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18 October 2010 - Second Edition

Editorial: Impatient realism
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF


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As First Committee shifted from general comments on all disarmament issues to those strictly concerning nuclear weapons, delegations continued picking apart the myth that nuclear weapons provide security or that there is any justification for their existence. “Nuclear weapons are the heritage of an era and of a mentality that has already been overcome. We expect this First Committee to reflect, through its decisions and resolutions, this new reality,” said Ambassador Soares of Brazil on behalf of MERCOSUR (the Southern Common Market) and associated states.

The 2010 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in May, while largely considered a success, did ignite frustration in the majority of governments with the nuclear weapon states’ intransigent attitude toward making verifiable, irreversible, transparent commitments to nuclear disarmament with any kind of time frame for action. “The NPT Review Conference in May reaffirmed that the total elimination of nuclear weapons is the only absolute guarantee against their use or threat of use,” explained Ambassador Skorpen of Norway. “Yet, when non-nuclear weapon states call for more ambitious commitments on part of the nuclear weapon states towards this goal, we are told to be realistic and patient. But is patience really what is called for in today’s situation? We have been patient.” She pointed out that nuclear weapon states committed themselves to the elimination of their nuclear arsenals forty years ago when they joined the NPT and that the Cold War ended twenty years ago. “No wonder patience is wearing thin. And why should it be unrealistic to expect more from the nuclear weapon states? What we are asking for is fully achievable. Most states have never possessed nuclear weapons, some have renounced them. It is a matter of political choice and direction.”

Following along the lines of what Ambassador Skorpen described as “impatient realism,” many delegations made it clear that they expect the implementation of the NPT outcome document’s action plan on disarmament, between now and the next Review Conference, to lead to more concrete commitments to nuclear disarmament being made in 2015. Many in particular highlighted the requirement in the outcome document for nuclear weapons states to engage with each other to accelerate the implementation of their outstanding nuclear disarmament obligations and to report back to other NPT states party during the next review cycle.

When it comes to reporting on actions undertaken, however, most governments generally have a poor track record. In the context of the General Assembly, reporting does not receive a high priority by very many governments. In his address on 12 October, UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Sergio Duarte noted that on average, only five percent of UN member states responded to each request made by the UN Secretary-General for their views when compiling reports on resolutions. This trend does not just indicate an aversion to or lack of capacity for reporting, but it also reveals a lack of urgency when it comes to disarmament and related security issues. This complacency is not aligned with the reality of the global situation—billions of dollars being spent around the world on building up military capacities while populations everywhere face real challenges of poverty, food shortages, violent conflict, disease, and the effects of climate change. In the midst of this, nuclear weapons still exist, a dangerous relic of the violent imaginations of generations past, maintained today for reasons of power, prestige, and the economic benefit of elite sectors of society.

Yet this status quo is being vigorously challenged. “Status and prestige belong not to those who possess nuclear weapons, but to those who reject them,” said the UN Secretary-General at the 65th Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony on 6 August 2010. In First Committee, South Africa’s Ambassador Mabhongo argued, “Nuclear weapons are a source of insecurity, not security. They are illegal, inhuman, and immoral instruments that have no place in today’s security environment—a new reality marked by growing interconnectedness and common threats that transcend traditional boundaries. This reality requires a different approach that takes into consideration not only the narrow national security interests of states, but also the shared, international and human security dimensions.”

This is a task not only for governments, but equally so for civil society and other actors. As High Representative Duarte explained in his remarks on 13 October, “let us never forget that the real beneficiaries of disarmament—and the real victims of its failure to be achieved—are human beings. The business of disarmament is not just a vocation for the diplomats—it is very much the business of the peoples of the United Nations.” Ambassador Skorpen ended her remarks on similar note: “The threat that we face from nuclear weapons is a man-made problem. So, it can only be solved by men’s—and women’s—imagination, innovation, political will and perseverance.”

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