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Statement by Assistant Secretary Poblete at the Conference on Disarmament
March 19, 2019



U.S. Statement at the 2019 Session of the Conference on Disarmament
Assistant Secretary Yleem D. S. Poblete
Geneva, March 19, 2019

Thank you, Mr. President, Ambassador Wood, Excellencies, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen.

Please allow me to thank you for this opportunity to address the Conference on Disarmament during its first plenary under the Presidency of my country, the United States.  We look forward to following in the able footsteps of our esteemed colleagues from the United Kingdom and Ukraine, to further guide the work of this forum in these difficult times.

Mr. President, as the only standing multilateral forum for negotiating arms control and disarmament agreements, the Conference on Disarmament, along with its predecessors, has achieved such important agreements in its 40 years, such as:

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, and the Chemical Weapons Convention, the latter of which includes detailed verification provisions negotiated in Geneva.

But those were different times. Today, we must confront the vexing reality that the CD has fallen into deadlock. Only twice in the past two decades has the Conference on Disarmament even been able to reach consensus, briefly, on a program of work including actual negotiations.

This is deeply regrettable, and represents a squandering of this body’s potential.

Some blame this protracted stalemate on strained relations between Member States, disagreement among Member States on the CD’s prioritization of issues, or attempts by some countries to link progress in one area to progress in other areas.

The hard truth is that this impasse is due to Member States’ lack of political will to take tough stances and make tough decisions.

We see, time and again, some States using the CD as a platform to posture and promote agendas that are antithetical to the rules-based international order, yet they go largely unchallenged.

Others may occupy their chairs merely as a means to stake a claim to legitimacy for their regimes where none otherwise exists – lashing out when their credibility is questioned over chemical weapons use, treaty violations, support for terrorism, and other destabilizing activities.

Recently, many CD Member States expressed a willingness to explore the CD’s working methods and rules of procedures to determine whether targeted adjustments or strategic modifications aimed at better reflecting today’s needs would have the power to unlock blockages.

Any such changes would need to be carefully thought through, but along these lines, Member States could explore topics ranging from presidency rotation practice to presidency criteria.

One thing is certain:  If the CD remains deadlocked, it will lose credibility, it will fail in contributing to international security, and risk fading into irrelevance.

Mr. President, as the world comes together in fora such as the Conference on Disarmament, it is important that we recognize disarmament does, one, not occur in a vacuum;

And two, that effective verification, compliance, and enforcement are vital components to any successful arms control or disarmament initiative – particularly when some parties may lack respect for the rule of law, do not value transparency, and resort to threats at home and abroad when challenged.

We must remember:  Arms control is a means to an end, not an end unto itself. When applied in a verifiable and enforceable manner, arms control can help to manage strategic competition among states and contribute to security and stability.  Moreover, by reducing the risks of miscalculation, arms control can indeed serve the interests of all parties to an agreement.

But these benefits are diluted or lost when states do not comply with their obligations or adhere to their commitments.

Wishful thinking is no substitute for vigilance, and hope cannot be allowed to replace rigor.  Noncompliance and blatant disregard for international norms must be dutifully and thoroughly reviewed, documented, assessed, and addressed.  Violations and malign actions by rogue regimes and other states around the globe only serve to increase tensions.

As U.S. President Donald Trump has asserted, “For arms control to effectively contribute to national security, all parties must faithfully implement their obligations.”  Accountability is critical.  This extends to the multilateral sphere where serial violations threaten regional and global security and strike at the very core of these agreements.


Let me highlight a few specific examples:

Russia has invaded neighboring countries and attempted to annex part of a neighbor’s territory.

Russia’s aggressive actions in Europe and its disregard for basic international principles have strained the key pillars of European security architecture.

Moscow’s continued aggression cannot go unchecked.  That is why, just last week, the United States, together with the European Union and Canada, imposed sanctions on those individuals who orchestrated the brazen and unprovoked attack on three Ukrainian naval vessels near the Kerch Strait last November.

The United States also took action against Russian individuals and entities involved in Moscow’s illicit activities in Ukraine and Crimea.  We urge all responsible nations to stand with us, united in the face of Russian aggression.

