First Committee Needs Actionable Ambition for Disarmament

Ray Acheson, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom

While in some ways, this year’s UN General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and International Security was more relaxed than the last, with renewed or new cooperation on certain issues, it still struggled to achieve any agreements of ambition. Certain heavily militarized states continued to flex their muscles at each other, keeping tensions at the fore and collaboration for meaningful change to a minimum. Nevertheless, the willingness of states to cooperate on some issues and other states’ calls for a new approach to disarmament diplomacy are positive elements of this year’s First Committee that can be built upon to advance action to protect people and planet from weapons and war.

Instead of dueling resolutions, hostile amendments, and hyperaggressive rhetoric between Russia and the United States (US), the two delegations toned things down and even jointly tabled a single cyber resolution that was adopted without a vote. Israel and the US, for the first time since the mid-2000s, joined consensus on the resolutions on the prevention of an arms race in outer space and on transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space activities. In explaining these changes, each of the countries involved said they were acting in the spirit of flexibility and cooperation.

Yet, to say that the First Committee was not used as a battleground this year would be taking it too far. Russia tried once again—and failed once again—to undermine the UN Secretary-General’s independent mechanism to investigate the use of biological and chemical weapons. It also declined to support the UK-led initiative for an open-ended working group on outer space norms and behaviours and changed its vote on the annual cluster munitions resolution from abstention to opposition. The US, meanwhile, once again tabled its nauseatingly hypocritical resolution about the importance of treaty compliance. In addition, the US along with Israel continued to reject the process initiated in 2018 for a series of conferences aimed at establishing a weapon of mass destruction free zone in the Middle East. Japan once again tabled its attempted rewrite of Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) commitments, while the US voted “no” on paragraphs in a resolution calling for a substantive outcome at the next NPT Review Conference and for universalisation of the NPT. The nuclear-armed states also voted against all paragraphs across multiple resolutions that even dared to mention the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

To top it all off, China and the US flexed some Cold War-esque muscles at each other, signalling that the growing tensions long warned about are indeed well underway. As part of the theatrics to this end, China introduced a new text that seems to suggest states have the “inalienable right” to technology for development and that export controls undermine this right. It tried to posit this as the global south versus the west, but the voting didn’t exactly break down this way and delegates on both sides of the issue made some valid as well as hypocritical remarks. Beyond the fight over this resolution, reports also came out about China’s growing nuclear arsenal, which contradicts its repeated claims about a “minimal deterrent.” Of course, the US government criticized this development, as if it didn’t have a many-times-over greater arsenal that it is actively modernizing.

The growing tensions between the US and China, together with the continued tensions between the US and Russia and their Cold War-esque “spheres of influence,” do not bode well for adherence to existing international law or creation of new rules to constrain weapons or build peace. While some of the resolutions adopted at this year’s First Committee indicate majority support for new tracks of work on cyber and outer space, it’s been a while since we’ve had a pathbreaking resolution that propels states to negotiations of a treaty or to undertaking concrete action for change.

Not all states, however, accepted the hostile rhetoric of the heavily militarized countries the First Committee. Costa Rica, for example, called for a feminist approach that “challenges the archaic assumption that power competition is the right way to conduct foreign relations and ensure national security.” Feminist, cooperative, and humanitarian approaches should guide governments and others as we head into not just the NPT Review Conference but also the final Group of Governmental Experts on autonomous weapons and the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons Review Conference in December, where countries will need to decide whether or not to prevent automated death by machine, among other big questions. The first session of the new open-ended working group on cyber issues will also kick off in December, providing an opportunity for participants to set some boundaries against the proliferation of virtual violence from which we are all increasingly—and not at all virtually—suffering. Next year we should also see the conclusion of the diplomatic process for a political declaration against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, which must prioritise the prevention of humanitarian and environmental damage and destruction.

Which way these discussions and negotiations go is not inevitable. Human beings will make choices that will determine the outcomes, which will have real world impacts on our lives for generations to come. It’s time to claim power on the side of nonviolence, cooperation, justice, and peace, instead of force, dominance, inequality, and fear.

This article is based on the editorial from the First Committee Monitor, Vol. 19, No. 5. For in-depth coverage of the 2021 First Committee, see Reaching Critical Will’s website for reports, as well as statements, resolutions, and voting results.