Opening statement

by NATO Deputy Secretary General Ambassador Alexander Vershbow at the Annual NATO Conference on WMD Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-proliferation (Ljubljana, Slovenia)

  • 09 May. 2016 -
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  • Last updated: 09 May. 2016 15:26

Thank you for that kind introduction.  I would first like to thank State Secretary, Mrs. Bavdaž Kuret and her team at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for all their work in organising this conference and for their excellent hospitality.

This is the fourth WMD conference I’ve had the pleasure of opening.  I keep coming back because this conference brings together the world’s leading experts on WMD, on non-proliferation and on arms control.  It provides an incredible opportunity to debate important issues openly in a relaxed and – here in Ljubljana – a beautiful setting. 

While this is a NATO-organised conference, it is not just for Allies.  Many of you represent partner nations from around the globe, and I welcome you all.  The last couple of conferences have been held in partner countries – in Switzerland and Qatar – and I look forward to that being the case in future years.  This breadth of participation is essential when discussing WMD, because it is not just an issue of Euro-Atlantic security, it is an issue of global security.  And our global security environment has become far less stable in recent years.

In the Euro-Atlantic area, NATO currently faces two significant challenges.  The first comes from an aggressive Russia, which has illegally annexed Crimea by force and continues to violently destabilise Eastern Ukraine.  Russia’s rhetoric, posture, lack of transparency and snap military exercises undermine trust and continually test our resilience – you may have seen the dramatic pictures of Russian fighters buzzing a US destroyer in the Baltic only last month.  Worryingly, Russia is also using irresponsible nuclear rhetoric, and exercises of its nuclear forces, in an attempt to intimidate both its neighbours and the Alliance as a whole.  

While we have reduced the number of our nuclear weapons, NATO will remain a nuclear Alliance.  We keep them safe, secure and effective for deterrence and to preserve the peace, not for coercion or intimidation.

In recent years, Russia has proven itself highly adept at hybrid warfare: using a mix of military and non-military means to achieve its political objectives.  It is engaging in propaganda campaigns, using disinformation to stir up inter-ethnic tensions, and funding populist and extremist parties across Europe in an attempt to split the Alliance.  Through better early warning, improved intelligence, greater defence of critical infrastructure, of our troops and our populations, NATO is already doing a great deal to counter and defend against hybrid attacks. 

The second, and different, challenge NATO faces is, of course, along our southern flank, where an arc of crisis and instability extends across much of the Middle East and North Africa.  The war in Syria and the spread of terrorist groups like ISIL, or Daesh, has led to untold suffering, to the death of hundreds of thousands of people and to the displacement of millions more.  All NATO Allies are part of the US-led coalition to destroy ISIL, and NATO fully supports all efforts to achieve a lasting peace and a peaceful transition to a new, democratic government, as prescribed in UN Security Council Resolution 2254.   

In Syria, despite its accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention and the successful destruction of its declared stockpile, chemical weapons remain a grave concern; and such weapons have been used in the conflict.  The first report of the Joint Investigative Mechanism, set up by the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, has now been presented to the UN Security Council.  It is essential that those who have used chemical weapons be apprehended and brought to justice.  I expect Ahmet Üzümcü, OPCW’s Director General, to say more on this, including the possible possession of chemical weapons by ISIL.

As well as fuelling the current refugee crisis in Europe, the rise of ISIL has led to a spate of murderous terrorist attacks across Europe, the United States, North Africa and the Middle East.  This threat could increase as jihadi fighters return home.  For some, their chosen battlefield is already the streets of Europe, and not Syria.

The attacks so far – in Paris, Brussels, Ankara, California and elsewhere – have all been designed to take as many lives as possible.  The nightmare scenario is that these terrorists get their hands on CBRN materials or weapons of mass destruction.  The physical, economic and psychological effects of such an attack – even one on a relatively small scale – would be devastating.  Increased CBRN know-how, the spread of the appropriate technical and manufacturing expertise, and the growing capabilities of terrorist groups present a serious and growing threat. This conference is an opportunity to take the discussion further and to see what more we can do together to combat or, better, to prevent such acts of terror. 

