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2013 No. 5 | Final Edition

Editorial: Momentum and resistance
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF


Another session of First Committee has ended. Another 53 resolutions have been adopted. Hundreds of statements have been delivered. Looking at the documents, the lists of speakers, the statistics, one could say it was another routine year for the committee on disarmament and international security. But delving into content reveals a different picture; a picture in which the majority of countries elevated their concerns with the humanitarian and environmental tragedies caused by weapons above the status quo thinking on security. These delegations did not let warnings from the nuclear-armed states or concerns from their nuclear-dependent allies deter them from demanding progress on disarmament. Hopefully this trend will continue, and move beyond words in First Committee to action in all relevant venues.

This is an unusually optimistic assessment of First Committee. But it is difficult to conceive of any other reading when one takes into account the overwhelming concern expressed by governments about the humanitarian harm of all weapons. The majority of delegations welcomed the adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), praised the gains made by the Convention on Cluster Munitions and the Mine Ban Treaty, expressed dismay with the use of chemical weapons in Syria and demanded the universalization of the Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, and demanded progress on developing a multilateral treaty prohibiting and eliminating nuclear weapons. On the margins of First Committee, civil society groups working on a range of weapons issues convened their second conference on humanitarian disarmament.

Not everyone is pleased with the momentum of humanitarian disarmament and arms control. There are some governments that remain skeptical about the ATT—some because they fear it will prevent their acquisition of arms; others because the Treaty did not go far enough in affecting the volume of arms production, transfers, and war profiteering. There are those who still refuse to join the conventions banning cluster munitions and antipersonnel landmines, even though they admit that these weapons bring death to civilians and undermine development. Some have no interest in enhancing the provisions or legally-binding status of the UN Programme of Action on small arms and light weapons.

And of course, most vocally of all, there are those who do not want any further progress on nuclear disarmament. These are a small minority of countries, but they made their views well known over the last month. During the action on resolutions, they took every opportunity to once again voice their disdain with the fact that the majority of countries, as well as civil society, are discussing the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons. The Russian delegation said it is “cynical” to discuss this topic. The UK delegation expressed its alarm with the idea that other governments might want to prohibit the possession of nuclear weapons. Most of the nuclear-armed states that are NPT state parties, and many of the countries that prop up the continued possession of nuclear weapons through nuclear sharing or security relationships, expressed concern that any action to pursue activities related to nuclear disarmament will undermine the NPT and the implementation of its 2010 action plan.

These arguments are absurd. They illuminate the tension between those who see the NPT as simply a non-proliferation instrument and those (the majority) who have always viewed it as a mechanism for achieving disarmament. Prohibiting and eliminating nuclear weapons would fulfill the NPT’s goals and objectives, not undermine them. As Reaching Critical Will argues in its paper Preventing collapse: the NPT and a ban on nuclear weapons, a process to ban nuclear weapons that arises from the discussion around the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons actually has the potential to prevent the NPT’s collapse.

Civil society groups are not alone in this understanding. In a joint explanation of vote to the draft resolution on the follow-up to the high-level meeting on nuclear disarmament (L.6/Rev.1), Austria, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Malta, New Zealand, and San Marino argued that the resolution’s objectives are “entirely consistent” with the NPT and its action plan. Noting that action 1 of the 2010 plan obliges states parties to pursue policies that are fully compatible with the NPT and with the objective of achieving a world without nuclear weapons, these countries highlighted the relevance and appropriateness of all actions that promote nuclear disarmament. They also emphasized their interest in pursuing “any set of effective measures to achieve the objective of complete nuclear disarmament and the maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons, regardless of how such measures might be elaborated.”

The 125 countries that associated themselves with the joint statement condemning the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and calling for their elimination, and the countless countries who emphasized their humanitarian and environmental concerns with other weapon systems, truly made their mark at this session of First Committee. The majority opinion seemed to be that improved security—human and national—can be achieved with fewer weapons, less military expenditure, and more investment in peace and human development. As Norway’s delegation said, “The humanitarian dimension in disarmament and arms control must be a key element in our discussions and efforts, because at the end of the day, it is the consequences for the people on the ground that our policies will be measured against.”

While not everyone may be on board with the advancements in humanitarian disarmament, this should not be a concern for those wanting to make progress. Moving beyond lowest common denominator agreements is vital for peace and security and for the vitality of the United Nations as a responsive body that can address today’s challenges.

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