ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, October 08, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 19
Front Page Columns
Inside the glass house

The nuclear debate: From U.Thant to Ban Ki-moon

By Thalif Deen at the united nations

NEW YORK - When U. Thant of Burma (now Myanmar) was the first -- and last -- Asian Secretary-General of the United Nations during 1961-1971, the former Burmese ambassador was described as modest and low-keyed compared to his high-profile predecessor Sweden's Dag Hammarskjold, who died in a plane crash in the Congo in 1961.

Rames Nassif, a former press spokesman for U. Thant, once recalled a rumour floating around the UN delegates' lounge that French diplomats secretly despised the Secretary-General for not speaking French (an unforgivable sin by French standards), and ridiculed him in private because he was "too short". When he heard these rumours, U.Thant is supposed to have told his friends: Why should the French be complaining: "I am taller than Napoleon -- and Napoleon did not speak English."

Members of the Security Council of United Nations vote during a meeting regarding North Korea at U.N. Headquarters in New York Friday, Oct. 6, 2006. The Security Council urged North Korea on Friday to cancel a planned nuclear test and return immediately to talks on scrapping its nuclear weapons program, saying that exploding such a device would threaten international peace and security. (AP Photo/David Karp)

In the current issue of "Irrawaddy", a monthly magazine published by Burmese political exiles fighting the current military junta in Rangoon, Aung Zaw recounts the days of U.Thant at the UN when he once riled the United States with his response to reporters on a question about the possible use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam: "As you are no doubt aware, I am against the use of atomic weapons for destructive purposes anywhere, under any circumstances. Anybody who proposes the use of atomic weapons is, in my view, out of his mind." U. Thant also apparently hinted that the US decided to use nuclear weapons against the Japanese because they were non-whites.

Not surprisingly, Ban Ki-moon of South Korea who will soon be anointed as the second Asian Secretary-General of the UN has threatened to virtually plunge headlong into the current nuclear crisis in his neighbourhood. Perhaps much to the delight of the Americans, he has said he will use his mandate as UN Secretary-General to convince the North Koreans to give up their quest for nuclear weapons.

"As I have gained much deeper understanding and experience into the inter-Korean relationship, including North Korea, I think I will be in a much better position to handle this issue as Secretary-General," he said last week. He also made the point that although current Secretary-General Kofi Annan has kept himself engaged in the North Korean crisis, he has not been able to visit Pyongyang during the last 10 years of his tenure as UN chief.

But how far Ban will succeed in his mission is left to be seen -- judging by the unpredictability of North Korean leaders and their determination to go nuclear at any cost. The US, which is also determined to prevent the expansion of the current nuclear monopoly, has publicly threatened the North Koreans, warning them against the testing of any weapons. Last week the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill was unusually blunt: "We are not going to live with a nuclear North Korea. We are not going to accept it." He also said that North Korea can have a future or it can have nuclear weapons. "But it cannot have both."

In an interview with the New York Times, Hill warned that North Korea would not be permitted to get away with its nuclear testing -- unlike Pakistan. The Pakistanis suffered three years of US economic and military sanctions after they tested their nuclear weapons back in 1998. But after Pakistan decided to cooperate with the US on the war against terrorism, the sanctions were lifted. "This ain't Pakistan," Hill was quoted as saying, in a comparison with North Korea.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration has been pushing China, a long time ally of North Korea, to play a key role in the crisis. But the Chinese seem to be running out of patience with the North Koreans, and also losing whatever influence they had in Pyongyang. Although the Chinese warned North Korea against long-range missile testing, the North Koreans went along with their testing, anyway. As a result, China supported a Western-inspired Security Council resolution to condemn North Korea for testing missiles last month.

But one major dilemma facing the Americans is the accusation of double standards. Besides the existing five declared nuclear powers-- the US, France, Britain, China and Russia -- there are also three other recent nuclear converts, India, Pakistan and Israel. But what is troubling countries like Iran and North Korea, who are on the threshold of becoming nuclear powers, is that the big five are only paying lip service to the cause of nuclear disarmament. While all five share the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons from their military arsenals, they are, at the same time, developing newer and more sophisticated nuclear weapons.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rightly addressed this issue when he appeared before the UN General Assembly last month. In his speech, he referred to the unbridled expansion of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. "Some powers proudly announce their production of second and third generation nuclear weapons. What do they need these weapons for? Is the development and stockpiling of these deadly weapons designed to promote peace and democracy? Or are these weapons, in fact, instruments of coercion and threat against other peoples and governments? How long should the people of the world live with the nightmare of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons? To what length can powers producing and possessing these weapons go? How can they be held accountable before the international community?" he asked.
But the answers were not forthcoming.

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