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Minister Costello calls for a quicker pace of nuclear disarmament

Minister Joe Costello, Disarmament, Speech, Ireland, 2014


The Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

In association with

The School of History, University College Cork


The Embassy of Japan in Ireland


28 March 2014


Disarmament and Nonā€Proliferation: Historical Perspectives & Future Objectives


Keynote Address

Delivered by

Minister of State Mr Joe Costello T.D.


Ambassadors, Ladies and Gentlemen, Colleagues,

It is my pleasure to welcome you all here this morning to this symposium, organised by the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade, in association with the School of History, University College Cork, and the Embassy of Japan in Ireland. I was particularly pleased to hear the remarks of the Ambassador of Japan and to recall the visit of the Taoiseach to Japan last year, during which cooperation on disarmament was discussed between Prime Minister Abe and the Taoiseach. This Symposium is one of the direct results.

I would especially like to extend a very warm welcome to the students and teachers here today. This Symposium is an education initiative. I believe it is very important to promote greater awareness of Ireland’s disarmament and non-proliferation policies, and a greater understanding of why we pursue them.  Today offers us an opportunity not just to look at the historical perspectives of Ireland’s disarmament and non-proliferation efforts, but to look forward to our future objectives.

Ireland has always attached a very high priority to promoting the international disarmament agenda. We were admitted to the United Nations in 1955, the year the Warsaw Pact was formed as a counterbalance to NATO during a dangerous Cold War nuclear arms race.  Like many emerging small nations, Ireland put a premium on a strong international rule of law based around the United Nations system.  Over the decades, this has informed our approach to peacekeeping, human rights, development cooperation and, of course, disarmament.  From the outset we committed ourselves to the goal of achieving a world free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, and to promoting disarmament and arms control more generally. These remain key foreign policy priorities for Ireland.

Our early efforts on nuclear disarmament were motivated by the humanitarian imperative for removing these weapons entirely from global arsenals.  We are extremely privileged to have with us today Ms. Setsuko Thurlow, who was in Hiroshima on the fateful morning of August 6th 1945.  Her powerful and personal testimony, as an atomic bomb survivor, provides us with a unique perspective on the humanitarian impact of a nuclear weapon detonation and on what this actually means in terms of human suffering. Her story reminds us, if we ever needed reminding, of why we do what we do.  Ms. Thurlow, you are most welcome in Dublin and we are extremely grateful to you for sharing your important story with us.

The origins of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty are closely associated with Ireland’s efforts at the United Nations in the late 1950s, and successive Irish Governments have been very conscious of that legacy.  Those initial efforts were modest to begin with.  In October 1958, the first of what became known as the “Irish Resolutions’‌‌’ at the United Nations requested the General Assembly to study the implications of the further dissemination of nuclear weapons. Even such a modest proposal did not enjoy majority support, however, and we withdrew it.  But before doing so, we called a vote on one paragraph of our resolution which recognised that “the danger now exists that an increase in the number of States possessing nuclear weapons may occur, aggravating international tension and the difficulty of maintaining world peace, and thus rendering more difficult the attainment of a general disarmament agreement.”  Upon that short sentence from the first Irish Resolution is built the entire infrastructure of the world’s nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime.  The first Irish resolution may have been withdrawn, but the paragraph vote was carried by the General Assembly, and it was on the basis of that majority vote on the dangers of nuclear proliferation that we pursued the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in the years that followed.

In pursuing the NPT, Ireland was not concerned with creating treaty rules just for the sake of treaty rules. We were, and continue to be, profoundly concerned with stemming the wholesale proliferation of nuclear weapons which have a destructive capacity that is without parallel in human history.

Almost half a century later, the NPT remains today at the heart of international efforts to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons. It contains the only international legal obligation to disarm nuclear weapons and is regarded as the cornerstone of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime. Ireland remains an active and committed party to the NPT and is working with others to achieve progress on nuclear disarmament as well as on the Treaty’s goals of non-proliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear technology.  As the Tánaiste remarked at the High Level Meeting on Nuclear Disarmament at the United Nations last September, “we believe that the humanitarian imperative for nuclear weapons disarmament is written into the DNA of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is why we have the Treaty”.

We must recognise that from the moment it entered into force, the NPT has always been a treaty in jeopardy.  Its logic was very simple.  It asked non-nuclear weapons states to take a sovereign decision to do without nuclear weapons, so that all states could pursue effective measures – essentially a legal framework – in order to attain complete nuclear disarmament.  The Treaty was originally intended to remain in force for twenty-five years, during which time the effective measures required by its Article VI would be put into effect.  But this did not happen within those twenty-five years, and that led to the indefinite extension of the Treaty in 1995.  As we approach the Treaty’s 45th anniversary, the effective measures have still not been adopted. 

The pace of nuclear disarmament has been far too slow.  The global nuclear arsenal stands at more than 17,000 weapons, and the apparent lack of any realistic short-term or medium-term prospects for eliminating them has led to allegations that the NPT is simply not fit for purpose; that it is discriminatory; and even that it offers Treaty cover to the five recognised nuclear weapons states to keep their nuclear weapons, possibly for ever.  Of course, the Treaty does no such thing. Ireland has always argued that possession of nuclear weapons provides the incentive for others to acquire them, and that proliferation only begets further proliferation.  That, in summary, is how an arms race works. We must break the causal link by delivering disarmament.

