FM Idrissov: The World Supports a Vision of a Nuclear-Weapons-Free Planet

Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly session last September, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev put forward a number of major international initiatives, including adopting the Universal Declaration for the Achievement of a Nuclear-Weapons-Free World. Less than three months later, on Dec. 7, the declaration was adopted at the plenary session of the General Assembly. The Astana Times asked Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov about the meaning of this step.

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How do you assess the road to adopting the declaration on such an important issue? Could you explain the main principles of this document?

In my view, President Nazarbayev’s speech at the UN demonstrated a new level of participation for Kazakhstan in global policies, and the initiatives have become important landmarks for the international community.

The key initiatives, such as achieving a nuclear-weapons-free world by 2045 when the UN will turn 100, creating a single global anti-terrorist network, allocating 1 percent of countries’ defence budgets to sustainable development, organising a high-level international conference on reaffirming the principles of international law and coordinating international efforts under the UN on promoting green technologies, drew considerable interest among our fellow diplomats, scholars, experts and the wider public.

For the citizens of Kazakhstan, of special importance is the fact that from the UN platform, Nazarbayev promoted making a world without nuclear weapons humanity’s ultimate goal in the 21st century. Adopting the Universal Declaration for the Achievement of a Nuclear-Weapons-Free World is a new, important step in realising this goal.

For five years, Kazakh diplomats promoted this draft declaration. As the result of this work, at the end of last year, we reached a stage when the draft was put to a vote by the UN General Assembly. An overwhelming majority of UN member states approved the declaration: 133 countries voted for the adoption of the document, while 23 countries voted against and 28 abstained.

I believe that the general principles and obligations established in the document, already supported by the community of nations, can and must become a bridge between different and sometimes opposing views on the future shape of a world without nuclear weapons.

At this stage, not all countries are ready to support the declaration. What are the next steps for its implementation? 

Despite the fact that the Universal Declaration was developed as a consensus document based on universally accepted principles and earlier agreements, it is evident that at this stage, not all countries are ready to support it. This is demonstrated by the approaches of a number of nuclear-weapons countries and their allies that depend on their nuclear umbrella. They are not ready to renounce nuclear weapons.

In the coming years, we expect a long process of universalising the declaration. It is particularly important to conduct targeted work with those countries that did not support the declaration, to convince them to change their position.

To this end, we suggested that the resolution  be reconfirmed on a regular basis, once every three years. A reporting mechanism of the member states to the UN and of the UN Secretariat to the General Assembly on the implementation of the goals and objectives set in the declaration is envisaged.

Reconfirming the goals and principles of the declaration will also help keep the attention of the international community on the declaration and keep the achievement of a nuclear-weapon-free world on the UN agenda. It should be mentioned that, despite the complexity of achieving the goal of making the declaration universal, it is not unachievable.

Nuclear countries have rejected the need to establish time frames for eliminating nuclear weapons. To what extent is this goal is achievable?

The logic is simple – without defining time frames for the elimination of nuclear weapons, they will be there indefinitely. As President Nazarbayev noted in his book “Epicentre of Peace,” indefinitely prolonging the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1995 demonstrated that nuclear countries are required to negotiate about disarmament ‘permanently,’ and they will never be able to disarm. This provision satisfies only the nuclear counties, but it is of grave concern for the majority of the world community.

Nuclear countries think that it is unrealistic to set time frames for nuclear disarmament. At the same time, non-nuclear countries completely disagree with such approaches and demand concrete time frames to save humankind from nuclear weapons. The declaration reflects a balanced and realistic approach. Recognising the necessity of having a structured nuclear disarmament process, it does not set concrete time periods, which is unrealistic today, but at the same time acknowledges that time frames for nuclear disarmament must be agreed upon with countries.

The document includes two references to the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. Why?

Nuclear weapons have enormous destructive power. Their direct effects de facto cannot be controlled; they do not discriminate. They kill and bring unbelievable suffering to even those at a great distance from the epicentre. Moreover, as the tragic stories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as hundreds of Soviet nuclear tests on the Kazakh land, have shown, nuclear weapons have long-lasting implications for people’s health reaching into future generations, for the environment and for the economy of the affected territories. Broadly speaking, nuclear weapons threaten the survival of humanity and the existence of civilisation.

