Reflections on the UN General Assembly general debate 2013

References by the numbers
Chemical weapons: 130
Nuclear weapons: 61
Arms Trade Treaty: 49

The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) held its general debate from 24 September–1 October. As usual, disarmament and arms control themes were prominent at the debate, with key issues this year including the use of chemical weapons in Syria and the recent adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty text.

The theme for this year’s debate, set by UNGA President John W. Ashe of Antigua and Barbuda, was “The Post-2015 Development Agenda: Setting the Stage”. The focus on development is timely and necessary. The UN’s 2010 report on the Millennium Development Goals warned that “unmet commitments, inadequate resources, lack of focus and accountability, and insufficient dedication to sustainable development have created shortfalls in many areas.” It is widely anticipated that most of the MDGs will not be met by the 2015 deadline.

Disarmament and arms control are directly related to development. As Nitin Desai and Jayantha Dhanapala have written, poverty and conflict often reinforce each other: poverty and inequalities can be a catalyst for armed conflict; armed conflict plunges people into poverty and undermines development. Even in the absence of armed conflict, military spending absorbs resources that could be used to address poverty.

Some of the interventions at this debate directly addressed the issue of military spending. “At a time of pressing human need,” argued UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “spending on weapons remains absurdly high. Let us get our priorities right and invest in people instead of wasting billions on deadly weapons.” Representatives of The Gambia and Uruguay contrasted military and medical expenditure, with The Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh lamenting the money that Western countries spend on “killer technologies”. Uruguay’s President José Mujica noted that this excessive spending “ensures hatred and fanaticism,” which leads to armed conflict, which absorbs even more money.

The overwhelming majority of member states spoke about armed conflict at this year’s debate, directing their principal focus towards the ongoing crisis in Syria. Most spoke about the fact that 100,000 people have been killed and over seven million have been internally displaced or made to flee their country. Many spoke about the strain on neighbouring countries and the dire need for humanitarian aid. This kind of protracted armed conflict has undeniable implications for national and regional development, poverty, and inequality.

Amidst the backdrop of this bloody conflict, chemical weapons were used in Syria on 21 August in Damascus. UN inspections found that this action resulted in the deaths of numerous casualties, particularly among civilians. The vast majority of states addressing the general debate condemned this abhorrent and illegal act of violence. Most agreed that the use of chemical weapons is a serious violation of international law and welcomed UN Security Council resolution 2118 on the framework for eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons.

But most states also were clear that any militarized response to the use of chemical weapons would be unacceptable. Country after country renounced the idea that more bloodshed or bombings could end the conflict or prevent future use of weapons of mass destruction. Many countries called for the case to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC). “This is precisely the type of crisis for which we have established the ICC,” argued Aurelia Frick, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Liechtenstein. “A referral to the ICC will not only ensure that there is no impunity for the atrocious crimes committed in Syria. It will ultimately also contribute to a viable political future for the country: it will isolate those who have committed the most serious crimes, it will provide redress for victims, and it will establish the truth.”

Most representatives who spoke on the subject expressed firm resolve against the use of force as a viable means to solve conflicts. Several representatives also highlighted the hypocrisy of violating one international law in order to enforce another. Ralph Gonsalves, Prime Minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, noted that “there are those in this Assembly who hold a curious view of international law, as something that must be imposed against others, but which has limited applicability to them.”

Indeed, the same countries that were originally calling for military strikes against Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons are some of those that possess nuclear weapons. And one of them, the United States, has not yet met its deadline to destroy its own chemical weapons stockpile as mandated by the Chemical Weapons Convention. This double standard did not go unnoticed. “In Syria, we disagree with the use of chemical weapons and weapons of mass destruction. But who has the greatest nuclear arsenal? Who invented chemical weapons?” asked President Evo Morales of Bolivia. The representatives of Guatemala and San Marino, among others, also drew connections between the threats of chemical weapons and nuclear weapons, calling for united action toward the elimination of both.

Over 65 countries spoke about the dangers of nuclear weapons at this general debate. Some—those that possess them—spoke merely of the dangers of proliferation. But the overwhelming majority warned of the threats to security, stability, and humanity inherent in the weapons themselves. “The continued reliance on nuclear weapons and the limited progress towards nuclear disarmament are of great global concern,” argued President Heinz Fischer of Austria. “Nuclear weapons should be stigmatized, banned and eliminated.” The concern with nuclear weapons is truly cross-regional. The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) reiterated the need for the “total and absolute elimination of nuclear weapons,” while Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi of Samoa highlighted the “urgent need to have a treaty banning nuclear weapons.”

While the abolition of nuclear weapons is often treated like a far-reaching dream, the same was once said about regulating the international arms trade. Yet by the end of the general debate, 112 countries had signed onto the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), the text of which was adopted by the General Assembly in April 2013. About 50 countries welcomed the ATT in their general debate remarks, focusing on the contribution its implementation should make to reducing armed violence and human suffering. Many of these governments appealed to arms exporters to ratify and robustly implement the Treaty and to take more proactive measures to control weapons exports.

The positions and priorities reflected at the UNGA debate are important to keep in mind as move into First Committee. They give an indication of the direction of some of the conversations that will be held throughout October and they give delegations something upon which to build their actions. The interconnectivity highlighted in this report only scratches the surface of possibilities; we look forward to pursuing these and other connections over the next month.

Report by Ray Acheson, Reaching Critical Will of WILPF

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.