Skip to main content
Ethical leadership & multilateral cooperation
Speeches and Discussions

The spirit of multilateral endeavour is sorely needed in today's troubled and turbulent times

Share this:

Addressing the Nuclear Disarmament Conference in The Hague entitled, "An Urgent Appeal for a Nuclear Free World", Mary Robinson outlines the steps countries must take to minimise the existential threat to humanity posed by nuclear weapons. 

The following is a transcript of her 26 November 2019 speech.


Excellencies, Madam Under-Secretary-General, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be back in the Peace Palace in The Hague for this fascinating and timely discussion on how to move to a world without nuclear weapons.

When I received the invitation, I was very pleased to see the title of today’s conference is an “Urgent Appeal” for a nuclear weapon-free world. I could not agree more.

The Dutch Medical Association for Peace Research has done a great amount of valuable work over the past fifty years on the disastrous medical and health consequences of nuclear weapons.

It is testimony both to their expertise but also the alarming international environment that their work remains as relevant today in 2019, as it was at their founding in 1969.

As we have heard from the varied and impressive speakers earlier today, the threat of nuclear war remains devastating and an ever-present political and military risk.

Indeed, I believe it is one of two existential threats facing humanity today, together with the climate crisis, and needs to be addressed with a comparable sense of urgency.

Both climate change and nuclear weapons constitute an intergenerational injustice. We risk bequeathing an unliveable planet to future generations if we are unable to face up to the seriousness of the issues and the need to take radical, comprehensive steps to protect our common home.  

Those of us who grew up in the shadow of the Cold War were all too familiar with the nuclear threat.

We took it seriously; we marched in the streets for peace and disarmament; and we cheered when the leaders of the two nuclear superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union – declared in 1987 that “a nuclear war can never be won, and should never be fought”.

But in the decades that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the withdrawal of intermediate-range weapons from European bases, a dangerous complacency was allowed to take hold, that said that nuclear weapons were “old news” and should no longer be treated as a priority by politicians and policymakers.

Today, the global geopolitical environment is far removed from the exhilarating days of November 1989.

The world now faces the dangerous prospect of a new nuclear arms race between the United States and Russia, with cascading effects on other nuclear states - both declared and non-declared - as well as countries who may feel encouraged or compelled to pursue their own nuclear ambitions.

Relations between the two main nuclear powers are at a worryingly low ebb, shrouded in mistrust and confusion and there is no constructive dialogue between them on the subject.

The termination of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty poses a severe threat, primarily to European peace and security, and greatly reduces the chances of maintaining any sort of arms security control in the world.

As The Elders warned at the time of the US decision to terminate the INF Treaty, this was only one element of the destabilising uncertainty around the future of arms control.

If the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) is not renewed in 2021, there will be no nuclear arms agreement in force between Russia and the United States anymore, and no remaining limits on the size of their deployed nuclear arsenals.

The situation is further aggravated by reports that the United States may “unsign” the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty and President Trumpʼs unilateral withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal and continued actions to destroy the deal all together.

Recent reports that the United States may be prepared to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty – which has helped to build mutual trust between Russia and NATO countries for almost two decades – is yet another alarming development.

All nuclear powers - the P5 as well as Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea - need to face up to their responsibilities and work together to reduce – and ultimately eliminate – their nuclear stockpiles.

Other countries who shelter under the so-called “nuclear umbrella”, including NATO member states like the Netherlands, also have a vested interest in seeing more extensive and rapid disarmament.

If nothing is done, I do not see how the non-proliferation regime can survive in the long run and perhaps even in the medium term.

It is right to celebrate the significant achievements of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but there is also a fundamental inequality and hypocrisy at the heart of the NPT, with its fundamental assumption that it is legitimate for the P5 to possess nuclear weapons, but illegitimate for any others to have the same aspiration.

This formulation was undoubtedly necessary to get the buy-in of the nuclear powers back in the 1960s, but such a transparently two-tiered system cannot credibly be sustained forever – and indeed has not prevented other states, declared or otherwise, from developing their own nuclear weapons programmes in the decades since.

Without a clear commitment from all existing nuclear states to seriously pursue disarmament – which for the P5 is a requirement under the NPT – it is almost inevitable that the number of nuclear-weapons possessing countries will continue to grow in the long-term. 

Such a prospect should terrify us all – and it begs the question: what can be done, in practical terms that are cognisant of political realities, to ease tensions and avert a nuclear catastrophe?

