17 October 2005 - Third Edition

Jennifer Nordstrom | Reaching Critical Will

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The First Committee, as the only currently functioning multilateral disarmament forum, has an obligation to take the lead and give direction to the other deadlocked fora. If the world is going to move forward with disarmament, it is absolutely necessary for governments to engage in dialogue and for like-minded states to work together with civil society to increase the pressure on the handful of holdouts that have held the world hostage to their narrow security interests. Creating progressive resolutions and voting in the First Committee are important tools to increase this pressure, and there are a variety of new and revamped resolutions this year that may force some governments to either join the consensus to make progress, or expose themselves as the impediments to progress.

This week, the First Committee institutionalized ad hoc civil society collaborations by inviting two representatives from civil society to formally address the Committee for the first time. Dr. Kathleen Sullivan and Dr. Peter Lucas made First Committee history by giving presentations about their work in Disarmament Education and engaging in interactive debate with the delegates, who called the presentations "fascinating". Similar NGO presentations have long histories of utility and effectiveness in other disarmament fora, and the NGOs look forward to now continuing that tradition in the First Committee. (See Disarmament Education and Disarmament Machinery Reports)

In her presentation, Dr. Sullivan used an interactive exercise from the classroom to encourage the delegates to use their imaginations and hearts to understand what Japan has called "the true nature of nuclear weapons." The presentations encouraged the diplomats to feel as well as think, something they need to continue as they cast their votes next week.

As Member States gear up for voting, the issue of consensus has come up repeatedly. Almost all the resolutions strive for consensus and most achieve it. However, some have been questioning the utility of sacrificing progress to the lowest common denominator, particularly in the one functioning multilateral disarmament forum that allows for voting. From small arms and light weapons to the Conference on Disarmament (CD), consensus is being used as a veto tool to enact the tyranny of the minority, which some have called the abuse of consensus. Indonesia mainly attributed the "failure of the CD to act on pertinent issues such as disarmament and non-proliferation" to the "misinterpretation of its rule of consensus."

In much of the activist world, where people working for peace and justice have struggled to make decisions via consensus, it is understood that one only blocks consensus if one believes that not doing so will bring about serious harm. This should not be a common situation. If an individual blocks consensus more than once a year, either the rule is being abused or the group does not share a common security analysis. In international disarmament fora, we have a situation where consensus is being abused and where the group lacks a common security analysis. Both of these situations will have to be changed in order for the international community to move forward on a consensus basis.

Many delegations this week called the new initiative of the 6 nations "courageous" because it was creative and challenged the minority of consensus blockers to expose themselves and really engage in debate on the issues, assuming that dialogue is the only way to bridge disagreements. While civil society agrees, and supports and stands behind the initiative and other progressive efforts at the First Committee, civil society's understanding of courage comes from a world very different from the diplomatic UN. "NGOs use the word courage informed by the lives of individuals such as Phil Berrigan who spent 11 years of his life in prison on charges from protesting nuclear weapons, as well as Karen Silkwood and other whistleblowers who have been killed and silenced," explained Felicity Hill of Greenpeace International, at a panel on First Committee Revitalization organized by The Netherlands.

As civil society and governments meet in the middle and collaborate, we learn from each other. Through understanding courage and the urgency of the situation with mind and heart, we urge: Do not be afraid of voting. Do not be afraid to isolate the minority and let it be public who is blocking movement, and why. Let civil society continue its efforts to create political will in the states who are stopping progress, and support those efforts by demonstrating that you too will work for forward-looking, creative solutions. Together, we can build a world founded on the rule of law, and "abolish the scourge of war" and the instruments used to wage war.

-Jennifer Nordstrom, Reaching Critical Will

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