Russia’s destabilizing activity seeks to play spoiler in efforts to achieve and maintain global stability while enabling its contemporary revisionist geopolitical ambitions.  As the United States has repeatedly said, we must view Russian behavior in its entirety in order to understand its gravity;

From ongoing compliance issues relating to conventional arms control instruments and a record on biological weapons that raises significant concerns regarding BWC compliance;

An ongoing diplomatic campaign to undermine the application of state-of-the-art nuclear safeguards methodologies and try to sweep a client state’s safeguards noncompliance under the rug at the International Atomic Energy Agency;

To its violations of the INF Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention, and even using chemical weapons on another CWC States Party’s territory, to its obfuscating the abhorrent use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime against its own people.

Russia’s non-compliance with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention, which was negotiated here in the Conference on Disarmament, confirms long-held concerns regarding Russia’s chemical weapons program.

In March 2018, only months after claiming to have completed the destruction of its declared chemical weapons stockpile – to which, I should add, the United States and others contributed well over a billion dollars in assistance to the Russian Federation – Russia used an undeclared and unscheduled military-grade nerve agent in an assassination attempt on Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, the United Kingdom.

The UK’s investigation into the assassination attempt concluded that Russian nationals were responsible for the attack and that these individuals are officers from the Russian military intelligence service, also known as the GRU. The same agent used in Salisbury led to the loss of life of a UK citizen in Amesbury, the United Kingdom.

Russia’s use of this nerve agent in Salisbury clearly demonstrates what we already have assessed:  that Russia has not met its obligations under the CWC and  maintains a covert chemical weapons program, in clear violation of Article I of the Convention.

Furthermore, Russia continues its support for and defense of the Assad regime’s brutal tactics against its own people, including the use of starve and surrender tactics, barrel bombs, and chemical weapons.

Russia agreed to act as a guarantor of the Assad regime’s compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention in the 2013 Geneva agreement, yet has attempted to undermine every effort responsible nations have undertaken to address this unacceptable situation.

Russia must be held accountable for flouting its international obligations under the CWC and for supporting the brutal actions of the Assad regime.

Of course, Russia’s backing of the Assad regime does not end with its cover-up of chemical weapons use; it extends to Russia’s attempts to sweep under the rug Syria’s ongoing violation of its NPT and IAEA safeguards obligations.

Regrettably, the regime in Damascus is not the only odious regime Russia supports. It also provides aid and comfort to the brutal Maduro regime in Venezuela, a subject on which I’ll have more to say later.

With respect to Russia and the INF Treaty, the bottom line is that Russia has developed, produced, flight-tested, and fielded a ground-launched cruise missile, known as the SSC-8, or 9M729, with a range capability between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, in  violation of the INF Treaty.

Russia began the covert development of the SSC-8, probably by the mid-2000s, but it is today producing this system and has already deployed multiple battalions.

To be clear, the SSC-8 represents a material breach of the INF Treaty that Russia intended to keep secret. The U.S. finding is not based on a misunderstanding of this system or of its capabilities. Russia is fielding an illegal missile and lying about it.

In response, like-minded states have come together to call out Russia’s violation and demand that it return to effective, verifiable compliance.  The Russian Federation’s violation of the INF Treaty poses a direct threat to European, United States, East Asian, and global security. It is destabilizing and has a corrosive effect on arms control and disarmament.

On the sidelines of the NATO Foreign Ministerial on December 4, 2018, Secretary of State Pompeo declared the Russian Federation to be in material breach of its obligations under the INF Treaty, and stated that “Russia’s actions gravely undermine American national security interests and that of our allies and partners.

It makes no sense for the United States to remain in a treaty that constrains our ability to respond to Russia’s violations.”

Then, on February 1 of this year, Secretary Pompeo announced that the United States would suspend its obligations under the INF Treaty on February 2, as a remedy for Russia’s material breach, and would provide Treaty parties with six-month notice of U.S. withdrawal from the Treaty pursuant to Article XV unless Russia returns to full and verifiable compliance.

The Russian response has been a combination of deliberate disinformation and counter-allegations to sow confusion and also open threats against the United States and its allies and partners. Open threats.

While we judge Russia remains in compliance with the New START Treaty, the Russian leader, just weeks after the central limits on each country’s strategic nuclear arsenal under the New START Treaty took effect, proudly described in his March 1, 2018 address to the Federal Assembly, that Russia was developing advanced nuclear weapons such as a nuclear-powered cruise missile and a nuclear-armed underwater drone.  Are these the responsibilities of a responsible stakeholder?

Russian strategy and doctrine emphasize the potential coercive and military uses of nuclear weapons.

Finally, in addition to our examples about Chemical Weapons Convention and INF violations, Russia publicly boasts about its development of anti-satellite weapons at the same time that it proclaims to be the leading supporter of preventing an arms race in outer space.