At the Munich Security Conference earlier this year, The Elders presented to the participants a few proposals aimed at raising public awareness of the issue and suggesting ways for progress towards nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.

In the face of such a complex challenge, we are proposing an incremental “minimisation” agenda which acknowledges geopolitical realities whilst insisting on the urgency of action.

Our proposals are summarized under the following four headings - which we call “the 4 D’s”:

  1. Doctrine: every one of the nine nuclear armed states should make an unequivocal “No First Use” declaration.
  2. De-alerting: a staggering 2000 US and Russian weapons remain on a dangerously high state of alert. The highest priority should be given to taking as many as possible of those weapons off this status.
  3. Deployment: over a quarter of the worldʼs stockpile of nuclear weapons remain operationally deployed. This is unnecessarily excessive and poses excessively high risks to global security. An extension of New START is a crucial next step - which makes the current lack of dialogue between Russia and the US all the more worrying.
  4. Decreased numbers: The Elders believe that the number of nuclear warheads in existence should be reduced from its present estimated level of almost 14,000 to around 2000, with Russia and the US reducing to no more than 500 each. That is enough to destroy the planet several times over.


There are many other initiatives of course, some of which have also featured on our agenda today. The existing international treaty frameworks must of course be at the heart of disarmament efforts, including the NPT and the Nuclear Ban Treaty, which have strengthened legal and normative processes towards the overall elimination of nuclear weapons.

I am also encouraged to see that there has been a recent proliferation of member state initiatives such as the Swedish Stepping Stones initiative and the German Missile Dialogue Initiative. This is not to mention the critical contributions that civil society groups have made to the nuclear debate, such as the Global Zero campaign and of course the work of ICAN, which deservedly received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 for its leading role in securing the Nuclear Ban Treaty.

I was very pleased to hear Minister Blok talk about the Netherlands’ role as Vice-President of the NPT Review Conference next year together with Poland. This is a critical multilateral process which reminds us that nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation needs to be a priority for all countries, not just the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council and other nuclear-armed states.

These steps show that small states can and do make a difference. My own country, Ireland, played a leading role in the international negotiations in the early Cold War period that eventually led to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In 1958, Ireland introduced the first of what became known as the “Irish Resolutions” at the UN which eventually led to the NPT. In recognition of this pioneering role, Ireland was the first country invited to sign the NPT in 1968.

The declaration in 2017 of the current Government of the Netherlands that it will “actively engage itself to reach a nuclear weapons-free world” is a welcome and laudable antidote to the bellicose posturing of some leading powers.

I encourage the Government to continue to show leadership on this vital issue, and I hope it can be as influential on today’s debates as Ireland showed itself to be in the 1960s. 

That spirit of multilateral endeavour is sorely needed in today’s troubled and turbulent times.

Next year, 2020, marks the 75th anniversary of the end of Second World War and of the birth of the nuclear age, founded in slaughter and unprecedented destructive power at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But it also marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, built on the ashes of the terrible conflict that had raged for six long years – and also on the memory of the failure of the pre-war League of Nations to halt the rise of racist, Fascist military aggression.

This is an important moment for member states to recommit to its founding values, and for civil society worldwide to act with vigilance and resolve to not only celebrate past achievements, but ensure the organisation can succeed in its mission in the future.

Faced with the existential threats of nuclear weapons and the climate emergency, the United Nations and the international community at large – which includes civil society, academics, doctors, young people and all other sectors of society – needs to be bold and work together to meet common challenges.

In the words of one of the greatest UN Secretary-Generals, Dag Hammarskjöld,

“It is when we all play safe that we create a world of utmost insecurity. It is when we all play safe that fatality will lead us to our doom. It is in the ‘dark shade of courage’ alone that the spell can be broken.”

So let us be seized by that sense of courage today, inspired by peacemakers like Dag Hammarskjöld, and commit to doing all we can to make 2020 not only an anniversary when we recall the terrifying, wanton destructive power of nuclear weapons, but a landmark moment on the path to their ultimate eradication.

Thank you.

Share this article

Keep up to date with The Elders’ COVID-19 digest:

Sign up to receive regular updates about The Elders’ activities during the COVID-19 pandemic. We will never share your email address with third parties.

Keep up to date with The Elders latest News and Insight:

Sign up to receive monthly newsletters from The Elders. We will occasionally send you other special updates and news, but we'll never share your email address with third parties.


I would like to find: