Seventy-five years since the founding of the United Nations and since the horrific bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world continues to live in the shadow of nuclear catastrophe.
In 2020, the world marked several key milestones related to nuclear weapons, including, notably, the seventy-fifth anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Highlights included the fiftieth anniversary of the entry into force of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), as well as the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Treaty’s indefinite extension.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic did not slow the growth of nuclear risks in 2020; in some cases, it exacerbated them. Meanwhile, nuclear disarmament efforts continued to face obstacles that included deteriorating geostrategic conditions, growing distrust and acrimony among nuclear-armed States, increasing concerns about technological developments contributing to greater risks and ongoing qualitative improvements to nuclear weapons.
Those negative trends served to further erode the global disarmament and non-proliferation regime, both undermining past accomplishments and impeding further progress. In 2020, the harm from those trends was made worse by the postponement of key forums related to nuclear disarmament, as well as the growing divergences between Member States over how to achieve the common goal of eliminating nuclear weapons. The Secretary-General highlighted the stakes in his message to the Nagasaki Peace Memorial Ceremony on 9 August, stating, “The historic progress in nuclear disarmament is in jeopardy, as the web of instruments and agreements designed to reduce the danger of nuclear weapons and bring about their elimination is crumbling. That alarming trend must be reversed.”
At the onset of the pandemic, the States parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty decided to postpone the agreement’s tenth Review Conference to help ensure the health and safety of delegates. After initially postponing the Conference until January 2021, those States decided, in light of the ongoing pandemic, to hold the meeting from 2 to 27 August 2021 and to take a final decision on dates in 2021. While the postponement of the Review Conference delayed much-needed, vital dialogue on issues related to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, it also provided the States parties with additional time to narrow divergences and overcome barriers to a consensus outcome at the Conference.
As relations between States possessing nuclear weapons continued to decline in 2020, risks from those weapons grew as they assumed a larger role in national defence strategies. In February, the United States fielded a low-yield, submarine-launched nuclear weapon, envisaged in its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review “to address the conclusion that potential adversaries, like Russia, believe that employment of low-yield nuclear weapons will give them an advantage over the United States and its allies and partners”. In June, the Russian Federation released its updated “Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence”. While the publication of those principles for the first time was a useful transparency measure, the updated principles arguably lowered the threshold for nuclear-weapon use by expanding the number of scenarios in which they could be used.
Meanwhile, the network of arms-control and confidence-building instruments and arrangements was further weakened when, on 22 November, the United States ceased to be a party to the Treaty on Open Skies. Its stated reason for withdrawal was non-compliance by the Russian Federation. The remaining Parties agreed to continue their participation as observers, underscoring the Treaty’s value as both a confidence-building measure and a significant achievement for arms control.
Following the dissolution in 2019 of the Treaty between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Elimination of Their Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty), in October 2020, the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, offered to add “mutual verification measures” to his proposal, first put forward in 2019, for a moratorium on the deployment of missiles previously banned by the Treaty. The United States rejected the proposal because the Russian Federation had already deployed four battalions of intermediate-range missiles within range of European States.
In a more positive development, arms control negotiators from the United States and the Russian Federation engaged in four rounds of dialogue in Vienna during the year. Participants in the talks discussed issues related to strategic stability, including the possible extension of the Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START Treaty) before the Treaty’s expiration in February 2021. China declined an invitation by the United States to participate, however, due to the disparity in the sizes of their respective nuclear arsenals. Although the Russian Federation and the United States were ultimately unable to agree to an extension, the discussions were a welcome step in dialogue between the possessors of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals.
In 2020, all States that possessed nuclear weapons continued to modernize their nuclear arsenals, including by developing, testing and deploying new nuclear-capable weapons systems. The Russian Federation tested new submarine-launched ballistic missiles and a hypersonic cruise missile, deployed missiles armed with a hypersonic glide vehicle and continued to develop weapons systems announced by President Putin in 2018. The United States, in addition to deploying a new low-yield nuclear warhead, tested a hypersonic glide vehicle and continued with plans to replace its land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, air-launched cruise missiles, and nuclear-capable bombers and submarines. Throughout 2020, China conducted tests of both medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles; achieved further progress towards developing a road-mobile nuclear arsenal, including a solid-fuelled intercontinental ballistic missile; and moved closer to establishing a full nuclear triad, with weapons deployable by land, air and sea.
There was no resolution to regional situations with nuclear dimensions in 2020. The Islamic Republic of Iran continued to scale back compliance with its nuclear commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, countering the reimposition of sanctions by the United States in 2018. The Islamic Republic of Iran’s ongoing actions, which included installing new uranium-enrichment centrifuge types and accelerating research and development, resulted in significant growth in its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and a further increase in its enrichment potential. It maintained that all steps were reversible. In response to the Islamic Republic of Iran’s violations of the Plan of Action, in September, the United States claimed to have activated the “snap back” mechanism in the Security Council, triggering the reimposition of all United Nations sanctions on the nuclear programme of the Islamic Republic of Iran. A strong majority of Security Council members rejected the United States’ position.
Tensions also persisted on the Korean Peninsula, which saw no progress during the year in the implementation of the joint statement by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the United States from the Singapore summit in June 2018. While the United States signalled that it remained open to negotiations and extended several diplomatic overtures, the COVID-19 pandemic hindered further diplomatic engagement with a view to the complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Despite those negative trends, several developments were causes for optimism in 2020 in the pursuit of a world free of nuclear weapons. Action items under “Disarmament to Save Humanity”—the pillar of the Secretary- General’s Agenda for Disarmament dedicated to eliminating all nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction—gained three new State “champions” and 11 “supporters” during the year. States also stepped up cross-regional initiatives in support of a successful Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, including the development of 22 proposals to reduce nuclear risks and achieve progress in nuclear disarmament.
Additionally, the conditions for the entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons were met in October, representing what both the Secretary-General and the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs described as a meaningful commitment to nuclear disarmament and multilateralism. As the first multilateral nuclear disarmament treaty to be negotiated in over 20 years, the agreement was a testament to the survivors of nuclear bombings and tests, many of whom had advocated for it.
Despite the postponement of the fourth Conference of Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones and Mongolia, States continued working to strengthen both the implementation of treaties establishing such zones and coordination between zones. In that regard, their work included support for centralized coordination mechanisms, as well as webinars aimed at strengthening implementation in the individual zones. Likewise, despite the postponement of the second negotiating conference on a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction, a workshop exploring the lessons learned from existing nuclear-weapon-free zones was organized in July to maintain momentum for negotiations.