Reflections on the UN General Assembly high-level debate 2015

Reaching Critical Will, with the assistance of WILPF’s PeaceWomen programme, tracked all references to disarmament and arms control at this year’s UNGA general debate. The Disarmament Index is available at www.reachingcriticalwill.org. PeaceWomen maintains an index on gender and women, available at www.peacewomen.org.

Before the high-level debate of the UN General Assembly began this year, governments gathered to adopt the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Agenda commits governments “to foster peaceful, just and inclusive societies which are free from fear and violence.” It declares: “There can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development.” Yet despite this emphasis on peace and freedom from violence, the Agenda only includes one goal related to disarmament or arms control—to significantly reduce illicit arms flows by 2030.

This falls far short of the action necessary to restrict the arms trade and the possession and use of weapons, without which development and peace are just empty words. It ignores the risks posed by the continued existence of nuclear weapons, the relentless bombing and bombardment in towns and cities, and many other critical weapons-related issues. It also ignores the diversion towards militarism of resources that could be spent on development.

During the general debate, however, many governments did direct attention to these challenges.

Nuclear weapons

Most governments addressing nuclear weapon issues welcomed the agreement reached over Iran’s nuclear programme, with many highlighting it as a victory for diplomacy over military force. But some went beyond consideration of potential nuclear weapons to focus on those that already exist. As Ireland pointed out, “Today there are at least 17,000 nuclear weapons posing a threat to our very survival. We cannot accept this status quo.” Some of the 117 governments that have so far endorsed the Humanitarian Pledge highlighted the Pledge’s importance and urged more states to endorse it and work towards the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. Others pointed to the waste of resources on nuclear weapons and the unacceptability of the ongoing failure to disarm. The Holy See described the nuclear arms race as “the denial of the human dignity of one’s potential enemies, even to the denial of one’s own dignity and survival.”

The catastrophic consequences of the use of nuclear weapons was a key concern for those addressing the issue. With three conference and multiple joint statements at the General Assembly and Non-Proliferation Treaty meetings, this subject has grown to dominate the nuclear weapons discourse in recent years. The Marshall Islands, which has pending lawsuits against the nuclear-armed states for their failure to comply with article VI of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, argued, “It is essential for the survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances. The universal way to accomplish this is through the total elimination of such weapons…. It should be our goal as the United Nations to not only stop the spread of nuclear weapons, but also to pursue the peace and security of a world without them.”

The nuclear-armed states said little to none about their arsenals or about nuclear disarmament. Only India and Pakistan mentioned nuclear weapons, describing themselves as responsible nuclear weapon states.

Explosive weapons

The use of explosive weapons in populated areas is a particularly devastating practice that causes immense humanitarian suffering. Between 2011 and 2014, the civil society group Action on Armed Violence has recorded almost 150,000 deaths and injuries from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. 78% of these were non-combatants. When explosive weapons were used in populated areas, 90% of the resulting casualties were civilians. Strong tools are needed to prevent human suffering from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The shelling and bombing of populated neighborhoods in Syria, Ukraine, Yemen, and elsewhere has created devastating humanitarian situations, killing civilians, destroying vital infrastructure, and leaving lasting psychological damage.

An increasing number of states addressed this issue, most of whom criticized the bombing or bombardment of civilians in Syria or Yemen. Costa Rica called for protection civilians from such predictable patterns of harm, while Norway specifically supported the UN Secretary-General’s call on parties to armed conflict to refrain from using explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas.

Arms trade

Yet few states connected the use of explosive weapons in populated areas relate to the international arms trade. While many states welcomed the entry into force of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), irresponsible arms transfers continue. Ireland highlighted “the consequences of illegal and irresponsible flows of arms and conventional weapons in the appalling scenes of chaos and brutality into which parts of our world have descended.” It suggested that the ATT can help “stem this industrial scale violence.” However, as Costa Rica noted, “despite the express prohibitions in the Arms Trade Treaty, [weapons producers] continue to conduct international arms transfers, including small and light weapons, to conflict areas.” The Costa Rican president insisted, “The express prohibitions on transfers of conventional arms of the Treaty exist to prevent human suffering and to save lives. They are not there to be ignored.” In this spirit, Belize called upon the “powerful arms-producing states to refrain from selling arms and weapons to those who use them to oppress others, and to warlords in war-torn countries.”

Military spending

This critical gap between law and practice in relation to the international arms trade is due to the limitations of the ATT, accentuating the continuing power of war profiteers. As global military spending continues to rise, armed conflict becomes the go-to solution for international tensions. “The vast expenditures on weapons and military equipment of all kinds, which consume a massive share of the world’s resources could be more properly channeled into the development agenda that we have just adopted. By so doing, the world would not only be more prosperous, it would be much safer and more secure,” argued Jamaica.

Meanwhile Mongolia, questioning the resources squandered on “war machines and weapons of mass destruction,” noted that “with a fraction of the money and technology we spend for the ‘masculine war show,’ we could solve many of today's troubling issues.” Mongolia was the only state to draw connections between militarism and violent masculinities during the general debate. This was a welcome insight that we hope will continue to be explored in First Committee.


Much work is needed on disarmament and arms control to protect civilians, enhance human security, and support development and peace. The general debate provides a snapshot of government interest in this subject, which this year is somewhat worrying. There are a number of pressing issues on everyone’s agenda—the refugee crisis and climate change first and foremost. But it is important to remember that all of these issues are interconnected. The Maldives, for example, highlighted the relationship between the 2030 Agenda and militarism, arguing that poverty is a multidimensional challenge that requires the UN to break out of its silos, suggesting that bodies dealing with economic and social rights must address issues of war and peace.

It is imperative that governments and all other actors strive to overcome that which separates us and focus on that which brings us together. As Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said, “In this our 70th year, let us pledge ourselves to liberate our nations and our global family from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation and warfare; to emancipate ourselves from the mental slavery of discrimination and learned helplessness; to unshackle our policies from the narrow nationalism, and imperialist ambition, that constrains the limitless possibilities of the human spirit. As nations and peoples we have choices.”