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The UN General Assembly's disarmament committee approved a resolution calling for all nuclear weapons to be taken off high alert over objections from the United States, Britain and France.
The resolution calls for taking steps to decrease the readiness of nuclear weapons systems by "ensuring that all nuclear weapons are removed from high alert status."
The vote Thursday was 124-3 with the three Western nuclear powers voting "no." There were 34 abstentions, mainly from NATO and Western countries as well as China. Russia did not vote.
John Duncan, Britain's ambassador for multilateral arms control and disarmament, said Thursday that his country voted against the resolution because there are more pressing issues to create a "nuclear-free world."
"We think a lot of de-alerting has been done. We have done a lot of de-alerting," he said. "We think the emphasis should be on other things, the numbers of nuclear weapons, not the operational readiness, and also the concerns of proliferation."
The resolution, co-sponsored by Chile, New Zealand, Nigeria, Sweden and Switzerland, now goes to the 192-nation General Assembly for a final vote. Assembly resolutions are not legally binding but they do reflect world opinion.
Richard Grenell, spokesman for the US Mission to the United Nations, said: "While we are thankful to the sponsors for making important changes to the original draft, the United States has an obligation to manage its military forces to ensure we remain able to protect our security and fulfill our commitments to our allies."
New Zealand's Disarmament and Arms Control Minister Phil Goff said in late August that his anti-nuclear government was going to introduce the resolution because it wanted to lower the risk posed by the arsenals of nuclear weapons states.
"Thousands of nuclear weapons currently are on high-alert status, ready for instant launch," Goff said. "This presents a major threat to global security."
Hans Blix, the veteran Swedish diplomat and arms expert who now chairs Sweden's Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission and was visiting New Zealand at the time said it is essential that greater efforts be made to eliminate nuclear arms and weapons of mass destruction.
The resolution recalls that maintaining nuclear weapons on high alert was a feature of the Cold War and welcomed "the increased confidence and transparency" since it ended in the early 1990s.
But it expresses concern that despite the end of the Cold War, "several thousand nuclear weapons remain on high alert, ready to be launched within minutes."
The high level of readiness "increases the risk of the use of such weapons, including the unintentional or accidental use, which would have catastrophic consequences," the resolution says.
Reducing the deployment of nuclear weapons and lowering their alert status, it says, "contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security, as well as to the process of nuclear disarmament."