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2012 No. 2

Editorial: Common goods
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF


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All governments, and all peoples, have an interest and a responsibility to establish a safer world through disarmament. This was a key argument presented by several delegations during the opening week of First Committee. It remains to be seen if First Committee will play a substantial role in meeting this interest and fulfilling this responsibility, but it certainly will have the opportunity to do so. In particular, the resolutions seeking to establish a mechanism to begin substantive work on nuclear disarmament and to establish renewed negotiations on an arms trade treaty (ATT) are the best chances the General Assembly has right now to set a course for a safer world.

“All countries have a responsibility to engage in nuclear disarmament,” said Norway’s Ambassador Pederson last Friday. The idea that it should be left up to the nuclear weapon possessors to decide when and how and at what pace they should reduce and eliminate their arsenals of terror is no longer acceptable to the vast majority of governments or to civil society. As the South African delegation argued, the humanitarian consequences that underpin the need for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons “demand a renewed determination by all States and members of civil society to permanently rid our world of the threat of annihilation.” And the vast majority of delegations seem to agree with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s 2008 assertion that “a world free of nuclear weapons would be a global public good of the highest order.”

Thus the lack of tangible nuclear disarmament, coupled with counterproductive anti-disarmament measures such as modernization, evoked justified criticism by most delegations taking the floor. Meanwhile, the continued stagnation of the UN-affiliated disarmament machinery also elicited consternation, with more governments than ever indicating that they are ready to examine any proposals for getting back to work.

In this regard, the Austrian delegation gave a preliminary glimpse of the resolution it will be tabling along with Mexico and Norway, which calls for the establishment of an open-ended working group that would convene in Geneva for up to three weeks during 2013 in order to “develop concrete proposals to take forward multilateral negotiations for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons.” The Norwegian delegation explained, “We believe it is time to look at how we can make use of the General Assembly in our efforts to achieve progress on this issue. … UN member states have an obligation to ensure that our multilateral institutions are equipped to deliver what is expected of them.”

This is a strong option for moving forward with multilateral nuclear disarmament: it meets the demand of the vast majority of governments for tangible work on this issue and it is in fact a more robust multilateral option than any that could be offered within the confines of the Conference on Disarmament (CD), where only 65 governments can participate. An open-ended working group would invite the full participation of all UN member states.

The other opportunity at First Committee for establishing a safer world will come with the resolution extending negotiations for an arms trade treaty (ATT). During general debate, the majority of delegations lamented the failure of the July ATT conference to reach agreement on a robust treaty that would reduce human suffering resulting from irresponsible and illegal arms transfers, and expressed their interest in finalizing work on this treaty early next year.

However, some delegations also expressed concern that the resolution will extend not only the negotiations but also the rule of consensus. Ambassador de Alba of Mexico said participants must not allow the political or economic interests of a few states impede the development of a robust ATT, while Norway’s Ambassador Penderson argued that if consensus is again strictly applied to negotiations, the conference risks repeating what happened in July. He noted, “The consensus requirement means that small minorities are able to prevent the adoption of international measures that could make a difference for civilians and vulnerable groups, and it continues to constitute the key reason why the UN disarmament machinery remains inadequate in facing the increasing challenges posed by use of inhumane and indiscriminate arms and by arms proliferation.”

Indeed, over the years, consensus has become less a tool for encouraging creative compromises and more an instrument for demanding unanimity, usually resulting in failure, or at best, lowest common denominator agreements. In effect, consensus has become a veto. While some governments argue that the rule of consensus protects their security interests, it in fact functions to undermine the security of the majority that must rely on the rule of law to protect them.

As Ambassador Apakan of Turkey noted, “We live in a world where security has become indivisible.” He emphasized that “we are at an age when one cannot argue that more arms would bring more security. There lies the virtue of disarmament.” This First Committee has the opportunity to establish mechanisms for concrete, multilateral action on disarmament and arms control, thus helping to overcome what the Qatari delegate described as the “false security that the further accumulation of weapons may bring.”

In her opening remarks, the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs noted, “A ‘business as usual’ approach may well be the easiest to pursue, but it will not suffice to solve the problems we face in achieving disarmament goals and will only aggravate the global crisis we are facing in this field.” The following weeks will show whether or not member states are willing to take steps to truly strengthen international peace and security, as they are mandated to do through this Committee.

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