Further afield, with its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and from the Six-Party Talks, North Korea remains the biggest threat to international non-proliferation efforts.  Pyongyang continues with its highly aggressive rhetoric and actions, carrying out a fourth nuclear test in January and threatening to conduct more tests.  North Korea also continues to develop and test ballistic missiles in defiance of UN Security Council Resolutions.

These are just some of the challenges faced by the international community.  The security environment is dynamic and evolving, but so too is the field of arms control and non-proliferation.  In recent times, there have been many positive developments.  The New START Treaty, which reduces the number of nuclear weapons and launchers that the United States and Russia can deploy, is one of the few international security mechanisms that Moscow still honours, and which both the US and Russia are implementing.

The series of Nuclear Security Summits, the most recent held in Washington at the end of March, have made an important contribution to combating the threat of nuclear terrorism by ingraining a culture of nuclear security.  Unfortunately, Russia was notable by its absence. 

Last year’s Iran nuclear negotiations concluded successfully with the agreement on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.  In January, the International Atomic Energy Agency verified that Iran had implemented its nuclear-related commitments.  This is a landmark agreement.  It is now vital that Tehran continue to faithfully implement the provisions of the agreement and fulfil its other international obligations.  Concerns remain over Iran’s increasingly assertive role in its neighbourhood, as well as its continued development and testing of ballistic missiles.  

The threat to NATO countries posed by the proliferation of ballistic missiles continues to increase; many countries have, or are acquiring, ballistic missile technology.  Our ballistic missile defence is designed to defend our territory, our people and our forces against a range of threats from outside the Euro-Atlantic area, and is purely defensive.  NATO’s missile defence is not directed against a specific country, and that includes Russia.   The location and technical capabilities of our ballistic missile defence mean that the system does not and, indeed, cannot undermine Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrence.

With the breadth of challenges before us, it is essential that we work together to develop an ever stronger and more comprehensive approach to today’s WMD and CBRN threats.  The use of CBRN by states and by terrorists, as well as the potential for accidents or natural disasters such as in Fukushima, is real.  Our people and our infrastructure are potentially vulnerable, so it is important that we don’t wait until something happens before doing something about it.  For as the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  We need to do everything we can to prevent the spread of WMD to state and to non-state actors.  But should those efforts fail, we need to be prepared for the impact of any incident and be able to respond quickly and effectively.

NATO, for its part, takes these threats very seriously. We are enhancing our preparedness to defend against and to counter CBRN attacks.  The Joint CBRN Defence Centre of Excellence in the Czech Republic, the Combined Joint CBRN Defence Task Force, the NATO Intelligence Fusion Centre in the United Kingdom, and the CBRN Protection Cluster within the Framework Nations Concept, which helps us to better leverage existing Allied capabilities, are just some of NATO’s tools in this fight.

We consistently try to use the structures and mechanisms of the Alliance to support the strengthening of the non-proliferation regime.  But we can do more.  One of the main things we can do is to improve coordination.  That is why we work closely with our partners in the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation initiative. 

Working together, we should agree on common goals before big international meetings such as this year’s Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention Review Conference, next year’s NPT Preparatory Committee, the OSCE meetings on conventional arms control, and the various UN disarmament forums and working groups. This Conference today is one of our opportunities to come to such common views.  If we don’t, we lose an important opportunity to influence the debate and to make progress.

These meetings are vital.  Over the decades, for example, the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention Review Conference has hardened global attitudes against the use of these weapons.  The very idea of using disease as a weapon of war is repugnant.  While membership of the Convention is not yet universal, no nation claims that biological weapons are a legitimate means of self-defence.  The meeting in November should help the international community to reach a consensus in contentious areas such as confidence-building and compliance.  NATO is ready to contribute to the wide-ranging consultations ahead of the meeting.

We also work with our partners on more practical matters.  One of the best examples of this is the NATO Science for Peace and Security Programme.  As part of this, and together with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, we are working on regional CBRN first responder training with some of our Southern Partners present here today. 

Ladies and gentlemen,

While the security environment is challenging and fluid, we must do everything in our power to reduce uncertainty, combat hybrid war tactics and defeat terrorism.  This is most important in the field of weapons of mass destruction.  We need to be resilient, we need to be prepared and we need to be on the front foot.  That is why conferences like this one today are so important.  Our discussions here and elsewhere will help to ensure our collective security for decades to come.

With that, I wish you an interesting and productive conference.