only look at the negative.

Sophie Shevarnadze:There was the START treaty, that was a huge success between Russia and the U.S. - Russia just recently said that it’s actually ready to continue disarmament talks. In today’s reality - do you think it’s feasible?

Angela Kane: It really depends on the attitude of the other partner, and that means the U.S. - I think what is happening is that there are consultations that are still ongoing; let us also not discount the consultations that are going in the so-called P5 formats, because the P5 are very cohesive in their approach, in terms of, let’s say, the NPT treaty or other treaties - so, there are a lot of talks going on, and very many of these talks really are conducted outside the glaring light of the public and the glaring light of the media - no disrespect for you, Sophie - but on the other hand, this is something that is very important; and think about the negotiations with Iran - I mean, this is also where the Russian Federation and America have been very strongly involved and really leading in this aspect. That is very important that those contacts, that those negotiations continue and that you build on that, you build on the contacts and then you actually move into areas that you may not have tackled so decisively before.

Sophie Shevarnadze:It’s true that the U.S. and Russia have the biggest nuclear weapons arsenal. But, they shouldn’t be the only ones talking about the disarmament, right? Because, right now Russia and the U.S. are the only ones actually considering it and talking and doing something about it, if anyone - so who should join the dialog first, except for them?

Angela Kane: They are talking because they have the largest number of nuclear weapons. You’ve mentioned 17 thousand - that is not an actual number. We don’t know the actual number. We think we have a good idea of how many nuclear weapons there are, but we’re not certain. It is generally assumed that the other 3 nuclear powers in the NPT treaty - I am not talking about India, Pakistan, Israel or DPRK because we’re know nothing about these, or, at least, in the international community we don’t; but it is so natural that it would actually be the two largest possessors of nuclear weapons who start negotiations. Now, when you talk, for example, about the UK, there’s a tremendous debate right now going on in the UK, because the modernization of nuclear weapons, which is coming up, or which should be coming up, is very-very costly, and the people in the UK are saying - “Is this really warranted? Is this something that we want to spend money on?”. That’s, I think, is a very interesting debate that is starting. I’m not saying it’s a full-fledged debate, but it is starting.

Sophie Shevarnadze:But should the UK and the two other nuclear powers that are within the NPT treaty actually join the conversation Russia and the U.S. have been having on the disarmament all along?

Angela Kane: I think they are joining that discussion. What I mentioned about the cohesion of the P5, their regular meetings of the P5 have in terms of responding to certain queries, let’s say, or demands, when it comes to the Non-proliferation treaty, and I think that there’s a lot of consultation going on. What I also think is that the smaller nuclear powers - i.e. the P3, as I would call them, have a tremendous impetus. If they all would take steps on their own, then that would give an impetus to the others, to shame them into also taking steps into nuclear disarmament. That’s, in any case, my hope.

Sophie Shevarnadze:So, okay, there are 5 nuclear powers that are within the NPT treaty, but in reality, like you’ve said, there are more, there’s India, there’s Pakistan, there’s Israel, there’s North Korea - shouldn’t they be disarming as well, because otherwise does the NPT treaty even make sense?

Angela Kane: Well, I think that they should join the NPT treaty, absolutely, there’s no doubt. DPRK was in the NPT, they were member of the Non-Proliferation treaty, and they withdrew. Now, this is not really something that is accepted by the other member states, so right now, they are what we call “suspended”. That means that if they’re not in the NPT, neither India, Pakistan, Israel, they are not subject to inspection of the IAEA, so we have no clue on what’s going on in these countries - and that, I think, is very regrettable.

Sophie Shevarnadze:Well, how do you make them join the NPT, if they don’t want to join it?

Angela Kane: You can only put pressure on them and clearly it hasn’t worked so far; but right now there’s also the discussion going on, a very strong discussion and strong efforts to create a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, and that comes out of the NPT consultations, we’ve had a number of meetings, and of course it means all of the member states of the League of Arab States and Israel. This is a discussion that is going on, it has not culminated in this region, I think there’s a lot of hard work that is still ahead for this, but it’s good that there are discussions going on about it - because it puts a spotlight on the region that does not have a nuclear-free zone or WMD-free zone. It would be the first one in the world, actually. There are other weapons…

Sophie Shevarnadze:I think it’s a great idea, but I’m not sure how make that work - because you have Israel who obviously has a nuclear weapon, even though it won’t admit it has a nuclear weapon, it’s not going to give up its nuclear weapon…

Angela Kane: Well, they’ve never admitted they have nuclear weapons.

Sophie Shevarnadze:But we all know they have nuclear weapons.

Angela Kane: I know, but they’ve never admitted it. So, that’s the first step. Now, Egypt has not signed the chemical weapons treaty, so that’s basically WMD. Libya used to have chemical weapons, nuclear something, and also Syria had chemical weapons - so now, when you have those countries already part of the WMD-free world, so to say, I think it’s easier, but it does depend on those two countries, that is absolutely true, and one of the incentives of having such discussions is to actually sit down from both sides - both the Arab countries and Israel, and to say “We live in a region, yes, there’s a lot of instability, we need to address this”, and I think that whether you discuss this in the context of WMD-zone or use it as a vehicle to have the dialog with your neighbors - it’s positive.

