2016 No. 6 | Final Edition

Editorial: Overcoming trenches
4 November 2016

Ray Acheson

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Last week, there were celebrations in Conference Room 4 as the UN General Assembly voted to outlaw nuclear weapons next year, adopting resolution L.41. 38 states that believe nuclear weapons afford them security voted against this historic resolution and a further 16 abstained—despite their repeated commitment to achieving and maintaining a nuclear weapon free world and their legal obligations to pursue and conclude multilateral negotiations for nuclear disarmament.

This week, on the final day of First Committee, states adopted resolution L.61/Rev.1 condemning the use of chemical weapons in Syria and calling for full implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Six states voted against it, and a further 15 abstained. Most of these said that they condemn “any use of chemical weapons, by anyone, under any circumstances”—yet found it “too political” or “imbalanced” to call out Syria.

It’s interesting to compare the positions of states on these two resolutions. Most of the states supporting L.61/Rev.1, which do not find it too political to condemn the use of chemical weapons and to take action to demand compliance with CWC obligations and commitments, do find it too political to outlaw nuclear weapons. They argue that it is is “polarising” and “divisive” for the vast majority of states to demand compliance with NPT obligations and commitments and to take action when such compliance is not forthcoming.

The United States, speaking on behalf of 40 states,[1] contended that there is “no greater challenge” to the CWC than a state party that violates its obligations. These countries called on states to “squarely confront the reality before us and hold Syria and the so-called ISIL accountable for their use of chemical weapons.” The US further recalled that the preamble of the CWC makes clear that states must “determine for the sake of all mankind [sic] to exclude completely the possibility of the use of chemical weapons.”

So why does this logic not apply to the violation of other agreements? Are those violations any less challenging?

There’s a striking similarity between the CWC preamble and the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) preamble, which makes it clear that, “Considering the devastation that would be visited upon all mankind [sic] by a nuclear war,” states must “make every effort to avert the danger of such a war and to take measures to safeguard the security of peoples.” The countries supporting the prohibition of nuclear weapons do so because they see it as a necessary measure to help facilitate nuclear disarmament. Nothing else so far has helped create the ever-elusive conditions that the nuclear-armed states claim are necessary before they can implement their legally binding obligations or their stated commitments. Outlawing nuclear weapons—just as chemical weapons are outlawed—is a necessary to step to “squarely confront the reality before us”—as the US and others wish to do with chemical weapons—and hold the nuclear-armed states accountable for their continued possession of, investments in, and threats of use of nuclear weapons.

The double standards go both ways. Those who are not willing to accept findings about use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Arab Armed Forces or by the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant are mostly ready to prohibit nuclear weapons. States such as Cuba, Iran, South Africa, and Venezuela, which voted in favour of L.41, abstained on or voted against L.61/Rev. A few other L.41 supporters, which voted in favour of L.61/Rev.1, still complained that the text was too politicised.

Of course hypocrisy is based on power and politics. States’ positions on the use of chemical weapons or the possession of nuclear weapons—or on using explosive weapons in populated areas, or on supporting the conventions on cluster munitions or landmines, or the relationship of ammunition to stopping illicit arms flows, etc.—look like trenches that are dug very deep.

Our job, unglamorous as it may be, is to fill in those trenches. Where they cannot be filled in, due to political intransigence or military belligerence, our job is to jump over them, to creatively find ways around them, over them, or through them.

I write of “us” in the collective sense of states, civil society, and international organisations that seek peace, security, and justice in a world seemingly controlled by military might, neoliberal capitalism, and violent patriarchy. We are threatened when we challenge these systems of power and injustice. We have as our tools the law, truth, resilience, hope, and solidarity.

We can see this at Standing Rock, where the Sioux, the traditional owners of the land, and others are protesting against an oil pipeline that is intended to run from North Dakota to Illinois, threatening the water supply for all. We can see it in Colombia, where peace groups, women’s groups, and many others are protesting and campaigning in favour of the historic peace agreement with FARC. We can see it Turkey, where protestors are taking on the detention of journalists. We saw it with the Women’s Boat to Gaza, which was intercepted and seized by the Israeli military on its way to provide aid to Palestinians. We saw it in Poland, where extensive protests against a proposed law banning abortion caused legislators with the country’s ruling party to reverse their positions and vote against the proposal.

Whether or not all of these actions are successful in achieving their goals, they are successful in contributing to a culture of resistance to unfettered or unjust power, and a culture of demanding justice and lawfulness even in the face of violence and intimidation. Outlawing nuclear weapons makes a contribution to building a culture of peace, nonviolence, and justice and of defying those who deem themselves powerful in order to do so. In future years at First Committee and other forums, we will advance on many disarmament issues—as we have in the past and as we will continue to do going forward.

[1] Albania, Australia, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Republic of Korea, Saudi Arabia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States.

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