8 October 2007 - First Edition


Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will

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Over the last few years, the UN General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and International Security has taken place after disappointing outcomes at the Conference on Disarmament (CD), the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, theWorld Summit, the Disarmament Commission, and the Small Arms and Light Weapons Review Conference. This year, the situation is not quite so bleak. While the CD closed its 2007 session without agreement on a programme of work, it inched closer than ever to a compromise, with nearly universal agreement on the package deal proposed by the Conference Presidents. In September, theComprehensive Test Ban Treaty Entry Into Force Conference reaffirmed the commitment of the States Parties to upholding and promoting the Treaty through eleven practical measures outlined in the Final Declaration. The first Preparatory Committee of the 2010 NPT review cycle, after days of procedural wrangling, allowed for interactive exchange between delegations—as the Cuban delegation pointed out this week, “amidst the current impasse and backward steps in the area of disarmament, many believe that having had the opportunity to talk is, per se, a success.”

After the first week of General Debate, most delegations appear optimistic about the possibilities before them. While buzz around the foremost issue in the CD, the Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty, is largely quiet and cautious, there are some other interesting developments on the horizon. The delegations from Chile, New Zealand, Nigeria, Sweden, and Switzerland intend to table a draft resolution calling on the nuclear weapon states to remove their nuclear weapons from “launch on warning” status (de-alerting). This initiative can be seen as a step towards building a positive outcome to the 2010 NPT review cycle. Cuba, meanwhile, is working to garner support for a draft resolution on the effects of the use of armaments and ammunitions containing depleted uranium (DU), which has been another issue of great concern to civil society for years. (See RCW's DU resources, including a report on the recent Fourth International Conference on DU Weapons.)

Outside of the First Committee, other initiatives such as the Oslo Process on cluster munitions, continuing work on the Arms Trade Treaty, and the ongoing campaign to establish a fourth special session on disarmament at the UN, have been receiving strong support from governments, diplomats, and civil society.

However, these initiatives are taking place against a rather stormy backdrop. Military spending has reached astronomical heights, with global expenditures over US$1 trillion per year and the military-industrial complex profiting from mass destruction more than ever before. Meanwhile, Millennium Development Goals are far from being met, and most donor countries (high income states) have not met their 0.7% development assistance pledge. Violent armed conflicts continue to be waged throughout the world, nuclear weapon modernization programmes proceed despite disarmament obligations, aggressive military posturing has increased geopolitical tensions, and insecurity, for the entire international community, is arguably at an all-time high.

In particular, the US-India deal, which Pakistan suggested was the basis for its opposition to the proposed programme of work in the CD, represents a step backwards for non-proliferation and disarmament. It allows for India to increase its nuclear weapons, fissile materials, and delivery systems, and does not restrict India from resuming nuclear testing. By giving India access to the benefits of the NPT membership without making it sign the Treaty or adhere to its tenets, the deal undermines the NPT at a time when the regime is facing other crises and needs support to retain its credibility and functionality. (See RCW's fact sheet on the US-India deal.) Meanwhile, tensions with Iran over its nuclear programme continue to grow: despite the work plan finalized between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran in August to resolve all outstanding issues related to Iran's past nuclear activities, the United States and France have been pushing for a third Security Council sanctions resolution in response to Iran's continued uranium enrichment programme. (See the Nuclear Proliferation report.)

However, one year after the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) conducted its first nuclear weapon test, the government has agreed to dismantle its nuclear weapons programme and has shut down and sealed its sole plutonium-producing reactor in Yongbyon under IAEA supervision. The success to date of the six-party talks demonstrates the potential and importance of multilateral diplomacy as the only legitimate, credible, and fair way to engage with contentious issues of disarmament and non-proliferation. It also exemplifies the effect that international diplomacy can have in overcoming the problems created by conflicting national security priorities, priorities which often undermine the collective human security that multilateral fora such as the First Committee strive to protect.

First Committee is often met by delegates and civil society alike with weariness or even apathy, as time-hardened positions have given rise to a number of static annual resolutions that are tabled and voted on year after year. However, the First Committee is the best place for states to build consensus on the issues, to reach common understandings, and to agree on norms of behaviour and principles of cooperation—respect for which we could all benefit from.

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