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Last Updated: 02/23/2005
Nukes Worldwide: Disarmament, Iran, and New Military Doctrines
Ravi R. Prasad

Jayantha Dhanapala, former Under Secretary General for Disarmament Affairs of the United Nations, says that there is a need for political solutions to resolve the nuclear proliferation in recent times.

Dhanapala is now the Secretary General of the Secretariat for Coordination of the Peace Process in Sri Lanka. He has also served as a Commissioner in UNSCOM and the Head of the Special Group visiting the Presidential Sites in Iraq in addition to his duties as Under-Secretary General for Disarmament Affairs.

In 2006 he will likely be Asia’s candidate for the post of the United Nations Secretary General.

Dhanapala feels passionately about disarmament. He spoke to Ravi R. Prasad at his office in Colombo.

Q. Non-proliferation and disarmament have taken centre stage in the recent months. There is arms race in Asia with North Korea announcing its nuclear capability and Iran is threatening to continue with its nuclear technology program. Nuclear technology and material seem to be freely available. Where is the world heading to and what needs to be done?


A. I think the focus on Nuclear Non Proliferation is to some extent misplaced. We have to look at Nuclear Non Proliferation and Nuclear Disarmament, together as a composite whole. I have always maintained that Nuclear Non Proliferation and Nuclear Disarmament are two faces of the same coin. It is not possible to have one without the other.

As long as you have some countries retaining their right to have nuclear weapon, there will be other countries who will continue to aspire to have these weapons. What is particularly unfortunate is the fact that the countries which have signed the NPT, where by legally they renounced their nuclear option, they have found to be acting in a way that is inconsistent with their legal obligation under the treaty and this is something that the IAEA has sought to investigate.

We have also the additional problem of a nuclear black market that has been revealed as a result of the activities of A. Q. Khan, which indicates that there is both a supply side and a demand side for nuclear material and nuclear technology which lead to the manufacture of a nuclear weapon.

Now I begin from the premise that all nuclear weapons, whatever label you may put on it or whatever is the country of its origin, I think the NW is the worst weapon invented by human kind. It can cause untold destruction and it can also destroy ecology which sustains human life. What happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki 60 years ago is nothing compared to what will happen today if there is a nuclear holocaust, and I am not exaggerating this, this has been borne out by scientific evidence, which has proved that there are phenomena like the nuclear winter can set in if there is a nuclear exchange.

There cannot be a limited nuclear war because once nuclear weapons are used then you will have the taboo being broken. That is another important factor. In 60 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we have not seen nuclear weapons used. And there is generally an understanding that nuclear weapons are there as a deterrent. I am not myself a subscriber to the deterrence theory, but not withstanding that, nobody intended to use the weapon. They kept it as deterrence against other people using it. But now you have doctrines emerging where there is an actual use of nuclear weapons being postulated, as bunker busters and for various other purposes including as retaliation for biological weapons and chemical weapons. Now this is particularly frightening because when you have a military doctrine predicated on the actual use of nuclear weapons, it could encourage others also to act in self defense and they also want to have the same weapons that they do not have in order to equalize their so called inferiority in the weapons field, because there is not doubt that in terms of conventional weapons there is one country today which is streets ahead of everybody else.

In a time of asymmetric warfare, which has been highlighted by 9/11, there are groups, not just countries but non state actors, including terrorist groups who would want to acquire the so called ultimate weapon. So my point is that the conditions that prevail internationally do not in many ways deter NP, therefore we have to create conditions for NP not to take place. I maintain that having one nuclear weapon state is bad, but having more nuclear weapon states is even worse. So what we need to do is to try to eliminate nuclear weapons, and that indeed was the burden of the Canberra Commission, which I was a member of in 1996 and now we are sitting in another commission, the International Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction, sponsored by the government of Sweden. Hans Blix as its chairman, we are hoping to come out with its report perhaps at the beginning of next year, which will address not just nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons proliferation, but the entire group of weapons of mass destruction, i.e. nuclear, chemical and biological. And also examine what can be done in the current situation, especially post 9/11.


Q. The problem is that these Commissions come up with reports but the governments do not consider these seriously; they do not follow these reports. Even though they ratify the treaties they go back on it. How do you deal with those situations?


