14 February 2012
"Fashioning Future History: 80th Anniversary of the World Disarmament Conference"
Mr. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev
United Nations Under-Secretary-General
Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva
Opening of the Exhibition “Fashioning Future History:
80th Anniversary of the World Disarmament Conference”
Palais des Nations, League of Nations Museum,
Geneva, 14 February 2012
Ladies and Gentlemen
I am very pleased to welcome you to the opening of this very rich and interesting exhibition dedicated to the World Conference on Disarmament, convened here in Geneva by the League of Nations eighty years ago, on 2 February 1932.
The Conference for the Reduction and Limitation of Armaments, as it was formally known, was the first truly global conference ever called; it had no precedents, no beaten paths to direct its course. In his opening address, the president of the Conference, former British Foreign Secretary Arthur Henderson, noted that assembled in Geneva were “the chosen spokesmen of seventeen hundred million people.” More than 60 states took part in the Conference, which assembled under adverse circumstances. Many political complications and grave conflicts between states flared up even as the Conference was opening.
Still scarred by the Great War, the participating countries wished the Conference to pave the way for a substantial reduction in land, air and sea armaments in the hope of robbing a future war of its most deadly tools. In his address to the Conference in 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered a clear message: “If all nations will agree wholly to eliminate from possession and use the weapons which make possible a successful attack, defence automatically will become impregnable and the frontiers and independence of every nation will become secure.”
History has recorded that because of strong and irreconcilable ideological and political divergences, the Conference was a failure. Despite this harsh verdict of history, the League of Nations actually accomplished a lot including the prohibition of chemical and biological weapons.
All the efforts by the League of Nations did not avert the horrors of the Second World War. Yet the work done by the World Conference laid the groundwork for the international community to pick up its disarmament work as it emerged from the madness and carnage of World War II.
In the over sixty-seven years of postwar efforts, the world indeed has much to show by way of disarmament achievements, both multilateral and bilateral. Many of these are listed in this exhibit.
However, the lessons of the World Conference of 1932 have an eerie ring to them. They bring us back to the ongoing clashing agendas and opposing political and security considerations within the Conference on Disarmament. The sixty-four members of the CD are mired in a no less stifling stalemate than the sixty-four participating states in the World Conference. Yet, eighty years ago, Arthur Henderson and the statesmen of the day managed to start and undertake substantive discussions without adopting a programme of work, demonstrating that useful work can always be done.
There is a major incentive for us to do this: an alarming difference between the two Conferences is that the destructive force of modern weapons of mass destruction dwarfs the killing power of any and all weapons that were on the agenda of the World Conference in 1932.
Today, the world is arguably better protected than eighty years ago by a large body of international instruments. Many of these key disarmament agreements were negotiated in the CD and its predecessors. It was in Geneva that the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, the Seabed Treaty and the Environmental Modification Treaty were first considered or negotiated. Many of these were achieved during the cold war, proving that it is possible to create global legal norms even in times of great political disagreements.
International political will to advance nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation has been further strengthened in recent years. The Security Council Summit in September 2009, the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in April 2010, initiatives both at the multilateral and bilateral levels, including the signing of the new START treaty in April 2010, and the successful 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). These are some of the key developments in this encouraging political atmosphere, where the center of gravity in matters of disarmament has returned squarely to nuclear disarmament.
From his first day in Office, the Secretary-General has accorded a central role in his political agenda to the problems of disarmament, providing consistent personal leadership and actively engaging in advancing nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. He has done so through his Five-point proposal in 2008, his convening of a High-level Meeting in September 2010 aimed at revitalizing the work of the CD and taking forward multilateral disarmament negotiations, his convening of a High-level Meeting on Nuclear Safety and Security in September 2011, his agenda-setting remarks at the Nuclear Disarmament Conference in October 2011, his regular addresses and encouragement to the CD and many other actions.
He urges the Member States of the CD to restore the Conference to the central role it can and must play in strengthening the rule of law in the field of disarmament.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is difficult to look at this exhibit and not recall the maxim that those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it. This exhibit gives us then a unique opportunity to learn from history and from the mistakes of our forefathers.
I am very pleased to announce the exhibition open and invite you to enjoy it, as well as the reception that follows.