2014 No. 1 | Preview Edition

Editorial: Silence is not an option
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF

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As the curtain opens once again on First Committee, we are once again faced with countless reminders of the urgency of our task ahead and of the obstacles that continue to prevent progress.

Over the past year, as many before it, we have been confronted with reports of the devastating impact of armed violence. The bombing of towns and cities around the world has killed thousands of civilians and destroyed vital infrastructure, leaving the living to struggle for survival. States can and must take action to prevent this from happening again and again.

Tensions between nuclear-armed states have risen, while the ongoing risks associated with their existence continue to plague the entire planet. Yet instead of engaging in negotiations to eliminate these weapons of terror that threaten us all, they continue to pour vast sums into their arsenals’ upkeep and modernisation.

New technologies of death are being planned and developed, with fully autonomous weapons a grim, dehumanising spectre on the horizon. Meanwhile, the ubiquitous availability of small arms and light weapons persists, killing and injuring more people daily than any other weapon.

“Silence is not an option,” said the Costa Rican president during the General Assembly high-level debate. We agree. First Committee provides a space for states, international organisations, and civil society to make some noise and pursue progressive, collective action to confront the challenges facing us all. We must use this space as best we can. States must decide to take action, rather than decide to be blocked by the traditional and predictable obstacles before us. States must have the courage of their convictions to see initiatives through even when they challenge the status quo and strain relationships.

Unfortunately, governments often use this forum to articulate decades-old positions and table resolutions that change little in substance or result from year to year. Reports on the implementation of these resolutions are issued each year, with contributions from states trending downwards. New perspectives or approaches are generally considered too difficult to incorporate, as precedent seems to trump progress in almost every respect. Civil society is denied an effective place in the Committee’s work, relegated to delivering a block series of statements from the back of the room one afternoon every year—a session that tends to be one of the least well-attended, as if it were considered optional by some.

This state of affairs does not reflect the intended role of the UN as a problem-solving forum for the international community. In many cases, it is a handful of countries that prevent effective change on either substance or process. The civil society organisations, coalitions, and campaigns participating most actively at First Committee have argued consistently that we can and must replace stalemate and watered-down outcomes with alternative outcomes that advance human security and social and economic justice.

Such alternatives can include developing a political commitment to prevent the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Negotiating a treaty to ban nuclear weapons, even if the nuclear-armed states refuse to participate. Developing a preventative prohibition against the development of fully autonomous weapons. Establishing more robust measures to stop the spread and reduce the production of small arms and light weapons and their ammunition.

These are but a few examples of avenues that states and other stakeholders should discuss and pursue. There are many more. A range of ideas are presented by civil society coalitions and campaigns in the First Committee briefing book, available from Reaching Critical Will online and in hardcopy during the Committee’s meetings. The groups that have contributed to this book work on many different issues and weapon systems from a variety of perspectives, but they all share one thing in common: the desire for more effective, transparent, and inclusive diplomatic work at the United Nations. We believe that most delegates seek true progress and the enhancement of human security. We hope that our contributions will provide inspiration and alternatives as delegates engage in the important work ahead.