A. As far as Disarmament is concerned, the Canberra commission report, I saw the echoes of it in the final document of the NPT Review Conference of 2000. I was present at the conference in my capacity as the Under Secretary General of the United Nations on Disarmament. It was interesting that some of the ideas that were mentioned in report were there in the consensus document adopted by both the nuclear states and the non nuclear states. So I wouldn t discount the value of commission reports. I think they are an opportunity for a group of wise men and women to reflect on the state of the world and make recommendations. Clearly the recommendations have to be realistic, they cannot be utopian, otherwise they stand no chance of being implemented, but to the extent that they are related to the ground realities of the current and contemporary global situation, they do stand a chance of being accepted.


Q. Today there is a lot of arms racing. North Korea is saying that it possesses nuclear weapons, which has sparked a fresh arms race in the Korean peninsula and on the other side we have Iran. These highlight how much of proliferation is taking place and the big agencies responsible for it have not been able to do much about it.


A. You are quite right. Certainly the problem cannot be swept under the carpet, nor can it be underestimated. We have had to live with the North Korean problem for quite some time. It is almost 10 years since they were found to be not following the IAEA guidelines and safeguards, that they were departing from the agreement they had signed with the IAEA. We have had other countries like Libya come back to full compliance with IAEA s safeguards agreements.

Now of course there is a continuing dispute about Iran, which I hope the IAEA together with the diplomacy that the EU are engaged in will successfully prevent from coming to a head.

We have to look at it this in its political context. Clearly in the case of the DPRK there is a concern with regard to the division of the Korean peninsula and the presence in South Korea of foreign troops, which they see as a threat. Now we can disagree with the perception that the North Koreans have, but there is a need for a political solution to that. I think there is an attempt on the part of other neighbors to handle this situation with tact and diplomacy, which is why the six nation talks began.

It does not help if you try to isolate a country and call it names, I think what you must try to do is to wean it away from its isolation and enter into a dialogue to understand what their real needs are. 

So clearly I think there is a need for us to persist with diplomacy. I recall the time when secretary for defense of the US was Bill Perry, who is a member of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission and I have had extended conversations with him about the North Korean issue. And I think he had developed a dialogue and a policy with regard to DPRK, which was beginning to be successful. Unfortunately that was not continued, there is still a chance of continuing it.

I think China is key in this because China is a nuclear weapon state and is among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and it is clearly the dominant regional power there. It is also in the interest of Japan that this situation does not continue. So I believe there are political options that we have not exhausted yet. Whether the North Koreans are genuine in saying that they have nuclear weapons or they are saying this as a part of a game of bluff nobody knows for certain because we have no fool proof verification systems to understand that.

In the case of Iran, there is a different situation. I think there again there is grave skepticism about the fact that they are developing nuclear technology for peaceful uses when they have so much oil and gas reserves. But they point out to the fact that these oil and gas reserves were there when the Shah was in power and the Shah too had plans of developing nuclear power.

But clearly because of the fact that the new regime in Iran does not enjoy good relations with the west, there is a suspicion as to how this nuclear weapon technology will be used.

I think all this points out the fact that the gap between the nuclear power technology for peaceful purposes and nuclear technology for development of a weapon is in fact a very narrow one. We need to rely increasingly on the IAEA safeguard mechanism to ensure that you do not in fact license a situation where more and more countries are able as almost an inalienable right, as it is said in the Article 4 of the NPT, to acquire nuclear power technology and then perhaps leave the treaty and develop nuclear weapons. That clearly abuses the fundamental ethos of the treaty.

For that the additional protocol, which was developed within the IAEA as a sequel to the Iraq problem, must be made mandatory, because it is important that if a country wants to have the right to get nuclear materials and nuclear technology, development of nuclear power for peaceful purposes, then it has also got to assure the world that it is genuinely proceeding on a peaceful path and for that the signature on the additional protocol which is a more intrusive verification mechanism than the normal 153 safeguards arrangement of the past will give that assurance to the world.

So we have come to stage I think now where non-nuclear state members of the NPT have got to look at Article 4, which gives the right to acquire nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, in consonance with other articles, which say that they do renounce the nuclear weapon option. 

There are many other proposals that have been made, both by Director General of IAEA El Baradei with which I am in total agreement. And indeed in February of last year President Bush has also come out with a number of proposals, all of which I think should be addressed.

I hope not just the Board of Governors of IAEA but also the Non Proliferation Treaty Review Conference which is scheduled to be held in May this year New York will also address that and agree that these additional safeguards are vital not just for the health of the treaty but in order to ensure that non proliferation is a vital goal of the NPT, which has to be maintained.

