Interview with Ambassador Sergio Duarte within «Oral History of Nuclear Nonproliferation» Project

May 31, 2023
Ambassador Sergio Duarte

Today, within the framework of «Oral History of Nuclear Nonproliferation» Project, we present to your attention an interview with Ambassador Sergio Duarte – Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs President, PIR Center Advisory Board Member since 2022.

Amb. Duarte kindly told us about his experience of cooperation with UN institutions and also shared assessments of the current state of the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

  • When did you become professionally involved in the problems of WMD nonproliferation and disarmament?

From 1966-1968 I was assigned to Brazilian permanent mission to the UN in Geneva as Second Secretary. There I joined the Brazilian delegation in the ENDC which then was working on the NPT. This was the first time I had the opportunity to work in multilateral diplomacy. As you know, Brazil had some objections towards the NPT. We considered the draft that had been presented to be discriminatory, which is still an inherent feature of the instrument.

It was a very interesting experience of  how to translate the Brazilian concerns into the Treaty language and to try to make them be taken into account. Unfortunately, it never happened. The two major players the US and the Soviet Union, had a common interest in the adoption of the Treaty as it suited their purposes.

  • How do you assess the role of the ENDC in the preparation of the NPT? Is it true that all important decisions on the treaty were made by the USA and the USSR behind closed doors, especially with regard to articles 1 and 2?

I never say that the NPT was negotiated in the ENDC since, in fact, it was mainly negotiated between the US and the USSR, especially articles I and II. The ENDC, so to say, was the way, in which the agreement between the US and the USSR on non-proliferation could be accepted by other states.  You remember that already in 1950-s there was already a strong movement against nuclear proliferation led by Ireland. So, there was this general preoccupation in nuclear and non-nuclear countries about the proliferation. And despite the height of the Cold War nuclear countries had a common interest to prevent other states from acquiring the nuclear weapons. But they also needed some international legitimacy to the future Treaty, so that other countries also admit that there are only 5 recognized NWS. This is why the ENDC was created.

And I think other countries agreed because there had been already a general understanding that there was no benefit in acquiring nuclear weapons for them. The main concern of Brazil was to prevent the imposition of restrictions on the civil use of nuclear energy and international scientific cooperation in this field. Because back then there was a general belief that nuclear energy would bring huge economic and industrial benefits and we wanted to use these benefits for our development. For example, it was believed that it was possible to make canals and extract oil with peaceful nuclear explosions. And that’s why, by the way the Tlatelolco Treaty, which preceded the NPT, did not ban peaceful nuclear explosions. Later, however, it became clear that there were no advantages in using explosions for those objectives.

  • One of the most controversial questions was NATO joint nuclear missions. Do you remember how this issue was discussed in the committee? And why did the USSR finally make a concession on this very important issue for its security? Can you give examples of other issues in the solution of which the ENDC did really participate.

As far as I can remember this issue was not much discussed in the Committee and was mainly dealt with outside the ENDC, as it was a major security question between the US and the USSR and some of their allies, and less so for other members. Besides, the US gave guarantees that Western Germany would not get the nuclear weapons, which the Soviet Union was very wary of, so it was also a kind of trade-off. The main interest of both the US and the USSR in the discussions at the Committee was to ensure that non-nuclear countries would forgo nuclear weapons.  

  • During the 10th NPT Review Conference, you also said that Brazil had never intended to obtain nuclear weapons and had not conducted a military nuclear program. How do you explain Brazil’s research in the framework of a “parallel” nuclear program, which was carried out outside the control of the IAEA, and under the actual leadership of the Armed Forces of the country? Why did Brazil refrain from joining the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and for a long time evaded the ratification of Tlatelolco?

I never participated directly in the Brazilian nuclear program but I read a number of documents at that time and also communicated with people who were into it. And my conclusion is that Brazil did not specifically look for a nuclear weapon. It looked for the mastery of nuclear fuel cycle, that is, the ability to transform natural uranium to nuclear fuel.

I think I know a significant part of the story: there was never a special military program aimed at acquiring nuclear weapons, only the attempts to develop full nuclear cycle which were finally successful under an autonomous national program.  And once Brazil achieved that in the mid 1980-s, it promoted the Quadripartite Agreement that created the Brazil-Argentina Agency for nuclear verification in 1991 and joined the NPT and ratified the Treaty of Tatelolco.

