Statement by Ambassador Kishore Mahbubani, Permanent Representative Of Singapore To The United Nations In The General Debate Of The First Committee 15 October 1999 - Will Disarmament Survive?



Mr Chairman,

1 Please allow me to begin by congratulating you on your election as Chairman of this committee. I would also like to thank your predecessor, Ambassador Andre Mernier, for the good work he did last year.

Mr Chairman,

2 In a few months' time, we will enter a new millennium. Inevitably, we will reflect on what mankind will carry into the new millennium, and what it will leave behind. Will disarmament, for example, survive? The word disarmament has several definitions. But disarmament, in the context of what we are trying to achieve here, i.e. "to reduce and to limit national armament by general international agreement", surfaced as a concept only at the Hague conferences of 1899 and 1907. Both ended in failure. This idea of disarmament was not revived until after 1945. Seen in the spectrum of over 5,000 years of human recorded history, it is reasonable to ask whether this 50-year-old disarmament movement represents a new dawn. Or a brief flickering candle, soon to disappear.

3 Whether disarmament will survive will depend on the amount of good it does for mankind. This statement may seem strange. If weapons kill, surely the elimination of weapons will bring good. But from the beginning of man, we have learnt that we can have too much of a good thing. Greek mythology tells us that when Icarus and his father Daedalus were trying to escape from their labyrinth prison, Daedalus conceived of the idea of flying off with the help of wings held together by wax. The wings worked beautifully. They flew off. Icarus, alas, ignored the warning of his father and flew too close to the sun. His waxed wings melted. He plunged to his death. This is a fable we should try to heed as we try to escape the labyrinth of human history. We should carefully weigh how much flight we should take with the idea and processes of disarmament.

4 Finding the right balance will be one of the key challenges to be faced by this committee in the coming century and millennium. Disarmament is a subject that naturally invites sermons and speeches as well as passionate believers. Just watch the recent debate going on in the United States on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). If disarmament advocates are to be believed, we should be dealing here with an open and shut case. Yet, we are witnessing a stunning event where a carefully negotiated Treaty intended to put a lid on nuclear weapons development will have the lid blown wide open.

5 This case illustrates well the central point we would like to make in this debate: that disarmament issues are almost inherently complex and difficult. Many in the world would like to believe that many disarmament issues are black and white: nuclear weapons, landmines, and small arms. Yet, in each dimension of disarmament, if we are to be honest, we face difficult and uncomfortable questions.

6 Take the global process of disarmament. Since World War II, it has been launched and driven by the developed states. Only they have had the spare intellectual capital and political and economic muscle to keep this process alive and well, even though it seems to go against the grain of human history. Yet, according to SIPRI, the top 20 suppliers of major conventional weapons are mainly the developed states. Ten countries accounted for almost 90% of estimated world arms production in 1996. The three largest arms-producing countries (the US, UK and France) accounted for around two-thirds and the US alone for roughly half of global arms production. We should not, even if we would like to, claim that this gap between words and deeds represent hypocrisy. It is only a vivid example of complexity in discussing disarmament.

7 We find such complexity prevalent in disarmament discussions in all levels of weapons: big, medium and small. In none of these discussions will we find simple black and white answers. Big Weapons

8 Nuclear weapons, for example, are not normally praised in halls of disarmament. They are often portrayed, and fairly so, as the Sword of Damocles hanging over mankind. Only they can collectively eliminate the human race. And it takes only a few fingers on a few nuclear triggers to achieve this. Yet, paradoxically, this is also the weapon that has virtually never been used after the end of World War II. And one can reasonably suggest that they have prevented World War III by introducing sanity to military minds who tend to assume that they can always win the next war. In a nuclear war, they know that there would be no winners, only losers.

9 If some nuclear weapons are good, shouldn't we therefore have some more? Not surprisingly, there is at least one strategic thinker who argues this. Professor John Mearsheimer, in an article "The case for a Ukrainian nuclear deterrent" in Foreign Affairs , has argued that: ".... nuclear proliferation sometimes promotes peace. Overall, the best formula for maintaining stability in post-Cold War Europe is for all the great powers - including Germany and Ukraine - to have secure nuclear deterrents and for all the minor powers to be nonnuclear." Such simplistic logic may work well in academia. In the real world, we know that mankind has come to accept the five nuclear powers as an undeniable and irreversible fact of history. It is important and necessary that we should prevent proliferation. But the five nuclear powers must in turn retain the trust and confidence of the rest of mankind by behaving responsibly on all nuclear issues. This is why the potential rejection of the CTBT by the US is such a troubling development. It may awaken dragons that mankind would rather see in continued slumber.

