Putting People First at the UNGA First Committee

Allison Pytlak, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom

Every year the UN General Assembly’s (UNGA) First Committee, which focuses on international security and disarmament, meets in New York for five weeks. Its 2018 session would, on the surface, appear to have been more about discord and divide than humanitarian approaches to disarmament and security. Between extensive and vitriolic rights of reply, fist banging, and an unabashed defense of weapons acquisition and spending by some, it was arguably the most contentious session in years. However, if one looks a little further below the surface it becomes overwhelming clear that these childish tactics were limited to a tiny minority of states, and that the majority are—perhaps without even realizing it themselves—promoting policies and positions that support a humanitarian disarmament approach to security.

Let’s look at the evidence.

Humanitarian disarmament means putting people first. It seeks the prevention and remediation of humanitarian suffering and environmental harm and sees this as a priority over national security. It understands that socio-economic development, peace, and disarmament are mutually reinforcing, and that the best results occur when governments work alongside civil society and international organizations. As articulated by the representative of Trinidad and Tobago as part of the general debate in the First Committee, “Human security—our ability to protect, feed, house and support our citizens—depends upon effective disarmament. Disarmament therefore cannot exist in a vacuum; it must be part of a broader conversation about vulnerability, insecurity, and weaponisation.”

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) is one manifestation of this approach. It turns state-centric, national security approaches to disarmament on their head by putting the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons at the center of its prohibition on nuclear weapons.  At the First Committee, 122 countries indicated their continued strong support for this instrument by voting in favor of the first-ever resolution on the Treaty—despite a constant stream of pressure to do the opposite. Beyond the resolution however, national and regional statements from these countries consistently emphasized the people and planet-centric rationale that drove the TPNW process forward and is continuing to generate new signatures and ratifications on a regular basis. In their statements, these countries challenged the “logic” of deterrence; signaled their frustration with the disengagement from international disarmament agreements; and called out the hypocrisy of plans to modernize nuclear arsenals, or in some cases, develop entirely new nuclear weapons.

“Instead of deterring conflict and war, as some continue to allege, [nuclear] weapons remain a constant source of insecurity and a driver of proliferation,” noted South Africa on October 19, 2018, during the portion of the First Committee focused on nuclear weapons. “The enormous amount of public resources directed at the production and maintenance of nuclear weapons remains in sharp contrast to those channeled towards socio-economic development, including the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”

HD forum 11_19
Credit: Tim Wright, 2018

The significant progress in incorporation of gender perspectives into First Committee resolutions is another example of how humanitarian disarmament approaches were evident at the First Committee. Seventeen resolutions were adopted this year that included language on women’s equal representation, the gendered impact of different types of weapons, or the need for gender considerations more broadly—which is nearly double the number of resolutions that contained such references in 2016 and 2017. Three of these were improvements from past articulations; and six included such concerns for the first time.¹ Inclusion of these references—and the process of making them happen—advances humanitarian disarmament by deepening understanding about the ways and types that arms and militarism affect people differently, and make space for new perspectives. This was brought about through a combination of focused government outreach, alongside civil society inputs and advocacy.  It built on gains made earlier this year in the outcome document of the Third Review Conference for the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms, agreed by the entirety of the UN membership—and gives impetus to the focus on gender-based violence prevention through the Arms Trade Treaty, as a theme for that instrument in 2019.

It is also noteworthy that fifty countries united in a joint statement expressing alarm about the humanitarian harm caused by the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas. States also increasingly expressed concern over the ethical, legal, and humanitarian impacts of armed drones and autonomous weapons.

Continued strong support for the treaties banning landmines and cluster munitions, and the multiplicity of ways in which the international community has united to implement their provisions, is humanitarian disarmament in practice. Information on these programs and activities was shared by many states throughout the First Committee, including updates on small arms control measures. I always enjoy the parts of government statements at the First Committee that provide updates on practical actions, or new laws and domestic policies, because of their tangibility. All the good words and intentions in the world don’t mean anything if they are not translated into action.

Civil society delivered a first ever statement on humanitarian disarmament, which offering framing to other civil society statements on specific weapons topics or cross-cutting issues by anchoring them in a humanitarian disarmament approach: “Whatever the focus of their work, these groups share the common goal of preventing and remediating arms-inflicted human suffering through the establishment of norms.”

Detractors and opponents remain, of course. Yet they are small in number, weak in argument, and increasingly at odds with one another—cue the vitriol and fist banging. Based on words and actions at the First Committee on issues as diverse as nuclear weapons to outer space and cyber security, the world’s biggest proponents of militarism appear to be over playing nice with one another and seem more intent on their own narrow security interests, viewing disarmament as something that will weaken their security.

This can seem a daunting challenge, to all the rest of us who believe that disarmament creates security. Yet what humanitarian disarmament processes have shown, time and time again, from landmines to the arms trade to nuclear weapons, is that when states—however small, large, powerful, or growing—unite around a common vision, they can change the narrative. “War is neither a human condition nor imperative,” said the Ambassador of Zambia, in his country’s opening statement. “We can change things.”


¹ For a complete overview, see the entry on “Gender” in the 2018 First Committee Monitor, Vol. 6, published by Reaching Critical Will, http://reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament-fora/1com/FCM18/FCM-2018-No6.pdf.

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