  • You also were the President of the NPT Review Conference in 2005. Why did you believe from the very beginning that the Conference would not end successfully?

It could not end successfully because the main parties did not want success from the very beginning. I understood it already one year before the Conference because there was no agreement on the agenda. It took me two and a half weeks into the Conference to find  agreement on the agenda because there were objections from different parties for mentioning some specific issues or past agreements. For instance, some parties did not want to recognize the advancements of the 2000 NPT RevCon and didn’t want to move forward from entrenched positions. And also a part of Non-Aligned countries wanted to bring up the question of nuclear-weapons-free zone in Middle-East. By the time all parties were ready to agree on a drafting solution for the agenda, it was already too late.

By the way, the same difficulties with the agenda came up in the preparatory stage of the 2010 Review Conference, but fortunately South Africa proposed a formula much like the one I had used in 2005 and this averted the impasse.

  • But at the same time the conference in 2000 went successfully and it seems that in 2000-s there were not so many controversies as today that could have been a real obstacle to the cooperation.
Sergio Duarte as UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, 2011

Well, look at the first special session on disarmament in 1979, there was a very good document adopted by state-parties, but three years later it was completely denounced and all the principles laid down in it were denied because there were already different views on some problems. A similar thing happened to the 2000 agreements and by 2005 the international climate had become very confrontational.

I think that the NPT had a positive impact in curbing proliferation, but in my view it must not be seen as a  license on the possession of nuclear weapons, which is what nuclear-weapon states apparently do. And in the NPT you still have this basic disagreement because it does not apply equally to all state-parties. But today I think that most countries have realized that  acquiring nuclear-weapons would not enhance their security. Unfortunately, the nuclear-weapon states continue to be attached to their weapons, and this makes nuclear disarmament more difficult.

  • You also served as the High Representative of the United Nations for Disarmament Affairs (2007–2012). One of the main functions of the UNODA is to assist countries in dealing with disarmament and nonproliferation at their request. What cases and countries were you dealing with while at post?
Amb. Duarte with former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon

The UNODA provides assistance to countries at their request in disarmament and nonproliferation. There are five branches in the UNODA. There is WMD branch which basically is the Secretariat for the main disarmament conferences of the NPT, OPCW, BTWC, CTBT and provides studies requested by the General Assembly. So, it is important to understand that the UNODA is at the service of all member states of the United Nations. There is also an Outreach branch which organizes events, educational seminars, assures communications with other organizations and also does some research at the request of the GA.

It also helps countries to develop their own resources to prevent the circulation of sensitive materials in compliance with 1540 Resolution. There is a Geneva branch which is the Secretariat of the CD. There is a branch on Conventional weapons which specializes on small arms and light weapons and monitors the observation of the existing agreements, including  the Arms Trade Treaty. There are also regional branches in Peru, Lima, Katmandu, Togo for local events suggested by parties. And, also, it provides advice for Secretary General on his policies and speeches in the field of disarmament and nonproliferation.

For example, ODA supported Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s wish to go to Nagasaki and Hiroshima. And he was the first Secretary General who did it. And it was also very important for him personally to go there because there had been many Koreans in these two Japanese cities on the days of bombing, particularly in Nagasaki.

  • You are the President of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. What functions does the Pugwash play today? Does it still have influence in solving disarmament and nonproliferation issues?
On the sidelines of the X NPT Review Conference, New York, August 2022

The main task of the Pugwash Conferences has always been to through the spread of scientific knowledge about nuclear weapons to energize the community to eliminate the nuclear weapons.  And today there are many former diplomats who take part in the Pugwash and our aim is to bridge differences between countries through informal dialogue.

In the past few of years Pugwash has been present in different discussions on many issues connected to nuclear disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation and also organizes seminars on different issues, such as cyber security, for instance. The Brazilian Pugwash Group cooperates with local universities to spread knowledge about issues of common interest and recently held a seminar at the Federal University of Minas Gerais on the progress in the ratification of the TPNW.

Key words: Oral history