Interview with Libran Cabactulan, Philippine Permanent Representative to the United Nations

By Akira Tashiro, Executive Director of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center

Implement provisions of the final document adopted at the 2010 NPT Review Conference

Libran Cabactulan, the Philippine Permanent Representative to the United Nations and president of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference held at United Nations headquarters in New York this past May, attended the 22nd United Nations Conference on Disarmament Issues held in Saitama Prefecture. The Chugoku Shimbun took advantage of Mr. Cabactulan's visit to Japan to interview him at a Saitama hotel. With regard to the outcome of the 2010 NPT Review Conference, Mr. Cabactulan felt he was able to fulfill his duty as chair. At the same time, he called on nations and civil society to make further efforts for nuclear disarmament and abolition, saying that without ensuing action, the outcome of the conference will have been for naught.

As chair, you played a major role in the unanimous adoption of the final document at the 2010 NPT Review Conference. Were you confident of the conference's success before it opened?
There was positive momentum in the political environment surrounding nuclear disarmament, including the speech in Prague made by U.S. President Barack Obama in which he called for "a world without nuclear weapons." However, a year ago, I can't say I was confident of a successful outcome. And so, prior to the conference, I put my energy into exchanging views with key people within the NPT, regardless of whether or not their states possess nuclear weapons. In this way, I came to feel more confident about the conference. However, on the day before the conference was set to close [May 27], I was seriously worried about the outcome. I thought the conference might end in failure.

Was this due to the Resolution on the Middle East, which calls for establishing a zone free of weapons of mass destruction?
Not only the Middle East. We were also running out of time. I presented the final document to the state representatives on May 26. I had already made significant compromises for the nuclear weapon states. I did not intend to alter the document any further. I took the same stance with regard to the Resolution on the Middle East, which was in line with the resolution adopted at the review conference in 1995. Nations with concerns included the United States and the Arab countries and the representatives of these states conferred with their governments for instruction regarding the resolution. I drew the line here and left these nations to their decisions. On the final day, a few hours before the conference closed, I received the good sign that they were willing to support the final document. I felt tremendous relief.

Many positive results remain

We also felt some nervousness about the prospects of the conference when we received updates from our reporters who were covering the conference at the United Nations.

Incidentally, a draft of the final document that was submitted in the early stages of the conference contained more far-reaching content, including such wording as "convene an international conference in 2014 to consider ways and means to agree on a road map for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons," a provision which pleased many, among them A-bomb survivors. Later, however, the draft was watered down and that part was deleted due to pressure from the nuclear weapon states. What are your thoughts in this regard?
Without a doubt, the first draft was a far-reaching document. The negotiators from non-nuclear states, with the backing of international NGOs and Mayors for Peace, kept up the pressure to set a definitive deadline for nuclear abolition. This is also a reflection of the power of civil society.

However, during negotiations with the nuclear weapon states, the non-nuclear states realized that they would have to make certain compromises. The challenge involved making such compromises while retaining important items in the text and then getting the new draft adopted. Though we were unable to include a specific timeline for nuclear abolition, I believe we nevertheless achieved a great deal.

Such as?
The nuclear weapon states have committed themselves to "undertake further efforts to reduce and ultimately eliminate all types of nuclear weapons" and "accelerate concrete progress on the steps leading to nuclear disarmament." They are also required to report back to the NPT Preparatory Committee in 2014, one of the significant achievements of the conference. The language "All nuclear-weapon States undertake to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty with all expediency" was also included in the text of the final document.

Also of significance is the language "The Five-Point Proposal for Nuclear Disarmament of the Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon, which proposes inter alia the consideration of a nuclear weapons convention." This was the first time a nuclear weapons convention has been mentioned in the final document, correct?
That's right. Previously, at the U.N. General Assembly, only Costa Rica and Malaysia called for a nuclear weapons convention in which the development and possession, as well as the use, of nuclear weapons are prohibited. Then, at the recent review conference, more than 100 nations, including Norway, a so-called middle power, came out in favor of a nuclear weapons convention. The idea of a convention sparked a strong clash with the nuclear weapons states, but its inclusion in the final document has set an explicit course for nuclear abolition.

