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2012 No. 5 | Final Edition

Editorial: Processes for progress
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF


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First Committee is often viewed as a forum for member states to exposit on every topic related to disarmament and international security and to table resolutions that change little in substance or in result from year to year. This year, however, it had before it several very important and concrete questions. In the end, all of the new initiatives were adopted with an overwhelming majority of support. In most cases, the dissenters were those who benefit most from the status quo and thus did not want to permit the establishment of new processes, particularly if their power to veto would not be guaranteed.

Through draft resolution A/C.1/67/L.46, the General Assembly would establish an open-ended working group (OEWG) on nuclear disarmament, which will meet for up to 15 days in Geneva in 2013 “to develop proposals to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons.”

The resolution was not supported by the nuclear weapon possessors, with France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States voting no and China, India, Israel, and Pakistan abstaining. The nuclear weapon states (NWS) of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) argued that an OEWG on nuclear disarmament will undermine the implementation of the NPT action plan adopted at the 2010 NPT Review Conference.

As Beatrice Fihn writes in the article on disarmament machinery in this edition of the First Committee Monitor (p. 4), “If an OEWG on nuclear disarmament threatens the implementation of the action plan, it will be because the nuclear weapon states chose to use it as an excuse not to implement it. Nothing prevents the nuclear weapon states to use the OEWG as a vehicle for discussing and accelerating their work around the actions related to disarmament, and thereby concluding its implementation by the 2015 Review Conference.”

Meanwhile, India and Pakistan, which are not party to the NPT, argued the OEWG would undermine the Conference on Disarmament (CD). However, the CD has not fulfilled its own mandate—to negotiate disarmament treaties—in more than fifteen years. Frustration is turning many governments towards action, as was evidenced by the broad support for the resolution not just on the OEWG on nuclear disarmament, but also those establishing a high-level meeting (HLM) on nuclear disarmament; an organizational meeting for an OEWG on the Fourth Special Session for Disarmament (SSOD IV); and a group of governmental experts (GGE) on aspects of a fissile materials treaty.

As the delegation of New Zealand asked during the thematic debate on disarmament machinery, “Can [the CD] really be allowed to live off some historic successes of long ago in order to justify its continued existence?” The answer, clearly delivered at this year’s First Committee, is no.

Not only did most member states vote in favour of the OEWG, the HLM, the SSOD IV meeting, and the GGE, but they also expressed, through their statements, an increasing unwillingness to allow the impasse in the CD to prevent tangible progress on vital issues of peace and security. While the debate over the root cause of the stalemate in the CD is no closer to being resolved, many delegations have recognized that, as the New Zealand delegation said, “we have a situation whereby the mechanisms that should facilitate progress in the CD are in fact hindering it.”

Specifically, the abuse of the rule of consensus has, as 22 civil society organizations noted in a joint statement submitted to First Committee, ensured that no real negotiations are taking place; undermined the security of those that demand on the rule of law rather than rule of terror for their protection; and increased investments in military-industrial complexes.

But this situation is not unique to the CD. A fifth resolution with actionable consequences tabled at this year’s First Committee—A/C.1/67/L.11 on the arms trade treaty (ATT)—was met with reservations in response to its application of the rules of procedure (including the rule of consensus) from the failed ATT negotiations in July 2012 to a new negotiating conference in March 2013. In explanations of vote, some countries supporting the continuation of negotiations reiterated concerns with the potential for misuse of the consensus rule. The Mexican delegation argued that consensus must not be interpreted as the right of one or a few delegations to impede general agreement, while the delegation of Morocco said it must not be interpreted as tool of veto or as meaning unanimity. Such concerns were expressed by other delegations during the conventional weapons debate.

In July, operating under the rule of consensus meant that the ATT text was weakened to accommodate the concerns of a small minority, which were in the end still unprepared to accept the treaty. Operating under the same rules of procedure next March risks another failure, or a weak treaty. It must be the views of the majority of states that win out, not the few who seek to block, weaken, or delay an outcome.

The important message coming from the majority of member states and civil society at this year’s First Committee is that a handful of countries must no longer be allowed to hold back the rest of the international community in tackling some of the most dramatic problems of our age. Stalemates and watered-down outcomes must urgently be replaced by alternatives that can proudly be deemed “successful” for genuine human security and social and economic justice. Governments and civil society alike should not settle for less. 

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