How Ireland sowed seeds for nuclear disarmament

ANALYSIS: Frank Aiken first tried to stop the spread of nuclear weapons more than 50 years ago in the UN, writes NOEL DORR

ANALYSIS:Frank Aiken first tried to stop the spread of nuclear weapons more than 50 years ago in the UN, writes NOEL DORR

IN PRAGUE a year ago President Barack Obama committed the US to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and seeking the ultimate goal of a world without them. He is clearly sincere about this. Last September he chaired a UN Security Council meeting on nuclear issues; on April 8th, he and Russia’s president Dmitry Medvedev, who between them control 90 per cent of the world’s nuclear weapons, signed a new 10-year treaty providing for reductions in strategic missiles and warheads, and this week he is hosting a summit on nuclear security in Washington.

The next important step will be the review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which opens in New York on May 3rd. We in Ireland have a particular interest in this treaty because it was former Irish foreign minister Frank Aiken who first made the case for it more than 50 years ago.

The treaty eventually came into force in 1970. On the 40th anniversary last month, Obama described it as “the cornerstone of the world’s efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons”. But when Aiken first raised the issue in 1958 the omens were none too favourable.


Initially the US found his proposal unacceptable: at the time it was considering locating tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Furthermore, Nato believed that all arms agreements must be subject to effective control and they did not see how to ensure that those who had nuclear weapons would not pass them secretly to others. Others again objected that a treaty would freeze inequality between nuclear “haves” and “have nots”. The Soviet Union, in contrast, was more open – having acquired nuclear weapons itself it had little interest in spreading them to others.

In this atmosphere Aiken was wise enough not to force the issue in 1958: he asked only for a vote on a single general paragraph in his proposal which recognised “the dangers inherent in the further dissemination of nuclear weapons”. The Soviet Union voted for; the US and its allies abstained. Aiken then withdrew the whole resolution, believing it prudent to fight another day, on another battlefield.

He returned to the issue a year later, in 1959. This time he linked the concept of an agreement to avert the spread of nuclear weapons with another idea for “areas of law” – regions where groups of states would commit themselves to abide by the charter and the rule of law in return for security guarantees from the major nuclear powers.

This imaginative proposal met with little success. But his ideas about the urgency of stopping the spread of nuclear weapons were gaining some ground. So he proposed a new resolution. This would have the general assembly “suggest” that a new disarmament committee consider “appropriate means” to prevent their spread – including “the feasibility of an international agreement subject to inspection and control”.

Aiken was pragmatic in his approach. He was even far-sighted enough to foresee that not only states but “revolutionary organisations and groups” could acquire such weapons “and they are ever more likely to do so according as these weapons become more numerous, more easily transportable and part of standard military equipment”. It is this danger which on April 12th Obama called “the most immediate and extreme threat to global security”.

In 1959 the general assembly approved Aiken’s modest proposal by 68 votes to zero with 12 abstentions. Oddly enough, “East” and “West” had changed positions since the previous year: the US and Nato, except for France, now voted for; the Soviet Union and its allies abstained. A year later, in 1960, Aiken returned to the fray with a new text. It called on “all governments to make every effort to achieve permanent agreement” to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, and called for temporary, voluntary measures, pending such agreement. He also brought in Ghana, Japan, Mexico and Morocco as co-sponsors. The assembly approved this resolution by 68 votes to zero with 26 abstentions.

Aiken’s quiet and stubborn persistence finally won out a year later in 1961. His new resolution called explicitly on all states to negotiate an international agreement under which nuclear states would not give nuclear weapons or know-how to non-nuclear states, and non-nuclear states would undertake not to manufacture or acquire such weapons. This time Ireland was the sole sponsor.

The omens now were favourable. On December 4th, 1961, the Irish resolution was adopted unanimously by the general assembly. As the most junior member of the Irish delegation, I was there for the vote that day. In the esoteric language of UN procedures there is a difference between a resolution adopted by “consensus” and one adopted by “unanimity”. One leaves scope for reservations by individual delegations – the other means just what it says. So Aiken had achieved the best possible outcome to four years of patient diplomatic groundwork.

This, however, was only a first step towards an actual treaty. Seven years of negotiation between major powers followed. Eventually, on July 1st, 1968, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which “the Irish resolution” had called for, was opened for signature simultaneously in London, Moscow and Washington. To mark its part in raising the issue 10 years earlier Ireland signed in all three capitals. We had no diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union at the time but Aiken was invited to Moscow to sign and while there he presented Ireland’s formal ratification to then foreign minister Andrei Gromyko. So, Ireland, which was the first to argue for it 10 years before, became the first country to ratify the new treaty.

Over the past 40 years the treaty has stood as a barrier against the spread of nuclear weapons. Some 189 states now adhere to it – more than other disarmament agreement. India and Pakistan, however, did not sign and they are now nuclear powers; Israel, though it will not admit it, has nuclear weapons; North Korea has withdrawn and conducted tests, and there is a serious question mark about Iran’s intentions.

So, 40 years on, the treaty is under pressure. But Obama’s support for it is a hopeful sign.

Since 1947, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientistshas shown a symbolic clock face on the cover of each issue. The editors move the minute hand closer to, or farther from, midnight, according to their assessment of the current dangers from nuclear weapons. When Aiken's resolution was adopted in 1961, it was seven minutes to the hour. After the cold war it went back 10 minutes. Today it shows six minutes to 12. It is time to push it back again.

Noel Dorr is a former secretary general at the Department of Foreign Affairs and former Irish permanent representative to the United Nations. He is also a governor of the Irish Times Trust. This article draws on a chapter in the writer's forthcoming book Ireland at the United Nations: Memories of the Early Years, published this month by the Institute of Public Administration