2013 No. 1 | Preview Edition
Editorial: Out of the abstract
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF
The backdrop to this year’s First Committee is as bloody as ever. Civil wars, revolutions, occupations, armed violence in streets, schools, and homes. How many different weapon systems have been used in the last year? How many bullets have been fired? How many rockets launched? For the first time in many years, chemical weapons have been used. And behind them all stand nuclear weapons—possessed by a handful of countries, a constant shadow over us all.
First Committee often seems very disconnected from the “real world”. While the violence rages on around the UN, its committee on disarmament and international security adopts the same resolutions and member states deliver the same statements. But First Committee is uniquely situated to address many of the ongoing crises because it deals with issues of weapons and security.
Amidst the backdrop of a bloody armed conflict in Syria, in which over 100,000 people have been killed and over seven million have been internally displaced or made to flee their country, chemical weapons have once again been used against human beings. The use of chemical weapons is a serious violation of international law, regardless of which party to the conflict perpetrated the attack. But as most groups working for peace, justice, and disarmament have pointed out, it should not be used as a pretext for military intervention. As Palau’s President said during the General Assembly’s high-level general debate, “Discussion, not weapons, is the best way to resolve differences and ensure human rights.”
The agreements reached to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons have shown what the international community is capable of when it is resolved to solve a particular problem through diplomacy. The elimination of chemical weapons should not, however, be used to legitimize the ongoing violence perpetrated in Syria with conventional weapons. And the resolve demonstrated to eliminate chemical weapons in Syria must be equally applied to other issues of armed violence and disarmament.
First Committee is a good opportunity to build this resolve.
“While armed conflicts persist, international norms that condemn civilian casualties and demand the preservation of human dignity must be respected, and where there are gaps, we must fill them,” wrote the heads of several membership-based civil society groups affiliated with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in an article published on 26 September. These groups noted that the use of chemical weapons in Syria serves to once again underscore the dangers inherent in the possession of all weapons of mass destruction. So long as such weapons exist, there is a risk they will be used. Nuclear weapons, “an anomaly among weapons of mass destruction” because they have not yet been banned, are no exception. The actions decided upon at First Committee must address this anomaly as concretely as possible. The 26 September high-level meeting on nuclear disarmament clearly demonstrated the appetite of the majority of governments to eliminate the scourge of nuclear weapons forever. This sentiment should inspire innovation and action at First Committee.
Resolve will also need to be built on issues other than those relating to WMD. New action is needed on small arms, cluster munitions, and landmines. Just because these weapon systems have been regulated or banned does not mean that the job is finished. There are substantive gaps, for example, in the UN Programme of Action on small arms and light weapons that must be addressed. There are emerging technologies that need to be constrained or prevented, such as drones and autonomous weapon systems. Acts of gender-based violence must be prevented through the greater control over small arms and the arms trade.
All of these issues require new approaches. The recycling of statements and resolutions is unacceptable and increasingly untenable. Lives are lost while paper is shuffled around. Last year saw the introduction and adoption of a handful of new texts. Some of these, such as the mandate for a new negotiating conference on the Arms Trade Treaty and the establishment of the open-ended working group and high-level meeting on nuclear disarmament, led to successes. They were actionable and timely and addressed real concerns with new approaches. As we begin another year, civil society is looking to member states to once again act with purpose and move beyond the abstract into the concrete.