Ray Acheson, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom
It was a rough five weeks at the UN General Assembly’s First Committee on Disarmament and International Security this year. Hypocrisy could be theme word for the 2019 session: hypocrisy of the so-called great powers accusing each other of violating international law and exacerbating geopolitical tensions; hypocrisy of nuclear-armed states blaming non-nuclear-armed states for their insecurity; hypocrisy of weapon developers demanding arms control in one space while pursuing new technologies of violence in another; and so on. To make matters worse, the Committee’s work was delayed for two days because the US government denied visas to members of certain countries’ delegations—an issue that continues to plague many NY-based disarmament forums.
During what limited time the Committee had left, Russia and the United States, bolstered by some of their allies, acted out the role of comic book arch-nemeses. It seems that those countries who declared themselves victors of the Second World War and built a system of international rules and norms are now tearing down that very same system, accusing each other of lighting the fire while they all throw on the fuel. We can see it everywhere in the disarmament machinery, a system in which militarism and might make right, where those who spend the most on weapons get to have the biggest say in how our world is ordered and who benefits from it.
For example, some governments express outrage about the use of chemical weapons, but at the same time defend the “necessity” of certain states possessing even more horrific weapons of mass destruction. A joint explanation of vote from many delegations on the chemical weapons-related resolution declared that “all responsible nations must have the courage of our convictions to banish the scourge of chemical weapons to the past forever.” Yet many states that signed onto that statement condemn those who had the courage of their convictions to banish the scourge of nuclear weapons by negotiating and adopting the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Hypocrisy is why the US asserts that not only is the TPNW unacceptable but now even past nuclear disarmament commitments are not relevant for the current international security environment. Hypocrisy is why Japan tried to provide the US position cover at this year’s First Committee by introducing a new resolution that cherry picks past commitments for implementation and focuses on “future-oriented dialogues,” all whilst claiming to be a “bridge builder” between nuclear-armed and non-nuclear-armed states. Hypocrisy is why France rejects even the consideration of the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, saying that those involved in that effort are “ignorant” of the complexities of the international security environment and belittling the perspectives of those who suffered the effects of French nuclear testing. Such perspectives include those of Samoa, which said, “Nuclear weapons by their very existence pose a potent threat and subject the world to needless fear and anxiety,” noting that it has suffered “the emotional scars of terror and mistrust from real-life experiences of nuclear testing.”
Hypocrisy is also why Russia and Syria condemn efforts to investigate and attribute the use of chemical weapons in Syria as political, while people suffer horrific injuries and death. It’s why many of the major arms producing and exporting states parties of the Arms Trade Treaty scold developing countries for failing to meet their financial obligations to the Treaty while profiting off the blood their weapons spill in countries around the world. It’s why some states bomb towns and cities, violating international humanitarian law and human rights, devastating civilians lives and homes and hospitals, and then claim they are acting in the interests of preserving “security and stability” or acting against imperialism or terrorism.
Indeed, the use of explosive weapons in populated areas has been shown time and again to primarily result in civilian death and injury and the destruction of homes, schools, hospitals, and markets. At First Committee this year, Ireland delivered a statement on behalf of 71 governments expressing grave concern with this issue. These states argued that compliance with international humanitarian law could be strengthened through the development of a political declaration and other measures. In contrast, the US delegation argued that efforts “to ban or stigmatize the use of explosive weapons is impractical and counterproductive.” There are of course profits to be made from allowing the continued use of explosive weapons in populated areas: arms producers and exporters gain financially from supplying and resupplying those shelling towns and cities with bombs and other heavy weapons. The motivations of those seeking to prevent humanitarian crises and those seeking to profit from them comes further into view.
Not surprisingly, the division between those who seek profits from weapons and war and those who seek to prioritize the protection of human beings was clear also in discussions about new technologies of violence. In regard to fully autonomous weapons, for example, Poland argued that the application of artificial intelligence to weapons is inevitable, while the United States argued that “advanced technologies that enable more accurate battlespace awareness and the discriminate use of force have been shown to improve the protection of civilians.” Russia said no regulation of this type of weapon is necessary and that “humanitarian issues” should not lead to the imposition of restrictions. In contrast, the majority of other states—and populations—have expressed concern that autonomous weapons pose dangerous risks and challenges. Austria articulated the position of many governments, arguing, “It is a legal, ethical and moral imperative that humans must remain in control of armed conflict and the weapons that are deployed and used.”
There is a significant challenge in trying to build a rules-based order for future weapon systems while the rules relating to existing weapons are disintegrating, being pulled apart thread by thread. “The disarmament architecture has become weak with the rise of a new arms race and the bending of the international rules-based system to fit only a few States’ competitive agenda for power and control,” warned Samoa. Herein lies a key challenge, as highlighted by the joint civil society statement on gender delivered to First Committee this year: militarism and violence are consistently posited as the best answers to tension or conflict in our international system.
But there are governments who reject this approach, who want to turn from the endless cycle of weapons production and war to building a different kind of security, one that actually serves people and the planet. This can be seen in the growing momentum for the entry into force of Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, to which countless states expressed their commitment throughout First Committee. It can be seen in the number of states who have, at First Committee and at the recent conference on the protection of civilians in urban conflict, indicated their support for developing political and operational mechanisms to address the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. It can be seen in the expressions of commitment to the prohibitions on landmines and cluster munitions and the updates on stockpile destruction, land clearance, and victim assistance.
“Disarmament is a driver of security,” explained Ireland. The international security environment “is not a pretext to shirk obligations or to defer progress on disarmament. Concrete progress on disarmament creates an enabling environment, enhances security and provides a reinforcing loop to allow further progress.” This approach is urgently needed at First Committee and beyond. It is the only approach that supports our collective survival in a world beset by challenges, risks, and tensions.
One positive development in First Committee has been the increased recognition of the importance of gender perspectives and diversity in disarmament. An unprecedented 28 percent of 59 First Committee resolutions adopted called for women’s equal participation; stressed the gendered impacts of weapon systems and armed violence and/or underscored the need for gender considerations in disarmament machinery. In addition, 79 states joined a collective statement on gender and disarmament—almost 20 more than last year.
So yes, First Committee is, for now, still standing. And once again the majority of delegates came to do the work to curtail armaments and prevent humanitarian harm. But the minority of states, seeking profits from weapon production and power from weapon possession, continue to prevent the real, meaningful actions we need in order to truly build international security through disarmament. Doing so is not impossible: only certain governments make it seem that way, by continuing to invest in weapons and war at the expense of people and planet. Moving on from these five weeks, it is up to the rest of us to take the necessary actions—real actions, not just resolutions or words spoken in conference rooms—by banning and eliminating weapons, building better relations among states and peoples, and working for a world where our shared humanity, rather than our shared hypocrisy, provides the basis of our decisions and actions.