Sophie Shevarnadze:As you’ve mentioned, North Korea is another non-NPT member. So, if Japan and South Korea decide that they need protection against their neighbors, could we see another arms race in that region?

Angela Kane: Well, both South Korea and Japan are under nuclear umbrella of the U.S., so this is what North Korea gives as a reason for… saying, “we need nuclear weapons, because we need to defend ourselves, because our neighbors have nuclear weapons”, or rather have the protection of the nuclear weapons. There are many countries that are under the so-called nuclear umbrella, and the region of the North-East Asia is definitely unstable, simply because as you’ve said, North Korea has developed nuclear weapons, they have just tested nuclear weapons, they have threatened ever so often to have nuclear tests again - and the international community is a bit at a loss, what can you do? We do have sanctions on North Korea, the UNSC has put up mandatory sanctions, but on the other hand we don’t know whether they actually are going to have an effect or not.

Sophie Shevarnadze:The comprehensive nuclear test-ban treaty is a huge step in persuading the world to give up their nukes, but why aren’t China and the U.S. ratifying that treaty?

Angela Kane: That’s a very good question. They and three other states, all of these so-called Annex-2 states, which is the states that have nuclear weapons or had nuclear reactors at the time the treaty was negotiated in the mid-90s, they have to ratify the treaty for it to enter into force. Now, the states that have signed it are actually adhering to the provisions of it, and we hope very much that it will be possible to ratify it, but, again, to go from signature to ratification - I think it’s very difficult. There has actually been very sophisticated technology - you can detect anything, and we had a demonstration of this when Fukushima happened, when at Fukushima we had various testing stations in several parts of the world, and so they can detect very-very small movements, whether it’s an earthquake or whether its a nuclear test, or whatever - and as I said, the only country that really has tested, has been North Korea. It is my hope that these countries will ratify, so it comes into force, because here we are… I think it was concluded in 1997, here we are 17 years later and it is still not into force…

Sophie Shevarnadze:So does it stand for anything, really?

Angela Kane: Oh yes, absolutely, but it has established... the system still works, even though it is in a preparatory phase, and not in the operational phase. But the system of setting up seismic stations, of monitoring what happens - that’s already there, and that’s very much a value added, because it’s a confidence building measure.

Sophie Shevarnadze:Now, I know you’re not just an expert in nuclear disarmament, you’re an expert in disarmament in general - so, the U.S. global missile defense system, a unilateral plan like that, does it give incentive for a new arms race, in your opinion?

Angela Kane: I think every time that you have a new system that you’re developing and you want to deploy it, and you’re doing it without consultation with the countries that are affected by it, is not a good idea. All the ways of cooperating in the international community, in the UN, are really to do things cooperatively, and not to do unilaterally which could actually be seen to be hurting the interests of other states. So, when you have an initiative like that, which incidentally was something that was done not in the UN, it was done outside, with the certain number of allies, it is always better to start discussing it and to start saying “what are the consequences of it?”. I cannot take a stand on that, because I don’t know what went on behind the scenes, all I can say is that when such moves are being made, it is always better to be transparent about it and to say “this is what’s happening, this is what we’re intending to do, this is why we are intending to do”, but also to discuss it with the member states that are affected by it.

Sophie Shevarnadze:Another huge topic, a forever topic, is a threat of an arms race in space, because there is no legally binding prohibition for placing weapons in space - do you think it’s something that could happen, arms race in space?

Angela Kane: Well, I think it is very probable, even, maybe even likely, I don’t know, but it is something that could happen, and Russian Federation in particular has made a tremendous effort to address this issue. There’s been a number of what we call “groups of governmental experts”, that’s, like, several experts that are selected by governments to sit together and say “how do we actually handle this? How do we approach this?”, and sometimes it’s better to do it in smaller group and then come out with a report that than can be discussed in a larger group. There have been several attempts to look at this issue, there have been discussions in what we call the First Committee in the UN also this year, to say “how do we actually address this?”. We need to get together multilaterally, we need to get together as member states to do this. Then you have the EU that has put forward a so-called Code of Conduct, you know what is the Code of Conduct. So you have various avenues of pursuing this, but the good news is that is being pursued, it’s being addressed. Just like you need to address not only an arms race, but also debris, you know there’s all kinds of stuff floating around in the Universe and that is potentially dangerous, because the more debris you have up there, the more potential there is for accidents.

Sophie Shevarnadze:And finally, under what circumstances would a Global Zero be possible?

Angela Kane: It’s a bit of a utopian view right now, but you should never strive not for the impossible. I think we have to go through a lot of steps in order to get there. There’s a lot of instability right now in the world, and the other issue I wanted to say is there are many countries for whom this is not an issue - because there are so few countries that have nuclear weapons, there are so few countries that have the ability to put up arms into space or to put up even satellites into space, so for them this is avery, how should I say, bloodless debate, and they’re saying “You know, this is very difficult for us to get involved in it.” It’s a little bit of the haves and have nots, but on the other hand, in my opinion, the haves have an obligation to basically make it safer for the whole world, including those countries that don’t have a stake in this discussion.

Sophie Shevarnadze:Thank you so much for this wonderful insight. We were talking to Angela Kane, UN high representative for disarmament affairs, it was great talking to you.

Angela Kane: Thank you very much, Sophie.