How can we trust Russian arms control efforts and their seriousness about preventing an arms race in outer space when they have touted the development and completion of a broad array of counterspace capabilities, to include ground-launched anti-satellite missiles and various lasers intended to blind or damage satellites?

Their intended targets meanwhile are used for beneficial purposes such as remote sensing, global navigation systems, and strategic stability, including nuclear command and control, and missile warning systems.

Just last March, the Russian leader announced a new ground-based laser system which is designed to “fight satellites in orbit.”  The United States believes that this system is designed – at a minimum – to disrupt the normal functioning of remote sensing satellites.

If this laser can disrupt the normal functioning of a satellite, then it could be a circumvention of the provisions of the Russians’ own draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space.

Again, my distinguished colleagues, how are we supposed to believe that Russia seeks to prevent the use of these self-proclaimed weapons in accordance with their draft PPWT, when the Russian leader in 2012 said that space weapons “will be comparable to nuclear weapons in terms of the results of their utilization but are more acceptable in the political and military respect”?  Let’s process that statement.

Further, ow can we believe they are serious about preventing an arms race in outer space when they are the ones that are developing ground-launched anti-satellite weapons that would not be prohibited by their own draft treaty?

Even today, Russian Federation is testing, using, and publicizing counterspace capabilities.  For example, last August, when I addressed this distinguished plenary, I mentioned that the Russians conducted questionable activities in outer space that, to many observers, mayhave demonstrated disruptive behavior which would be prohibited by the draft PPWT.

Couple this with their public statements on weaponization, such as a statement from 2018 when the Russian Space Force Commander stated that the “main task” of the Space Troops is to “assimilate the new prototypes of weapons and military equipment in the Space Forces’ military units.”

This also applies to the UN Group of Governmental Experts on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (or PAROS), which is currently meeting just down the hall from here.

Russia is not a responsible actor who intends to uphold its obligations under arms control and disarmament agreements.

As Secretary of State Pompeo said to a gathering at the George Marshall Fund, “When treaties are broken, the violators must be confronted, and the treaties must be fixed or discarded.  Words should mean something.”  And accountability is critical.

 Turning to Syria and the atrocities committed by the Assad regime.  The United States is appalled by the repeated and morally reprehensible use of chemical weapons in Syria by the Assad regime.  Syria has used chemical weapons every year since acceding to the CWC in 2013.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) confirmed Syria’s culpability in four specific cases before its mandate expired due to continued Russian vetoes.

We are united with responsible nations in condemning, in the strongest possible terms, all use of chemical weapons in Syria, including the April 7, 2018, attack in Douma.

In this regard, we further support the recent report by the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) which determined that there were reasonable grounds that chlorine was used as a chemical weapon in the attack.  The conclusions in the FFM report support what the United States determined in our own technical assessment of the attack last April:

That is, that the Assad regime is responsible for this heinous chemical weapons attack that killed and injured civilians.

The use of chemical weapons by Syria, a CWC State Party, is a breach of the CWC and constitutes a threat to international peace and security; it directly undermines the international norms against  chemical weapons use.  There can be no impunity for such crimes; those responsible have to be held accountable.

The United States welcomes the June 2018 Decision of the Special Session of the Conference of the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to put into place arrangements to identify the perpetrators of chemical weapons use in Syria.

We call on all responsible states to support the OPCW in the successful implementation of these arrangements.  The United States further encourages the UN Security Council and the OPCW to recognize the findings of the 7th JIM report of October 26, 2017, and take steps to ensure that the perpetrators of chemical weapons attack are held accountable.

Moreover, we urge Syria to meet its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention, to finally provide a complete declaration to the OPCW, to desist from further use of chemical weapons, to destroy under international verification all such weapons and their precursor chemicals, and to cooperate fully with the OPCW investigation and mechanisms.

The United States further calls on all States Parties to the CWC to ensure that they do not contribute to the proliferation of chemical weapons in Syria or elsewhere.

We reiterate that any further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime will be met with swift response.

We also call upon the Syrian regime to cooperate fully and immediately with the International Atomic Energy Agency to answer the longstanding and unresolved questions regarding its nuclear program, including by granting the IAEA access to all information, sites, material, and persons necessary resolve questions about its undeclared plutonium production reactor, which it was building with assistance from North Korea.