Kazakhstan, as a country that has been directly affected by the deadly force of nuclear weapons, more than anyone else sees and understands their disastrous humanitarian consequences. Humanitarian considerations are the strongest and most powerful argument in favour of the early destruction and prohibition of nuclear weapons.

Nevertheless, nuclear countries are not willing to renounce possession of them and the possibility of using them in certain circumstances, arguing that nuclear weapons are not prohibited by international law.

However, the absolute majority of the world is confident that nuclear weapons must be destroyed and banned as inhumane, indiscriminate in nature, inflicting excessive suffering and violating international humanitarian law and laws of humanity.

On Oct. 21, 2014, the Joint Statement on the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons was joined by 155 countries. In 2012-2014, several similar statements were adopted and three international conferences on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons were held in Norway, Mexico and Austria.

At the end of 2015, Austria prepared the so-called Humanitarian Pledge to fill the legal gap for the prohibition of the latest type of weapons of mass destruction – nuclear weapons. A UN resolution was adopted in support of the statement. The recognition of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons can form the basis of a process aimed at the total prohibition of nuclear weapons and their complete disarmament.

A significant contribution to the dissemination of information on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons comes from The ATOM (Abolish Testing. Our Mission) Project. The initiative, voiced by President Nazarbayev in August 2012, aims to inform to the public around the world about the tragedy of Kazakh people living near the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, as well as other people of the world who have been victims of nuclear testing. Anyone who wants to get acquainted with the content of The ATOM Project can visit its website and personally support it by signing the online petition to the heads of states and governments of the world to ensure the speedy entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. Today, nearly 220,000 people from more than 100 countries have already signed the petition and supported it. In this context, we intend to continue the work on the implementation of another important initiative of President Nazarbayev concerning the formation of a Global Anti-Nuclear Movement. It also requires a hard ​​work, which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs intends to do.

What role can civil society play in achieving the goals of the declaration?

Today, civil society, social movements and public opinion in general have a significant impact on certain political decision-making processes. When in August 1991, President Nazarbayev decided to close the Semipalatinsk Test Site, he relied on the will of the people. And this support of the people helped overcome the enormous pressure of the Soviet military lobby. Raising awareness of the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons; disarmament education; and the active efforts of public associations, nongovernmental organisations and scientific and educational institutions can break the passivity of the majority of the population and persuade governments to take more decisive steps towards nuclear disarmament.

Civil society has played a significant role in bringing environmental issues, climate change and sustainable development to the forefront of the global agenda. It can make nuclear disarmament a priority for governments. The Nevada-Semipalatinsk international anti-nuclear movement and The ATOM Project are evidence of the power and real potential of civil initiatives.

Some countries believe that nuclear weapons are a guarantee of security and stability, but the declaration says the very existence of nuclear weapons poses a threat to humanity. Could you comment on this?

The only guarantee of security is total and universal nuclear disarmament.

The idea of the deterrent role of nuclear weapons is a dangerous misconception that encourages more countries to possess them. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his speech on Oct. 24, 2008, called this doctrine “contagious.” If countries with nuclear weapons see them as a guarantee of their own security, then countries that currently do not possess nuclear weapons may think the same. This increases the temptation to own them and develop military nuclear programmes. Continuing to invoke the importance of nuclear weapons and their indefinite preservation will only make them spread further. If we do not start to disarm, the number of nuclear-weapon possessors will rise dramatically.

Kazakhstan has repeatedly stated that the concept of nuclear deterrence is outdated. President Nazarbayev in one of his speeches during his visit to the United States in 2006 said, “The obsolete concept of achieving security through mutual nuclear deterrence between rival states has been fully proven to be archaic.” It has its roots in the Cold War era and reflects the realities of that bipolar world. At that time, there were probably good reasons for this. Today, when the world has become multipolar, nuclear weapons are increasingly used as an argument to solve regional problems, become a factor of regional deterrence, a means of promoting political and geopolitical interests. All this increases the risk of using nuclear weapons.

The final document adopted by consensus at the UN General Assembly Special Session devoted to Disarmament in 1978 says, “The most effective guarantee against the danger of nuclear war and the use of nuclear weapons is nuclear disarmament and the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.” It seems that this is the most comprehensive answer to all supporters of nuclear deterrence.