NATO Deputy Secretary General defends alliance opposition to UN nuclear ban treaty at Vatican-sponsored conference

NATO Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller told a Vatican disarmament conference on 10 November that the UN treaty on the elimination of nuclear weapons agreed in July could undermine years of non-proliferation work and disregards current-day nuclear threats on the Korean peninsula.

NATO released a public statement challenging the UN treaty in September and worked behind the scenes to try and undermine it. Gottemoeller said, “I am not here today simply to criticize that initiative. Every right thinking person and every right thinking organization, including NATO, wants a world without nuclear weapons, period. The issue is how to get there without jeopardizing international peace and security”.

Gottemoeller also said that NATO and its allies have a long history of working to reduce nuclear weapons in the world: “Effective disarmament did follow in the wake of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, with the United States and USSR both destroying the Cold War excess of nuclear weapons that they acquired. From a high of over 32,000 warheads in 1967, by 2015 the United States was down to fewer than 5,000 warheads. Five thousand is still too many, I repeat this again and again, it is still too many, but we have reduced”, she said. 

The NATO Deputy Secretary General also pointed out that the US nuclear arsenal allowed US allies in Europe and Asia to set aside their own nuclear ambitions - thereby allowing a separate nuclear non-proliferation treaty to work and effective disarmament to take place.

Other participants at the Vatican conference resoundingly endorsed the new UN treaty. Pope Francis told the conference that the Cold War era strategy of nuclear deterrence had bred a false sense of security and said that leaders should work to purge the world of nuclear weapons. He said reliance on such weapons "create nothing but a false sense of security," and that any use of them, even accidental, would be "catastrophic" for humanity and the environment. “International relations cannot be held captive to military force, mutual intimidation, and the parading of stockpiles of arms", he added.

The two-day conference on perspectives for a nuclear-weapons-free world was attended by Nobel peace laureates, UN and national officials, arms control experts, heads of foundations, civil society organisations and university students. The aim was to galvanise support for a global shift from the Cold War era policy of nuclear deterrence to one of disarmament. The United States was represented at the conference by its deputy ambassador to the Holy See, Louis Bono, while Russia sent an ambassador and a top nuclear expert, Alexei Arbatov. China and North Korea were invited, but organisers said they didn't attend. Neither has diplomatic relations with the Holy See.

Speaking on the sidelines of the conference, the head of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, Beatrice Fihn, said "If international law says it's prohibited, it's going to make it a lot harder for them (nuclear weapons states) to justify their decisions to modernize and invest in new types of weapons".

Meanwhile, the Russian defence minister, Sergey Shoigu, accused the US and NATO of intensifying combat training, including for the potential use of nuclear weapons, near the Russian border. “On the eastern flank [NATO] has intensified operative and combat training activities, including nuclear weapons use procedures," Shoigu said. In fact, both Russia and NATO have developed integrated defence postures, combining nuclear and conventional capabilities in their doctrine, training and exercises.