UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned on Monday that the world is one miscalculation away from “nuclear annihilation”.
Mr Guterres issued the warning during the opening of the UN's 10th Review Conference of the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The review typically takes place every five years, but the current meeting was pushed back two years because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The UN chief said the meeting comes “at a critical juncture for our collective peace and security” and “at a time of nuclear danger not seen since the height of the Cold War”, pointing to Russia's invasion of Ukraine as well as the threat of nuclear weapons in the Middle East and Asia.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that North Korea, Russia and Iran are all undermining the Non-Proliferation Treaty's effectiveness.
“Pyongyang is preparing to conduct its seventh nuclear test. Iran remains on a path of nuclear escalation,” he said in remarks at the conference.
Countries without nuclear weapons that joined the NPT, in effect since 1970, pledged not to acquire them, while most nuclear-armed countries pledged to work to gradually eliminate their stockpiles. While the US and China are among the nuclear powers to have joined the pact, North Korea, India and Pakistan have not.
The number of nuclear weapons around the world has shrunk by more than three quarters since the 1980s, but 13,000 nuclear warheads still exist today, with more than 90 per cent belonging to the US and Russia, an Arms Control Association estimation showed.
“All this at a time when the risks of proliferation are growing and guardrails to prevent escalation are weakening … And when crises — with nuclear undertones — are festering from the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” he said.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida pressed nuclear states to conduct themselves “responsibly”.
“The world is worried that the threat of the catastrophe of use of nuclear weapons has emerged once again,” he said.
Before the conference, US President Joe Biden urged Russia and China to enter talks on nuclear arms control and said Moscow in particular must demonstrate it is ready to show responsibility.
Mr Biden said Washington is ready to negotiate a replacement to the Start agreement once the treaty capping nuclear forces in the US and Russia expires in 2026.
“But negotiation requires a willing partner operating in good faith,” Mr Biden said in a statement.
“And Russia’s brutal and unprovoked aggression in Ukraine has shattered peace in Europe and constitutes an attack on fundamental tenets of international order.”
China, Mr Biden said, has a responsibility as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and as a nuclear state to engage in talks that would “reduce the risk of miscalculation and address destabilising military dynamics”.
“There is no benefit to any of our nations, or for the world, to resist substantive engagement on arms control and nuclear non-proliferation,” he said.
Leaders of the five nuclear-armed states in January affirmed their commitment to non-proliferation and disarmament, but Russia's war in Ukraine cast fresh doubts.
“In this moment of uncertainty and upheaval on the global stage, reaffirming our shared commitment to the grounding principles of the global non-proliferation regime has never been more crucial,” Mr Biden said.
Mr Blinken said the US would work with China and other countries towards a risk reduction package.