Time to discuss a nuclear weapons convention

In the past, only two nations called for a nuclear weapons convention, but now the voices in favor of a convention have grown too forceful to ignore.
Yes. Much is owed to civil society, mainly NGOs, for continuing to demand a nuclear weapons convention. Such voices became those of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), and the momentum drew in developed nations, too. Some say it is too early to consider a convention. But with an increasing number of military experts and policy makers arguing that nuclear weapons are no longer a viable military alternative, it is now time to discuss a nuclear weapons convention. The nuclear weapon states can no longer ignore this subject.

To Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the inhumanity of nuclear weapons is obvious, but it was mentioned in the final document for the first time.
The text stresses that any use of nuclear weapons brings about catastrophic humanitarian consequences and that all nations need to comply with international law. In other words, the use of nuclear arms is a violation of international humanitarian law. Though this language was nearly removed from the document due to pressure from the nuclear weapon states, such states as Norway, Switzerland, and the NAM nations strongly opposed excluding this reference. As a result, the language was left in the text. In this instance, too, it can be said that careful preparations for the conference were invaluable.

Could you elaborate?
This past March, I visited Vienna, Austria and spoke with Alexander Marshik, the chair of Subsidiary Body 1, which addressed disarmament issues at the review conference. We discussed and later on he compiled the points for the action plan on nuclear disarmament for the final document.”

Are you saying that some of the language in the document had already been drafted as early as March?
Yes. The major elements of the action plan on nuclear disarmament were already crafted early on before the review conference, and largely thanks to Ambassador Alexander Marshik.

Nearly 2,000 Japanese citizens, including A-bomb survivors, visited New York in conjunction with the review conference, and engaged in activities to promote nuclear abolition. How do you see the role of civil society?
The efforts of civil society have become increasingly important and irreplaceable. In my own mind, I have felt the appeal from the A-bomb survivors and believed that I should respond by moving in the direction in which they point. Civil society should undertake even more efforts. It must put pressure on governments and continue to make the appeal that achieving the abolition of nuclear weapons is a critical challenge for the human race. Civil society must also convey the true extent of the damage wrought by nuclear weapons more widely in the world.

Consequences of nuclear weapons not widely known

Do you think the horrific consequences of nuclear weapons are not widely known?
I'm afraid I do. At press conferences held in various locations, including in Manila, in my own nation, I have asked people in the media if they know how big the atomic bomb was that destroyed Hiroshima and how many people were killed. They don't know. They have no idea how powerful and inhuman this weapon is. When I speak about the terrible consequences of nuclear war in such regions as the Middle East and South Asia, I discovered that far too many people are mostly unaware of these facts. This is where Japan should play a key role. Because the Japanese know the true suffering that nuclear weapons produce. People in other countries don't really understand.

Following the outcome of the review conference, what do you think is needed to now advance the cause of nuclear disarmament?
This is a difficult task, but everyone concerned, including governments and civil society, should act to implement the provisions of the final document. Without such action, nothing will be gained and there will be disastrous consequences for the NPT regime.

First, based on the Resolution on the Middle East, it is very important to convene an international conference in 2012 for negotiations on the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in that region. If the issue of the Middle East does not progress well, this will affect adversely on other issues.

So the adoption of the final document at the review conference is simply a starting point?
That's right. The international community should now, with a sense of urgency, further strengthen its continuing efforts for nuclear disarmament.


Libran Cabactulan
Libran Cabactulan was born in Camiguin, in the northern part of the Philippines in January 1950. After earning his Master's degree in political science from the University of the Philippines, he worked at the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) for nine years. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of the Philippines in 1983 and twice worked at U.N. headquarters in New York. Among other roles, he served as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. He also served as Senior Special Assistant to the Secretary of Foreign Affairs for Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation with the rank of Assistant Secretary immediately before he assumed the post of Philippine Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York in April, this year.

(Originally published on September 6, 2010)