Turning to Iran.  The United States remains gravely concerned by Iran’s missile program.  Iran possesses the largest missile arsenal in the region and is actively increasing the accuracy and lethality of its missile systems. Iran’s ballistic missile activities and space launch vehicle development efforts are in defiance of UN Security Council Resolution 2231.

Iran’s missile program is a key contributor to increased tensions and destabilization in the region, increasing the risk of a regional arms race.  Iran must immediately cease activities related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.  Iran must halt the proliferation of missiles and missile technology to terror groups and other non-state actors.

From Lebanon to Syria to Yemen, Iran’s malign influence is spreading throughout the region.  Just look at its support to groups like Hezbollah or the Houthis in Yemen.  Iran has provided ballistic missiles to the Houthis that have been fired into Saudi Arabia, and unmanned aerial systems to Houthi groups that enable long-range, indiscriminate strikes against land-based targets in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The Iran regime is responsible for the massive buildup and increased sophistication in Hezbollah’s rocket and missile arsenals.

The United States is committed to aggressively countering Iran’s regional proliferation of ballistic missiles and its unlawful arms transfers.

We will ensure international restrictions on Iranian missiles and conventional arms do not expire.  The United States urges all responsible countries to also take all necessary steps to implement UNSCR 2231 restrictions on transfer of missile-related technologies to Iran.

Further, governments must take concrete measures to prevent individuals and entities operating within their jurisdictions from supporting Iran missile programs.  In this context, I want to underscore the outsized role an individual can play in supporting proliferation.

Li Fangwei, better known as Karl Lee, is a China-based broker for Iran’s missile program.  Karl Lee has supplied Iran with a range of materials to construct ballistic missiles over the past decade.  Over that same decade, China has refused to take concrete actions to put Karl Lee out of business once and for all. This is just one example of Iran’s worldwide procurement network.

Let me be clear about our commitment to disrupting Iran’s missile-related acquisitions:  The United States will use all available authorities, including sanctions, to disrupt Iran’s procurement networks and brokers like Karl Lee, wherever they are located.

The United States has also had longstanding concerns that Iran maintains a chemical weapons program that it has failed to declare to the OPCW.  Iran’s non-compliance with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention is clear:

It has failed to declare past chemical weapons transfers, its complete holdings of riot control agents, and complete CW production facility activities.  Furthermore, the United States is gravely concerned that Iran is pursuing pharmaceutical-based agents for offensive purposes.

These efforts are especially concerning because the Iranian regime is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and remains the most significant challenge to Middle East peace and stability.  We call on Iran to fully declare its chemical weapons program and to abide by its international obligations as a State Party to the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Now let us recall Iran’s intervention from the floor of this forum on February 27 when Iran presented itself as a model of diplomatic decorum, yet in the same breath, asserted to a room full of diplomats that it would never apologize for taking American diplomats hostage.

Iran was making reference to a grim historical event that was a barbarous affront to the basic principles of humanity and diplomatic decorum, but it is something of which the Iranian regime apparently remains today shamefully proud.

The regime continues this abhorrent practice of taking foreign hostages—many currently languish in Iran’s notorious prisons.  The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has called on Iran to release those wrongfully detained, including Americans Robert Levinson, Xiyue Wang, Baquer Namazi, and Siamak Namazi. This is not a laughing matter. These are innocents taken hostage by the Iranian regime.

Now I would like to turn our attention to China.  While the United States has continued to reduce the number and salience of its nuclear weapons, other states, including China, have moved in the opposite direction.

Chinese military modernization remains centrally focused on establishing regional dominance in order to expand its ability to coerce U.S. Allies, eventually pushing the United States out of the region, and becoming a military power capable of competing on the global stage.

This modernization has resulted in an expanding and diverse nuclear force, with a new generation of delivery systems coming online as China works to establish a nuclear triad dispersed across land, sea, and air platforms, which include next generation missiles and a stealthy, long-range strategic bomber.

While China’s nuclear declaratory policy has not changed, its lack of transparency regarding the scope and scale of its nuclear modernization program is destabilizing, raising questions regarding its future intent, and challenges the atmosphere for progress on nuclear disarmament.

Whereas in 2000 it was possible to report that China had only 18 DF-5 nuclear armed, silo-based missiles, now, just 19 years la
ter, we can say China has deployed approximately 125 nuclear-armed missiles.  And that trend is hardly abating; China is engaged in an ongoing nuclear build-up.

China also engages in increasingly concerning behavior in outer space.  As a leading spacefaring nation, China continually calls for responsible use in space and co-sponsors the PPWT, yet it continues to pursue anti-satellite capabilities.

