Switzerland rallies for nuclear disarmament

The French recently celebrated the launch of a new nuclear-armed submarine, "Le Terrible". Switzerland has vowed to promote disarmament Keystone

Thousands of nuclear weapons remain in a high state of alert and could fire at any moment – a fact Switzerland's United Nations ambassador is working to change.

This content was published on October 23, 2008 - 18:57

In an interview with swissinfo in New York, Jürg Streuli, Switzerland's representative before the UN, says he is committed to getting nuclear powers to take their fingers off the button.

In 2007 Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Sweden and Switzerland introduced a resolution before the UN General Assembly in New York to make nuclear-armed countries take their missiles off high alert.

The measure failed after the United States, France and Britain voted against it, while 139 countries voted in favour.

Now the six countries that introduced the resolution are seeking to get more countries on their side.

Streuli, Switzerland's standing representative at the UN conference on disarmament in Geneva, elaborated on the attempt. His involvement with the General Assembly and the UN conference is a component of Swiss security policy.

The vision

"We have a vision of a world free of nuclear arms," he said. "At the height of the Cold War there were about 60,000 atomic warheads. Today there are roughly 27,000."

That's overkill to the ninth degree, he said, but they mustn't give up on the vision. The only way to realistically achieve disarmament is step by step.

The six countries are lining up to reduce the battle-readiness of nuclear weapons. "The world would be somewhat safer with longer reaction times," he said.

There have been many times already where breakdowns could have led to extremely dire consequences, he said.

The UN disarmament talks in Geneva in the last few years have produced little result. Now Switzerland hopes to bring the question back into political and public consciousness.

New steps

"If nuclear countries were to power down their weapon systems, this would be a step in the right direction," Streuli said about the motives for the resolution.

New steps toward disarmament are needed, and Streuli remains cautiously optimistic in regards to the future US position. "Both presidential candidates have given positive signals," he said.

An important accord involves the ban on nuclear testing. It is not yet being implemented, since not enough nations have ratified it, including the US.

The most important element of the global disarmament plan is the Nuclear No-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that every state except India, Israel and Pakistan has adopted. North Korea ratified the treaty but has since declared its withdrawal.

The NPT is based on three pillars: non-proliferation, disarmament, and access to peaceful use of nuclear energy, which has recently brought Iran and North Korea into the centre of public discussion.

Strengthen the treaty

Various sides have called the NPT into question for being biased. Streuli has a certain amount of understanding for that but says there are no alternatives. "We have to strengthen the treaty and keep it alive," he says.

Streuli considers accords implemented in 1970 basically successful. Only one member country, North Korea, has stepped out of line with nuclear tests in October 2006.

In regards to the controversy surrounding Iran and its atomic ambitions, Streuli refers to Switzerland's position that a solution can only be found through dialogue.

Streuli believes every effort toward nuclear disarmament is worth it. "With this issue we are all legitimate in doing something about it," he said. "The ramifications of a nuclear attack affect everyone." Switzerland must rely on cooperation with others to see the latest measures through to fruition.

The next NPT inspection conference takes place in 2010. "It will be a very difficult conference," Streuli says. "To stop proliferation we need a clear signal from atomic states as well as concrete steps toward disarmament."

The resolution that Switzerland and the other five countries have introduced is keeping that conference in mind.

No headway

In the last ten years there have been no strides made at the Geneva conference, the UN body charged with handling the disarmament question. Switzerland is pressing for a ban on the production of fissile material used to make nuclear warheads.

Russia and the US today are basically prepared to accept it, Streuli says. Pakistan remains against it, while India is for it. China's stance is unclear.

Russia and China would like to demilitarise outer space, while the US, which has a large technological advantage, doesn't want to negotiate the matter.

swissinfo, based on an article in German by Rita Emch in New York

In brief

Because of short reaction times, there is a risk of a nuclear missile being fired because of a malfunction or misunderstanding.

Extremist groups could possibly hack computer defence systems to give one country the impression of being under nuclear attack.

Several possibilities exist to prevent this danger and prolong reaction times. Warheads could be stored separately from firing systems. Missile silos could be sealed in cement or time-delays could be built into computer firing sequences.

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Nuclear proliferation

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council are all nuclear powers: Russia, China, Britain, France and the US.

India, Pakistan and Israel also have nuclear arms.

North Korea has tested a warhead, and Iran is suspected of wanting to develop atomic weapons.

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More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

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