Emma Bjertén and Ray Acheson, Reaching Critical Will
The UN General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and International Security was created from the ashes of World War II, with the goal to prevent such a tragedy from occurring again. Seventy-eight years later, member states are preparing to convene once again during multiple devastating wars and increased geopolitical tensions.
Last year’s First Committee took place less than a year after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which unsurprisingly exacerbated preexisting tensions and strains within the committee. The voting patterns on certain resolutions, and the introduction of new and increasingly divisive texts on some subjects such as outer space, cyber security, and nuclear weapons, underscored the unwillingness of the most heavily militarized governments to work together. With more explanations of vote than ever in recent memory, the committee barely even finished its work on time.
This year, the war in Ukraine will still be front-page news when member states meet in New York. Since these countries last met, the Russian government’s repeated threats to use nuclear weapons and its decision to station nuclear weapons in Belarus has put nuclear war back in the public’s eye. The deliberate increase of geopolitical tensions by the United States and some of its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, as well as by Russia and China, has been accompanied by a significant increase in military spending, which reached a new record of US$2.24 trillion in 2022. The Doomsday Clock has been forwarded to 90 seconds to midnight, the closest to global catastrophe it has ever been.
It is against this backdrop the UN secretary-general appealed to world leaders ahead of the UN General Assembly’s high-level session, noting, “This is not a time for posturing or positioning. This is not a time for indifference or indecision. This is a time to come together for real practical solutions.”
In the area of disarmament, many issues are ripe for such solutions. The 2023 First Committee Briefing Book, published recently by Reaching Critical Will (RCW), examines 18 of these issues, highlights related challenges, and offers recommendations to states for their work at the First Committee and beyond. The entries are written by the key civil society groups and coalitions working on the topics.
Challenges for the First Committee
In this year’s Briefing Book, the war in Ukraine stands out for adding new challenges to a world that was already suffering from wars, climate crises, and grave socioeconomic injustices.
For example, 2022 saw not only 140 documented drone strikes by Türkiye and the continuing use of drones by the United Kingdom and the United States in their “counter-terrorism operations,” but also a rapid increase of drone strikes against civilian targets in the war in Ukraine. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the number of people killed and injured due to new use of landmines, cluster munitions, and other explosive weapons has spiked alarmingly. Earlier this month, it was also reported that the United States will follow the United Kingdom’s previous decision to send munitions containing depleted uranium to Ukraine.
While the war in Ukraine is a humanitarian catastrophe, the cynical arms industry uses it as a platform to explore new ways of fighting war, creating even more challenges for disarmament. New technologies increasing autonomy and artificial intelligence in weapon systems are being experimented with in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the production and sale of conventional weapons continues to increase. Earlier in September, one of the world’s largest arms fairs, Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI), convened in London. With the Russian government struggling to fill arms export orders, as it is using their stockpiles in the battlefield, delegations from countries that normally would import weapons from Russia, including states with controversial human rights record, turned up at DSEI to shop for new suppliers. There is no question that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been “good for business.” Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, for example, BAE Systems’ share price has increased more than 75 percent.
Positive Developments and Recommendations for Action
However, while the Briefing Book illustrates a dark picture of the current state of global affairs, it also highlights progress and illustrates how states are capable of collaborating and moving in a positive direction towards fulfilling a common agenda. Furthermore, the publication provides 159 recommendations on what delegations can do to turn this negative trend around.
States parties to the Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), for example, have advanced the implementation of the treaty and the action plan adopted at its First Meeting of States Parties in 2022. As of September 2023, the TPNW had 69 states parties and 93 signatories. The Briefing Book also highlights how 83 states, in November last year, endorsed the Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences of the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Area, which is the first formal international recognition that the use of explosive weapons in populated areas has severe humanitarian consequences that must be urgently addressed. The political declaration considered some environmental dimensions of these weapons, even if there is more to address in this area as the states implement the declaration.
Several recommendations in the Briefing Book are reflected in the UN secretary-general’s newly launched policy brief, A New Agenda for Peace. For example, the secretary-general calls for multilateral negotiations to conclude, by 2026, a legally binding instrument to prohibit autonomous weapon systems. The First Committee will be an opportunity for delegations to promote, co-sponsor, and vote in favor of a resolution on autonomous weapons that broadens the international debate on this issue.
Another positive development identified in the Briefing Book is the increased interest in “gender and disarmament,” a topic that has gathered momentum in recent years, though most statements, working papers, and resolutions do not take a sufficiently intersectional or nonbinary approach to the impacts, diversity, or norms in relation to disarmament. Similarly, recent years have seen new initiatives related to youth and disarmament education. The recognition of the important role of youth, not least young people’s engagement in climate action, shows that awareness is growing about how the topics addressed in the First Committee connect to each other. Last year, the General Assembly also took note of the International Law Commission’s 27 Principles on the Protection of the Environment in Relation to Armed Conflicts (PERAC). The PERAC Principles provide guidance on state responsibility for internationally wrongful acts and define principles that can help protect the environment in situations of occupation and before, during, and after armed conflicts.
As the relationship between militarism, economic inequality, and social injustice has been a recurring theme since the foundation of the United Nations, the Briefing Book also addresses the growing critique of how growth and development have been measured. The degrowth movement has brought increased attention to human flourishing and ecological stability rather than the growth of GDP, arguing that some sectors, such as public healthcare or regenerative agriculture, need to grow to ensure human well-being, while other sectors, such as fossil fuels and arms industries, should radically shrink. This perspective will be important for delegations to consider during the First Committee, as the current geopolitical tensions with record-high military spending and increased investments in the modernization of nuclear weapons once again raises the question if the arms race really makes the world safer. As the UN secretary-general urges in A New Agenda for Peace, “Member States should commit to reducing the human cost of weapons by moving away from overly securitized and militarized approaches to peace, reducing military spending and enacting measures to foster human-centered disarmament.”
The First Committee is an opportunity for delegations not to simply represent narrow national interests articulated by those within their systems that profit from war, but to work for collaborative approaches to peace and security. Civil society organizations and coalitions most actively engaged at the First Committee have consistently argued that we can and must replace watered-down outcomes with real results that advance human security and socioeconomic justice. To consider and address the 159 recommendations presented in the Briefing Book is one way for delegations to do so.
Throughout the First Committee, Reaching Critical Will publishes weekly analysis on the discussions and development of the First Committee. To stay up to date, subscribe to receive the First Committee Monitor by email.