Izumi Nakamitsu, the UN's high representative for disarmament, lays out the UN secretary-general's agenda for disarmament, "Securing Our Common Future." Photo: Trevor Williams

In a tense world running short on diplomacy, the likelihood of nuclear war could be on the rise for the first time since the Cold War, a top United Nations official warned this week in Atlanta

“The danger of nuclear conflict — either by design, accident or miscalculation — seems to be growing,” said Izumi Nakamitsu, who serves as under-secretary-general and high representative for disarmament affairs, during a luncheon of the Atlanta Council on International Relations

While she didn’t mention U.S. President Donald Trump by name, he may as well have been on the witness stand as she outlined the U.N. ’s efforts to restore a semblance of consensus on global security issues at the multilateral body. 

Ms. Nakamitsu’s main goal during the speech was to exposit U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ newly released agenda to foster international collaboration on disarmament. 

The comprehensive “Securing Our Common Future” document was issued largely as a response to the “troubling global environment,” she said. 

There has been no love lost between the U.S. and United Nations in recent months. Mr. Trump used a speech at UN General Assembly last September to say that the U.S. would “totally destroy” North Korea if forced to defend itself. Most recently, the president withdrew from the U.N. Human Rights Council to protest its alleged bias against Israel

But Ms. Nakamitsu argued (again without mentioning Mr. Trump) that going it alone, while tempting, is less safe for the world. 

When each country pursues its own security without regard for others, we create global insecurity that threatens us all. That is why diplomacy, dialogue and confidence-building are important, in parallel with responsible defense policies,” Ms. Nakamitsu said.  

Challenges to the world order set up in the aftermath of World War II,  she said, are hindering dialogue that traditionally has served as a safeguard against conflict. 

“Relationships between great powers are deteriorating. We see a return to Cold War-style tensions, but in a global setting that is increasingly multipolar and therefore more complicated and also unpredictable,” Ms. Nakamitsu said. 

While she was careful not to pine for the Cold War period, she noted that its end resulted in a raft of collaborative measures between the U.S. and Russia that alleviated tensions. Both sides also had leaders at the time who were “fluent in nonproliferation, arms control and disarmament language.” 

“Sadly in recent years that process seems not only to have stalled but might in fact now be going backwards,” she said. 

With the New START treaty set to expire in 2021, there remains a “complete absence” of talks on what should replace it. That raises the prospect that in just three years, the two countries holding 95 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads would for the first time in a half-century be without a joint plan to reduce their stockpiles. 

Ms. Nakamitsu did praise Mr. Trump’s recent summit with Kim Jong Un of North Korea as an “important milestone” on the path toward denuclearizing the Korean peninsula. Reduced tensions after the meeting prove the positive effect dialogue can have on security, she said. But she also urged the international community not to get too complacent. 

“The road ahead will require cooperation, compromise, patience and persistence,” she said. 

On the other hand, Ms. Nakamitsu expressed regret at the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action aimed at halting Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. 

“The deal remains a major achievement in nuclear non-proliferation and has contributed to regional and international peace and stability,” she said.

But global disarmament challenges extend far beyond the nuclear arena, and disagreement among major powers is making matters worse in places like Syria, where at least 16 uses of chemical weapons have been documented in the long-running civil war. 

“We have watched in horror the repeated use of chemical weapons, yet the international community remains divided to adequately respond,” Ms. Nakamitsu said, having hinted earlier at the reason: “Internal conflicts are in fact rarely internal. They are part of regional tensions, can sometimes draw in major powers.” With the U.S. and Russia (as well as Turkey) on various sides of the complex conflict, an easy solution isn’t always evident. 

Mr. Guterres’ agenda includes an effort to establish an independent body to identify those responsible for chemical attacks. 

The full flyer for the ACIR event.

“The use of chemical weapons cannot become normalized. We are extremely worried that the taboo on the use of these weapons has been undermined, and that the disarmament and nonproliferation regime has been damaged as a result,” Ms. Nakamitsu said, later adding: “Impunity for such horrendous crimes cannot be allowed.” 

The agenda also aims to establish and help enforce norms on the use of biological weapons in an age of scientific breakthroughs that could render such technologies catastrophic if weaponized. Mr. Guterres also hopes to get member states to set up legally binding means to ensure any use of force is carried out by a human, not by artificial-intelligence-enabled machine. 

Other initiatives include encouraging “responsible innovation” among the private-sector scientists and technologists developing these capabilities for peaceful purposes, as well as finding ways to crack down on the illicit small-arms trade and delineating how states can legally respond to cyber attacks. 

Honored guests attending the luncheon at the invitation of the ACIR were “warriors for peace” Dr. Bernice A. King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. and head of the King Center; and Jordan Ryan, vice president for peace programs and Hrair Balian, director of the Conflict Resolution Program, from the Carter Center.

Learn more about ACIR’s upcoming events at www.atlantacir.org.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...