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5 October 2009 - Preview Edition

Editorial: Time to reframe the debate
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF


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Heading into another session of the UN General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and International Security, the situation looks a little more positive than last year. Issues related to disarmament—from nuclear weapons to cluster bombs—have received increasing attention throughout 2009 from governments, the media, and the general public. Many high-profile individuals have called for a nuclear weapon free world; many governments have ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Civil society has continued campaigning around these weapons and others—small arms, antipersonnel landmines, depleted uranium weapons, space weapons—to prevent their development, modernisation, production, trade, and stockpiling.

There is a new administration in Washington that appears interested in active multilateralism. The United States fully participated in EU3+3 talks with Iran for the first time. Russian and US officials have been talking about reducing their arsenals further. The UN Security Council held a presidential Summit on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament on 24 October, coinciding with the sixth Entry Into Force conference of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty—which 150 states have now ratified. Disarmament was a central theme for many high-level delegates speaking to the UN General Assembly’s general debate in September, with 80 countries speaking about disarmament—up from 19 in 2008.

The heightened awareness and activity around disarmament is encouraging. However, those concerned with concrete movement toward a more secure and equitable world order with less armaments and reduced military expenditure need to take the time to separate the rhetoric from the reality. Now is the time for action, but it is equally crucial to ensure that the actions taken in the name of disarmament actually achieve that goal.

With the change in administration in the United States, the US government and several of its allies have adopted a new rhetoric on nuclear disarmament. They have begun to espouse policies for a “nuclear weapon free world” that do not actually include specific or time-bound steps for disarmament. In fact, these measures have focused nearly exclusively on strengthening or demanding new nuclear non-proliferation measures and commitments from non-nuclear weapon states, while at the same time maintaining the status quo (i.e. no progress) on nuclear disarmament.

The process toward an Arms Trade Treaty faces similar dangers of co-option by the powerful few who have interests at stake other than peace, justice, and security. Civil society and most governments want the ATT to reduce the human costs associated with the proliferation of conventional arms. However, thus far discussions have reached a lowest common denominator consensus only on dealing with illicit trade. Whether or not states will be able to agree to a treaty that has any real benefit to human security, by applying humanitarian and human rights standards to arms transfer decisions, is far from assured.

Civil society and concerned governments need to ensure that discussions and actions around disarmament and non-proliferation are clear and balanced. We also need to shift the language of the debate away from that which focuses on so-called “national security”—which in reality is the economic security only of the elite, technologically proficient classes of the state—to that which focuses on human security. To a large extent this is already happening in the Arms Trade Treaty process. For nuclear weapons, it has hardly happened at all outside of particular segments of civil society.

John Borrie, who works for the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, has looked closely at the initiatives to ban cluster munitions and landmines for lessons that could potentially be applied to the elimination of nuclear weapons. He notes that those working to abolish cluster munitions and antipersonnel landmines reframed the discourse and acceptability of these weapons in broader terms than before. Campaigners focused on the human impacts of the weapons alongside their purported military advantages and consciously shifted the burden of proof for the continued acceptability of a weapon onto users and producers. In the case of nuclear weapons, this means forcing those who want to keep them to try to make a convincing case for their acceptability in humanitarian terms, regardless of their purported military advantage.

Reaching Critical Will asks all delegations to the First Committee to take the time this year to debate the humanitarian merits of nuclear weapons. During the thematic debate on nuclear weapons, it would be extremely useful if delegations would address the values, perceptions, and interests of nuclear weapon possession and abolition. Getting away from Cold War deterrence theories, we are interested in hearing a debate on the moral, legal, and humanitarian justifications for the retention or elimination of nuclear weapons.

The First Committee is the place for this debate. All UN member states can participate. It makes recommendations to the General Assembly through resolutions related to all issues of disarmament and international security. Its work feeds into other disarmament machinery, including the Conference on Disarmament and the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The time is ripe—we are coming out of the UN Security Council Summit on nuclear issues and heading into the NPT Review Conference. Having a frank discussion about the reality of nuclear weapons, without all the rhetoric, would be instrumental to actually making concrete steps toward true disarmament and stronger non-proliferation.

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