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United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres makes remarks before the 2022 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference in the United Nations General Assembly on Aug. 1.Yuki IWAMURA/The Associated Press

The United Nations chief warned the world Monday that “humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation.”

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres gave the dire warning at the opening of the long-delayed high-level meeting to review the landmark 50-year-old treaty aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and eventually achieving a nuclear-free world. He cited especially the war in Ukraine and the threat of nuclear weapons to conflicts in the Middle East and Asia, two regions “edging towards catastrophe.”

Mr. Guterres told many ministers, officials and diplomats attending the month-long conference to review the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that the meeting is taking place “at a critical juncture for our collective peace and security” and “at a time of nuclear danger not seen since the height of the Cold War.”

The conference is “an opportunity to hammer out the measures that will help avoid certain disaster, and to put humanity on a new path towards a world free of nuclear weapons,” the secretary-general said.

But Mr. Guterres warned that “geopolitical weapons are reaching new highs,” almost 13,000 nuclear weapons are in arsenals around the world, and countries seeking “false security” are spending hundreds of billions of dollars on “doomsday weapons.”

“All this at a time when the risks of proliferation are growing and guardrails to prevent escalation are weakening,” he said, “And when crises – with nuclear undertones – are festering from the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

Mr. Guterres called on conference participants to take several actions: Urgently reinforce and reaffirm “the 77-year-old norm against the use of nuclear weapons,” work relentlessly toward the elimination of nuclear weapons with new commitments to reduce arsenals, address “the simmering tensions in the Middle East and Asia” and promote the peaceful use of nuclear technology.

“Future generations are counting on your commitment to step back from the abyss,” he implored the ministers and diplomats. “This is our moment to meet this fundamental test and lift the cloud of nuclear annihilation once and for all.”

In force since 1970, the Non-Proliferation Treaty known as the NPT has the widest adherence of any arms control agreement, with some 191 countries that are members.

Under its provisions, the five original nuclear powers – the United States, China, Russia (then the Soviet Union), Britain and France – agreed to negotiate toward eliminating their arsenals someday and nations without nuclear weapons promised not to acquire them in exchange for a guarantee to be able to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

India and Pakistan, which didn’t join the NPT, went on to get the bomb. So did North Korea, which ratified the pact but later announced it was withdrawing. Non-signatory Israel is believed to have a nuclear arsenal, but neither confirms nor denies it. Nonetheless, the treaty has been credited with limiting the number of nuclear newcomers (U.S. president John F. Kennedy once foresaw as many as 20 nuclear-armed nations) as a framework for international co-operation on disarmament.

The meeting, which ends Aug. 26, aims to generate a consensus on next steps, but expectations are low for a substantial – if any – agreement.

Still, Swiss President Ignazio Cassis, prime ministers Fumio Kishida of Japan and Frank Bainimarama of Fiji, and more than a dozen nations’ foreign ministers are among attendees expected from at least 116 countries, according to a UN official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly before the conference.

Other speakers at Monday’s opening include UN nuclear chief Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.

The NPT’s five-year review was supposed to take place in 2020, when the world already faced plenty of crisis, but was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is taking place at a time of heightened fears of a nuclear confrontation, spurred by Russia’s comments following its Feb. 24 invasion of neighbouring Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned then that any attempt to interfere would lead to “consequences you have never seen” and emphasized that his country is “one of the most potent nuclear powers.” Days later, Mr. Putin ordered Russia’s nuclear forces to be put on higher alert.

Patricia Lewis, former director of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research who is now in charge of international security programs at the international affairs think tank Chatham House in London, said “President Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons have shocked the international community.”

Russia is not only an NPT signatory, but a depository for treaty ratifications and in January, it joined the four other nuclear powers in reiterating the statement by former U.S. president Ronald Reagan and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that “a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought,” she told The Associated Press.

Ms. Lewis said countries participating in the review conference will have a difficult decision to make.

To support the treaty and what it stands for, “governments will have to address Russia’s behaviour and threats,” she said. “On the other hand, to do so risks dividing the treaty members – some of whom have been persuaded by Russia’s propaganda or at least are not as concerned, for example, as the NATO states.”

And “Russia no doubt will strenuously object to being named in statements and any outcome documents,” Ms. Lewis said.

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