Those countries, which have crossed the threshold, which do not subscribe to the NPT, as you know there are three of them India, Pakistan and Israel, they must also of course abide by the norms of non-proliferation and ensure that there is no danger of the nuclear material and technology in their countries leaking to other sources. We have no reason to believe that they have not done so, except unfortunately for the A.Q Khan network, which has shattered the confidence of the international community. 


Q. How do you rate the success of the Department of Disarmament Affairs of the United Nations? Has it been successful?  


A. I think being a person who has throughout my life been very committed to the United Nations and its ideals, I would say that the UN has helped enormously in establishing norms in the realm of disarmament and trying to maintain these norms.

It is an advocacy organization. Without such norms the world would be totally anarchical place. Whether it is an environment, health or political issues and even in disarmament despite its very very controversial nature, its highly politicized nature, because it has to do with national security, I think the UN has been successful.

Clearly it could have been more successful, but as I keep saying individual countries have got to be concerned with the protection and promotion of their national security. In the case of the UN, it has to look at the national security of 191 countries and weave them into what is in fact a cooperative security for the whole world. Now this may always be consistent with the security of country X or country Y, but we do have treaties today which have near universal application. The NPT I believe has 187 member states. The CTNT, even though it has not come into action because key countries have not yet ratified it, has also got over 140 adherence to it. The same is true of the Biological Weapons Convention, the Chemical Weapon Conventions and several other conventions.

When you take the issue of Small area Arms in which the UN has comparatively recently entered, there has been tremendous success, which the UN has been able to register. It has raised the awareness of the dangers of small arms. There is this very successful conference when I was the Under Secretary General we have now got another review conference coming up next year, which will also be important in advancing the frontiers with regard to small arms.  

On mines, anti-personal mines we have the landmine treaty of 1997, which has to a large extent reduced the number of deaths from landmines and it has also reduced the trade in anti-personal landmines.

There is a lot that has been done which I think is important. The UN provides the framework. The very first resolution of the UN in January 1946 was on disarmament. This is frequently forgotten. The fact that sometimes these treaties are not observed cannot be the fault of the UN. It s as ridiculous as blaming the police of a country for traffic accidents. Inevitably there are individuals who violate traffic laws. The same is true with regard to international affairs.

We need to have a rule of law and the UN has endeavored to try to encourage the concept of achieving security at lower levels of arms. That has been a consistent policy of the UN, and the Secretaries General, from Trygve Lie to Kofi Annan, have been saying the same thing. They have also been advocates of disarmament and of reduction of arms. 

Unfortunately the Stockholm Peace Research Institute in its latest year book shows that global military expenditure is rising. We had hoped that after the Cold War there would be a sharp reduction in the global military expenditure. After an initial period when it did go down, it has started climbing up again. And this is very distressing as you know half the world lives on $2 a day. We have acute problems of poverty, malnutrition and developing countries suffering through various problems, including the AIDS problem, which need transfer of resources there. And yet we continue to spend $ 900 billion per year on arms.


Q. There was tension in South Asia itself, how did you deal with that?


A. Well in 1998 when India followed by Pakistan exploded nuclear devises there was shock and consternation amongst a large number of countries. That was the reality. It was also a reality that neither of those countries had contravened any treaties, because both of them were not members of the NPT, they were not members of the CTBT.

At the same time the international community believed that the norms set by the NPT and the CTBT were widely adhered to as customary international law, so you had the Security Council adopting Security Council Resolution 1172 and there was immediately an attempt to have sanctions on India and Pakistan. But to a large extent when the Prime Minister of India at that time (Atal Behari Vajpayee) offered to sign the CTBT I think that was welcomed, especially certainly in the United Nations by Kofi Annan and by myself and that would have to large extent helped to mute the international reaction.

We have not yet had the signature of the CTBT but I think the conduct certainly of India has been very responsible. There is no suspicion whatsoever that India will assist in any way in the proliferation of nuclear technology.

I think we have to acknowledge the reality of the fact that India and Pakistan have crossed the nuclear threshold and we have got to now ensure that they too join the effort for nuclear disarmament, which they all have subscribed to both as nation states and members of the Non Aligned Movement and in the United Nations.   

Ravi R. Prasad is an Analyst based in Sri Lanka. He writes on conflicts, terrorism and international relations on South Asia, South East Asia and the Balkans. He can be reached on