“The Narrative Must Change”: Prospects for the 2021 UNGA First Committee

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

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, time has inexplicably passed both slowly and quickly. A week spent in lockdown can sometimes feel like a month, but then a single day can evaporate into an endless series of video calls.

This is no less true for progress on humanitarian disarmament. After many months of uncertainty, the disarmament calendar is bursting. Working methods have been adapted to enable virtual or hybrid meeting formats and temporary decision-making procedures, in turn leading to the advent of “Zoom diplomacy”—which for some, has meant joining conferences at odd hours of the day or night. While online meeting formats present an opportunity for unprecedented inclusivity, they have also generated some new political dynamics and, at times, the exclusion of key stakeholders.

As the international disarmament community approaches the 76th session of the UN General Assembly’s (UNGA) First Committee, this odd sense of being both busy, but also suspended in time, continues to aptly describe many of the processes and fora we engage in.

October is traditionally a time of bustling activity for our community, when disarmament experts from government, the UN, and civil society convene in New York for about four weeks of meeting, negotiating, lobbying, and information sharing. Civil society’s annual humanitarian disarmament forum has become a regular feature in many of our calendars as an opportunity to connect across issues and campaigns.

Yet, with less than two weeks remaining before the start of the 2021 First Committee session, many of the same questions that existed one year ago are being wrestled with again or have only very recently been resolved. They involve debate about the Committee’s program of work (will there be a general debate and a thematic debate?), as well as about the access and participation of civil society (will we be allowed into UN headquarters, and how will we deliver statements?).

Last week, Reaching Critical Will (RCW), the disarmament program of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), published the 2021 First Committee Briefing Book. As in past years, the publication highlights major disarmament topics and suggests how governments can achieve progress on them. The book covers 18 topics, authored by diverse experts, that are expected to be addressed by states during the 2021 First Committee session. It provides background information, current context, and recommendations to states for each topic.

Many contributing authors to the 2021 edition trace progress on their respective issues over the past year. Some topics have seen traction and momentum, while others remain on hold. For instance, the UN Programme of Action on small arms and light weapons held its long postponed Seventh Biennial Meeting of States in July. The UN’s first-ever Open-Ended Working Group on information and communications technologies (cyber security) brought its work of two years to a successful close in March, despite several hurdles. In Geneva, the Convention on Conventional Weapons Group of Governmental Experts on lethal autonomous weapons systems has resumed work at last and with good momentum. States parties to the Arms Trade Treaty convened in August and agreed to some substantive outputs. The Second Review Conference to the Convention on Cluster Munitions moved to a two-part format, the second session of which concluded this week.

As some authors note, other processes are temporarily on pause. Additional negotiations on a political declaration on the use of explosive weapons have been delayed, for example, owing largely to the meeting-heavy disarmament calendar for the remainder of 2021. The First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has been rescheduled to take place March 2022 while the 10th Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is now twice postponed.

What also stands out in reading many of the briefing book chapters is a collective sense of urgency. The world outside the UN is awash in weapons and the people living in armed violence and conflict simply cannot wait for meetings and schedules to determine their future. As outlined in the briefing book, nuclear-armed states are investing in the modernization of their nuclear warheads and/or delivery systems. The number of states operating drones to conduct targeted killings in the context of counterterrorism operations is growing. At least one country, and armed groups in several others, are using antipersonnel mines. Exports of arms continue to reach countries where high risk of misuse persists; malicious cyber operations have reached unprecedented heights; and more states are dedicating new military units and forces to warfighting in space. The natural environment is ever-more impacted by militarism, and while great strides have been made in bringing a gender analysis to disarmament issues, challenges remain. The current pandemic has illustrated the damaging effects disease can have on societies, regardless of their origin, and is reanimating discussions about biological weapons and enhancing preparedness initiatives.

In taking up the presidency of the 76th General Assembly and opening its session on September 14, Abdulla Shahid of the Maldives spoke of collective anxiety and hopelessness, not all of which is connected to the pandemic. “The narrative must change,” he remarked, stating that the UNGA must play a part in that.

Changing the narrative must include the UNGA First Committee. At the conclusion of last year’s session, RCW’s director described the intense politicization and governmental “muscle flexing” which characterized the 2020 meetings as the ““two men enter, one man leaves’ approach to international relations.” In recent years, some of the world’s largest military powers have adopted increasingly aggressive and openly hostile tone, rhetoric, and tactics during the First Committee. This has stymied progress on a range of topics; work on nuclear and chemical weapons, cyber security, and outer space have been particularly affected, as civil society reporting from the 2020 First Committee session outlines. 

Whether time is passing slowly or quickly may be beyond our control—what matters is how we use it.

As we approach this new session and all its uncertainties, we urge states to move past the acrimony of recent years—and also to strive for their work to have impact beyond the UN.

One way to change narratives and improve lived realities would be to act on recommendations set out in the 2020 civil society open letter on COVID-19 and humanitarian disarmament. Its more than 260 signatories urged states to “prioritize human security, reallocate military spending to humanitarian causes, work to eliminate inequalities, ensure multilateral fora incorporate diverse voices, and bring a cooperative mindset to problems of practice and policy.”

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