2012 No. 4

Editorial: Defining the disarmament agenda
Beatrice Fihn | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF

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As the last speaker under the nuclear weapons cluster, Ambassador Laggner of Switzerland took the floor in a completely silent conference room to read out a strong statement on behalf of 34 members and one observer state, all deeply concerned about the catastrophic humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and eager to see intensified efforts to outlaw these weapons.

“If such weapons were to be used, be it intentionally or accidentally, immense humanitarian consequences would be unavoidable. As the ICRC has already concluded, international organisations providing emergency relief would be unable to fulfill their mandates. In addition to the immediate fatalities, survivors of the horrendous effects of a nuclear explosion would endure immeasurable suffering”, these 35 countries stated.

Humanitarian concern is a topic that has grown in importance for disarmament negotiations. No longer are the traditional perspectives of “military utility” and “strategic stability” the only voices at the table. Rather, the human impacts of weapon systems and the objective of the protecting civilians are gaining an increasingly larger role in disarmament discussions, including the nuclear weapons debate.

This humanitarian focus was impossible to ignore for anyone attending First Committee last week. Beginning with the 35-country statement on humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, the thematic debates quickly moved into the conventional weapons, where reducing armed violence, increasing human security, and promoting sustainable development were central issues for most speakers.

During the conventional weapons discussion, the failure of the negotiating conference in July to adopt an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) was the main topic. Almost all speakers expressed disappointment that an agreement could not be reached and a clear majority strongly emphasized the importance of rapidly concluding an ATT that prevents illicit and irresponsible arms trade from causing human suffering, armed violence, and violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law.

As the representative of CARICOM noted, “We, the Member States of the United Nations, must represent the desire of millions of people who wish to live in societies free from the scourge of armed violence and armed conflict. The losses due to the ills perpetrated by those who use illegal weapons are not only social and economic in nature, but also human and psychological.”

In addition, several delegations expressed grave concerns with the recent use of cluster munitions by the Syrian armed forces and called for an immediate stop of the use of such indiscriminate weapons and to conduct emergency clearance to protect the civilian population.

It is obvious that even a traditional disarmament forum such as the UN General Assembly has changed focus from a narrow, state-centered, national security perspective to a wider human security one. And it’s evident that growing concerns about humanitarian impact of weapons leads to progressive change.

Last week, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) celebrated its 20th anniversary. The achievements of the campaign in its work to ban antipersonnel landmines has been a strong testimony that significant disarmament achievements can become reality if driven by a humanitarian focus. As a part of this anniversary, Human Rights Watch organized a “Humanitarian Disarmament Campaigns Summit,” which brought together organizations and campaigns working on landmines, cluster munitions, nuclear weapons, explosive weapons, the arms trade, small arms, uranium weapons, and robot arms, to discuss how to move humanitarian disarmament issues forward.

The summit issued a communiqué (see page 21) that called on “all actors to stay focused on making existing humanitarian disarmament treaties work and use every opportunity to advance international law and practice to prevent harm to civilians.”

Humanitarian disarmament is a key issue for civil society actors, who consistently try to prevent further civilian casualties, avoid socio-economic devastation, and protect and ensure the rights of survivors.

So as the last week of the thematic discussions at the First Committee begins, it’s important for governments and delegations to not only acknowledge and express concerns over humanitarian harm of weapons, but also to seriously consider how to most efficiently prevent such harm.

Progress on many areas is urgently needed. We need to conclude a strong Arms Trade Treaty with a clear humanitarian and human rights goal; we need to stop the use of explosive weapons in populated areas; we need to prevent any further use of landmines and cluster munitions; and we need to negotiate a treaty banning nuclear weapons.

The continued stalemate and blockage of disarmament negotiations inside the UN system is not acceptable. If the existing machinery and rules of procedures cannot adequately address the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, arms trade, explosive weapons, or military spending, we must look elsewhere to make progress.

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