Similar to Russia, it is difficult to determine the truthfulness of China’s concern about the prevention of an arms race in space and their support for space arms control when China:

Continues to pursue military capabilities such as jammers and directed energy weapons;

When it openly emphasizes the need for offensive cyberspace capabilities;

When it demonstrates sophisticated on-orbit capabilities with the potential for dual-uses; and

When China has deployed an operational ground-based anti-satellite missile intended to target low-Earth-orbit satellites, with likely research on anti-satellite capabilities designed to threaten all orbits.

Now, despite their consistent vocal support of the PPWT, the Chinese are likely preparing to use ground-and-space-based counterspace capabilities, as emphasized by the Chinese President years ago, who told a military space launch center that they should “focus on military training and research and combat capabilities and integrate with the PLA’s joint operation system.”

Ultimately, China’s military modernization, which lacks transparency of both scope and intention, and its pursuit of regional dominance have emerged as major challenges to global peace and security.  These developments have produced increased uncertainty and risk, demanding continued demonstration of our commitments to deterring such threats.

In the same region, I would like to turn to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.Our stance is unwavering with regard to North Korea.  North Korea must understand that the only way to achieve the security and development that it seeks is to abandon all of its weapons of mass destruction and all of its ballistic missile programs as numerous UN Security Council resolutions demand.

And to those countries that choose to maintain weapons or military-related cooperation with North Korea, such activities must stop immediately.  You are violating UN Security Council resolutions that explicitly prohibit such transfers.

The United States has been clear that it will not hesitate to sanction those individuals and entities which violate these UN Security Council resolutions.

Now to Venezuela. The former Maduro regime – aided and abetted by Russia and Cuba and China — has consistently used repressive tactics against democratic actors in Venezuela, including trying to silence Venezuela’s National Assembly – the only democratically elected institution remaining in the country.

More than 50 countries deemed Maduro’s January 10 inauguration as illegitimate, as it was based on May 2018 presidential elections that were neither free nor were they fair.

Venezuela’s National Assembly declared the illegitimacy of the former Maduro regime. On January 23, National Assembly President Juan Guaidó assumed the role of interim President of Venezuela in accordance with their constitution.

The walkout by the Lima Group, the United States and other responsible nations in response to the former Maduro government’s representation here at the Conference on Disarmament on February 26 sent a strong message to the Venezuelan people and to the world of our joint commitment to liberty and to the rule of law.

Distinguished colleagues, history has shown that a regime which oppresses its people and blatantly disregards the rule of law at home also has contempt for international obligations and norms.

That is why the United States hopes that President Guaido’s legitimate representative to the Conference on Disarmament will be in a position to assume the Presidency when it rotates to Venezuela in May.

Mr. President, responsible states must be united and resolute in our efforts to hold violators accountable, and the Conference on Disarmament has an important role to play in this regard.

During the week of February 25, this body heard Minister after Minister speak about the “crucial role of the CD,” about challenges associated with “deteriorating security environment” that the CD needs to address, and the importance of respect for rules-based order and treaty compliance.  Ministers also called on Member States to refrain from politicizing the CD, and some suggested that a lack of political will is to blame for the CD’s stalemate.

Permit me to talk briefly on these last two points – politicization and political will. Three particular CD delegations dedicated their time to lecturing responsible CD members to maintain professionalism.  The three delegations were Iran, the Maduro-backed Venezuela, and Russia.

Take a moment to let that sink in.  Iran, the Maduro regime in Venezuela, and the Russian Federation.

Today’s prevailing security conditions must be taken into account when considering disarmament measures.  The influence and actions of rogue regimes, desperate to retain power, thwart our efforts in bodies such as this one.

The United States therefore calls on the CD to muster the political will necessary to confront these malign actors and to hold them accountable.  And we thank those nations which have had the courage to do so already.

Mr. President, the United States, has, in recent years, been characterized as unilateralist and against arms control.

But nothing could be further from the truth, as has been demonstrated by our strict adherence to and compliance with a myriad of arms control and disarmament agreements and commitments, many of which I have cited today.

Let me reiterate that the United States remains committed to arms control efforts and remains receptive to future arms control negotiations if conditions permit. But we need willing, reliable, responsible partners who will adhere to their obligations and commitments.

In conclusion, as the Conference on Disarmament marks this 40thyear milestone, let us work together to build upon prior achievements and develop agreements that effectively address threats to peace and security.

Thank you very much.