10 The other dragons we should keep in slumber are those found in the field of chemical and biological weapons. They can also be potent weapons of mass destruction. Like nuclear weapons, they have been virtually unused in wars between major powers, although there has been a disturbing tendency of medium powers to use them.

11 Given the horrifying capability of such weapons, it is surprising that so few NGOs and public personalities have pursued vigorously any campaign to wipe them from the face of the earth. We can understand their preoccupation with landmines and small arms. But it is distressing to see disarmament advocates behave like fashion designers, going with the flavour of the day, not looking at long-term needs. Medium Weapons

12 If the elimination of nuclear weapons is a distant dream, the elimination of medium weapons - tanks, jet fighters, and naval gunboats - seems even more remote. Curiously, the only thing that seems to have kept pace with the increase of disarmament fora is the sale of these weapons. Indeed, for most nations, acquiring them seems to be almost a test of manhood. We are of course aware that not all are calling for the total elimination of these weapons. Most advocate only the reduction of such weapons instead. But even this is a goal most countries do not really aim for. In real life, they continue to acquire such weapons.

13 Here again, acquisition need not necessarily be bad in itself. Clearly the strongest military organisation in the world is NATO. Its member states possess the most sophisticated military equipment in the world. Despite this, they continue to build and upgrade their weaponry to maintain a technological lead that is increasing rapidly over the rest of mankind. And yet the possibility of war between any two NATO states is virtually zero, despite this continuous rearmament.

14 Clearly weapons in themselves do not ignite wars. In some cases, they may actively prevent wars, following the paradoxical wisdom contained in Vegetius' famous saying: "Let him who desires peace, prepare for war". There may yet come a time when mankind will set up a collective security order to prevent and, if not, intervene in all conflicts. But we all know that for each Kosovo, there is a Somalia. Sometimes the international community helps to defuse conflicts. Often it doesn't. Self-reliance in defence may yet be necessary for some time to come. Small Weapons

15 If self-reliance is going to be necessary for the majority of mankind for quite a while, it is puzzling that so much of the international community's attention is taken by disarmament of small weapons. Most of mankind is still relatively poor. To deprive them of basic means to defend themselves would be unfair for, in the event of a crisis, they would be defenceless. This is why in our speech to this committee last year, we retold the tale of the three little pigs - and warned that houses made of straw and wood were of little use against wolves. And wolves continue to prey in our world. Certainly we should terminate the illicit trade in small arms. But it would be folly to curtail the legal trade in small arms.

16 In the real world, the illicit trade in small arms can be compared to the trade of illicit drugs. Yet, paradoxically, the developed states recommend contrary approaches to dealing with these problems. In small arms, they try to choke off the consumers. In illicit drugs, they try to choke off the suppliers. The only explanation for these strange approaches is that in both the cases, the burden is passed to the developing countries. The developed countries are as reluctant to choke off their own export of small arms as they are to choke off their own consumers of illicit drugs in their own countries. All these only reinforce the central point we would like to make today: disarmament issues are inherently complex.

17 But this does not mean that we should not persevere in our work. Some of the small gains we have made over the years are valuable gains. We should work to strengthen them. For example, it is a pity that for last year only 66 countries out of the 185 UN member states (then) submitted their returns to the Arms Register. By contrast, over a hundred members are addressing this committee on disarmament issues this year. We should work towards a more universal participation in the register, before thinking of expanding it. Similarly, we have set up a useful verification regime for chemical weapons. Each such regime contributes to greater compliance. And compliance in turn inspires trust.

18 To preserve these gains, small though they may be, we should ensure that disarmament survives well into the next millennium. The only way to survive is to take a carefully calibrated middle path that acknowledges the complexity of the issues we deal with. If not, if we try to progress in a linear fashion, arguing that more disarmament is always good, we may end up like Icarus flying too close to the sun with fragile wings. And we will leave mankind stuck in its old labyrinth of history.

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