World First Look

US and other nuclear-armed states boycott UN meeting to discuss banning nukes

US Ambassador Nikki Haley said that the US and about 40 other countries would not participate in a meeting about prohibiting nuclear weapons.

United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley outside the General Assembly at UN headquarters.
Seth Wenig/AP
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Negotiations for a treaty to rid the world of nuclear weapons began in the United Nations on Monday.

There was one problem, however. The talks are being boycotted by the United States, Britain, France, and nearly 40 other countries.

Most member states of the United Nations have said they wish for a world without nuclear weapons. But Monday’s boycott reveals a deep divide over how to get there.

Supporters of the treaty, led by Austria, Brazil, and Ireland, say the weapons should be outlawed, as the risk of a nuclear detonation is higher than at any time since the Cold War. But US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and other opponents argue disarmament should be gradual to prevent the scales from tipping in the favor of “bad actors” like North Korea.

"As a mom, as a daughter, there is nothing I want more for my family than a world with no nuclear weapons. But we have to be realistic," Ms. Haley said in a gathering outside the General Assembly hall to show opposition to the talks starting inside. “Is there anyone that believes that North Korea would agree to a ban on nuclear weapons?"

In December, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution to “negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination” and encouraged all member states to participate.

113 countries were in favor of the resolution, with 35 against it, and 13 abstentions

But representatives of the US, Britain, France, and about 20 other nations stood outside the General Assembly on Monday to boycott the talks. Russia and China were not present, but are also not taking part in the talks.

Matthew Rycroft, the British permanent representative to the UN, said his country is not attending “because we do not believe that those negotiations will lead to effective progress on global nuclear disarmament.”

The French deputy permanent representative to the UN, Alexis Lamek, said the security conditions were not right for a nuclear weapons ban treaty.

"In the current perilous context, considering in particular the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery, our countries continue to rely on nuclear deterrence for security and stability," said Mr. Lamek.

North Korea has continued its nuclear weapons program in violation of UN resolutions. It carried out two nuclear tests last year and has continued to test its ballistic missiles as recently as this month. The country has said its pursuit of a nuclear arsenal is meant to be a deterrent to keep the regime in power, as The Christian Science Monitor previously reported:

It's perceived as a path to safeguarding leader Kim Jong-un from suffering the same end as Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.  

“Above all else, North Korea's nuclear program is about security,” John Delury, a professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, told BBC in September, the day North Korea performed its fifth nuclear test. “It is, by their estimation, the only reliable guarantee of the country's basic sovereignty, of the Communist regime's control, and of the rule of Kim Jong-un.”

“So, until we can help Pyongyang find a credible substitute to guarantee its security, and give Kim Jong-un the kind of prestige that comes with being a member of the nuclear club, then we can expect more tests, more progress and more 'provocations,’ ” he said.  

But those in support of the treaty say the threat of a nuclear conflict demands international action.

“The need for progress on nuclear disarmament has rarely been as urgent as it is today,” Kim Won-soo, UN under secretary-general for disarmament, said as the talks opened.

Beatrice Fihn, the executive director of the International Camapign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, an advocacy group, added that it’s difficult to abolish nuclear weapons without outlawing them first.

Countries opposed to the treaty point out that they have reduced their nuclear arsenals. Haley said the US has reduced its nuclear arsenal by 85 percent under the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty, and Mr. Rycroft said Britain has cut its nuclear forces by over 50 percent since the height of the Cold War.

President Trump told Reuters last month that he would prefer a nuclear-free world, but the US should be “at the top of the pack” if that is not the case. The Obama administration also opposed the nuclear ban talks.

This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.