Here in Dublin in June 1998, Ireland and a small number of like-minded countries launched a cross regional negotiating bloc – a coalition of states – seeking a new agenda on nuclear disarmament.  The New Agenda Coalition, or “NAC” – Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand and South Africa – remains today a strong voice for nuclear disarmament.  Ireland is currently acting as coordinator of the NAC, and we will use our chairmanship to press for progress in implementing Article VI of the NPT, and particularly its promise of a framework of “effective measures” for nuclear disarmament.  It has been suggested that these effective measures might take the form of a Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty, or a comprehensive Nuclear Weapons Convention, or perhaps a looser arrangement of interconnected and mutually supporting standalone instruments.  The NAC keeps an open mind on what form the measures might take.  But we are determined to see them put in place.

Like most countries, Ireland sees the re-emergence of the “humanitarian consequences” narrative on nuclear weapons as among the most important outcomes which flowed from the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Review Conference. By this I mean that, knowing the appalling impact of a nuclear explosion, we should use this knowledge to redouble our efforts to bring about significant progress in disarmament.   We were among the core group of sixteen states which decided to take this narrative forward within the present NPT review cycle and we are pleased to be associated by name with the initiative from its outset.  We will remain associated with it.  It is what motivated us in pressing for the NPT in the 1950s; it is what motivates us in seeking full implementation of the NPT’s disarmament obligations today.

We believe, strongly, that the humanitarian narrative offers a basis for reframing the entire nuclear disarmament debate, stepping beyond traditional process-driven Treaty discussions to examine instead the practical implications of any use, whether by accident, miscalculation or design.  These calamitous implications are today far worse than we had thought.  Recent research has revealed that the risk of an explosion happening through human error or systems failure are higher than previously thought.  Because of the huge destructive capacity of modern nuclear weapons and the increasing concentration of growing populations in urban areas, any attempt at managing the aftermath in a coordinated way would be utterly ineffectual.  We now know this.  The humanitarian narrative must therefore remain front-and-centre among the precepts which guide international efforts to eliminate nuclear arsenals entirely.  Our focus must be on prevention at all costs.  Among the next steps there should be an assessment of what we, as policy makers, can do to prevent such a catastrophe. What practical and prudent steps must we take to eliminate these inhumane and indiscriminate weapons and, with them, the ever-present and increasing risks that they pose to our citizens.

We warmly welcome the decision by Austria to host a third Humanitarian Impact Conference in Vienna before the end of the year.  This will enable us to build further on our fact-based examination of the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.  But the time is now coming when states must consider and discuss the policy choices regarding a legal framework for the total elimination of these weapons. We must now move to prevent the kind of human suffering which Setsuko Thurlow will shortly describe from ever happening again.

Many of us will recall the horrific use of chemical weapons in Syria last August. Just as Ms Thurlow will testify to the terrible effects of a nuclear weapon explosion, there are now new victim testimonies of the impact of that chemical attack on innocent civilians, including women and children, the effects of which we saw on our television screens last August.  It is appalling to think that there are still those in this world who would use such weapons. And yet, the world’s reaction to the chemical weapons attack near Damascus last August also offers some hope for the future. By September last, Syria had acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention and under the programme agreed at that time, its stockpile of existing chemical weapons is in the process of being destroyed and its capacity to produce chemical weapons has been eliminated.  This is a demonstration that the multilateralism at the core of Irish foreign policy in general, and our disarmament policy in particular, does work.

Looking beyond weapons of mass destruction, we can see that recent very significant developments in disarmament have also had at their core a concern for the humanitarian impact of weapons use.  In 1997, the Anti-Personnel Landmine Convention was concluded, and it entered into force the following year.  As a direct result of this Convention, 161 countries have eliminated anti-personnel mines from their arsenals, and vast quantities of land have been cleared of mines; this not only saves lives, it also allows civilian populations to use land previously denied to them for productive purposes without fear. We can be proud that our own Defence Forces continue to make a significant contribution to mine clearance in a number of areas of the world.

Building on the success of the Anti-Personnel Landmine Convention, the text of the Convention on Cluster Munitions was agreed at a diplomatic conference in Dublin in 2008. Again, this Convention was motivated by the long-term humanitarian impact of cluster munitions on civilian populations.

Although last year brought challenges, it also brought successes. A comprehensive and robust Arms Trade Treaty has long been a major foreign policy priority for Ireland. The adoption of the Treaty by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 2 April last year was a landmark event, because it represents the first legally binding instrument to regulate the global trade in conventional arms.

The unregulated flow of arms has exacerbated regional conflicts, exacted a heavy toll in human suffering, and deflected resources away from sustainable development.  The ATT will enable the international community to curb these consequences. Its adoption is a significant achievement and its effective implementation will be an immense success for the international community. It demonstrates the vital contribution which the United Nations can make towards international peace and security. The new Treaty prohibits a State from authorising arms exports where it has knowledge that the weapons will be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 or other war crimes. It will also oblige States to minimise the risk that weapons would be diverted into the wrong hands or to the illicit market, or could be used to target women and children in particular.

I am privileged to have been able to sign the Treaty on behalf of Ireland in New York last June, because the ATT has the potential to make a real and lasting difference. In five days time, we, along with a group of fellow EU Member States, will complete our ratification of the ATT, marking a significant step forward to ensuring its early entry into force.

The future will bring new challenges to international disarmament and non-proliferation efforts. We will always be challenged by the evolution of technology. With new technology come new potential proliferation threats.  However, we believe that our past approach, policies and achievements in disarmament and non-proliferation will help guide our future efforts. My colleagues and I look forward to working together with you to overcoming these threats and challenges.

Ireland may be a small nation, but it is a nation that has a strong international voice, and an important and continuing role to play. I will finish on that positive note, and it is now my distinct honour to welcome Ms Setsuko Thurlow to the floor. Thank you.