Strengthening Nuclear Disarmament Verification Mechanisms

November 9th, 2017

As the First Committee of the 72nd Session General Assembly met for its final week, the Verification Research, Training and Information Centre (VERTIC) joined the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) to hold a side event on strengthening nuclear disarmament verification mechanisms.

Mr. Ioan Tudor, the Chief of UNODA’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Branch and moderator of the 30 October discussion, underscored in opening remarks the important role that these mechanisms have played in disarmament and non-proliferation treaties. He also stressed that if the international community someday abolishes nuclear arms, a strong verification regime will remain necessary after dismantlement is complete to ensure that no one builds such weapons again.

Mr. Erik Berger Husem, an official in the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, highlighted United Nations General Assembly resolution 71/67, entitled “Nuclear disarmament verification”, as a sign of growing political momentum on the issue. Adopted with overwhelming support last year, the resolution requested the Secretary-General to establish a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) “to consider the role of verification in advancing nuclear disarmament.” The GGE is set to meet in Geneva in 2018 and 2019 for three five-day sessions, and the Norwegian official expressed confidence that the body will successfully build on existing verification initiatives and arms control agreements.

Mr. Andreas Persbo, the Executive Director of VERTIC, ended the discussion by presenting his organization’s ongoing research and advocacy for establishing a multilateral Group of Scientific Experts on Nuclear Disarmament Verification (GSE-NDV). He summarized historical nuclear disarmament verification initiatives and noted that none took place through a formal intergovernmental process. To jump-start efforts in this regard, VERTIC held four regional workshops in 2017—in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America—to assess the benefits and drawbacks of establishing a GSE-NDV. The consultations, which involved both governmental and non-governmental participants, determined that a GSE-NDV could help grow the body of technical knowledge; foster collaboration and dialogue among diverse actors; and sustain verification efforts.

Mr. Persbo acknowledged several potential obstacles to establishing a GSE-NDV. Participants in VERTIC’s regional workshops debated the scope of a mandate for the prospective group, including whether it should narrowly address warhead dismantlement or also contain a broader mission to safeguard the disposition of fissile materials. They also debated which institutions have the legal prerogative and technical capacity to conduct nuclear disarmament verification at the multilateral level. Finally, they recognized that several regions would have to overcome knowledge deficits and build related capacities to make a robust verification system possible.

In addition to discussing such legal and technical obstacles, the regional workshops weighed the pros and cons of various bodies mandating a GSE-NDV. Mr. Persbo said a group established under the United Nations umbrella would be relatively impartial and accountable, and its affiliation would confer legitimacy and a sense of collective ownership. However, workshop participants differed on which multilateral body would be best equipped to oversee a GSE-NDV, examining in particular the General Assembly, Secretariat, International Atomic Energy Agency and Conference on Disarmament.

Text and photo by Paul Warnke