23 October 2006 - Fourth Edition

Jennifer Nordstrom | Reaching Critical Will

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The First Committee voted this week on the issues and draft resolutions it has been debating for the past month. The governments, UN staffers and non-governmental organizations all moved over to Conference Room 2 for the most well-attended sessions, where the sea of gray suits watches the green, red and yellow vote displays on the light board. In total, 48 of the 55 resolutions were put to a vote, with 7 of the most controversial resolutions left for Monday, October 30.

The most exciting vote went through on Thursday, when the First Committee adopted “Towards an Arms Trade Treaty” (A/C.1/61/L.55) by an overwhelming majority of 139 in favor, 1 opposed (US), and 24 abstentions. The crowded room of delegates and onlookers witnessed the official beginning of a process that could regulate the trade in conventional weapons—from tanks to shotguns—for the first time. (See ATT report)

For the most part, the voting patterns were largely similar to years past. The EU and NATO continued to vote no and abstain on the most progressive nuclear disarmament resolutions, and those limiting nuclear weapons' use or threat of use. The Arab League continued to abstain on the “Transparency in armaments” resolution. (See Conventional Weapons report) Non-states parties to the Mine Ban Treaty continued to abstain on the resolution supporting that Treaty. (See Landmines report)

There were, however, some significant shifts in voting patterns this year. A handful of governments moved from abstaining to supporting the New Agenda Coalition (NAC) and Non-Aligned Movement’s nuclear disarmament resolutions. Iran moved to abstain on the NAC resolution because it was “not appropriately balanced,” meaning there was not enough nuclear disarmament in it. (See Nuclear Disarmament report) The draft resolution on a treaty to ban the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons was withdrawn because of continuing divisions over its negotiating mandate and a programme of work in the Conference on Disarmament. (See Fissile Materials report) North Korea joined the US in voting against the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty resolution, and voted against two other resolutions condemning its nuclear test. (See CTBT and North Korea reports)

The United States moved to a more unilateral position; it voted against the resolutions on negative security assurances this year for the first time, (See NSA report) and on Monday is expected to vote against the resolution on convening a fourth Special Session on Disarmament, which is traditionally adopted by consensus. It was the lone opposition vote on the preventing an arms race in outer space resolution- last year marking the first time it did so-, and also offered the sole opposition to the small arms and light weapons resolution, though this time without any budgetary explanations of that opposition. (See PAROS and SALW reports) It offered the sole opposition vote to five other resolutions, and was joined by only a few others (often France and the UK) in opposing six other resolutions. Only Israel joined the US in opposition to “Measures to uphold the authority of the 1925 Geneva Protocol,” which won 163 votes in favor. (See Biological and Chemical Weapons report)

The votes in the First Committee continue to show serious divisions in the international community on disarmament and security measures. States hardening their positions and becoming more unilateral does not bode well for the upcoming 2007 Conference on Disarmament session or the 2007 Preparatory Committee beginning the next nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review cycle.

However, the nuclear disarmament community would do well to take a lesson from our friends working to control conventional and small arms and light weapons (SALW), and mix those lessons in with our particularities and recent progress. Coming off a loss less than three months ago when the SALW Review Conference could not agree on an outcome, NGOs and governments working to curb the proliferation of illegal SALW managed to use the First Committee as an opportunity to continue the small arms review process. (See the SALW report) Even more significantly, the First Committee kick-started work to control all conventional weapons for the first time by establishing a Group of Governmental Experts to consider a prospective Arms Trade Treaty. (See ATT report)

Even with hardened and unilateral positions by a few governments, votes in the First Committee show time and again that the vast majority of the world's people and governments want nuclear and conventional disarmament. More governments supported the major nuclear disarmament resolutions this year than in 2005. We are in a process of building international norms, and as the middle moves forward, the naysayers, slowly, begrudgingly, will move along with it. Moreover, governments and policies change. The important thing now is not to stop progress with defeatist fatalism. The majority says move ahead; just look at the light board.

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