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2016 No. 3

Editorial: First Committee fairy tales and a measure of reason
17 October 2016


Ray Acheson

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“No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal,” says the character Squealer in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. “He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?”

Conference Room 4 at the United Nations has never felt more like the dystopian world depicted in Orwell’s novella than it did last week. When the representatives of most of the nuclear-armed states take the floor to assert that the rest of the delegations in the room are delusional; that their security interests do not matter or, as the UK ambassador suggested, do not exist; and that the initiatives they support are illegitimate, one cannot help but think about the fictional farm on which “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

The self-described “nuclear powers” and some of their allies have tried to establish themselves as the authority on legitimacy and realism. They have berated the vast majority of states for supporting the negotiation of a legally binding treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons, ridiculing their perspectives on peace and security and accusing them of threatening the world order and risking total chaos. They have sought, in an increasingly belligerent way, to stake their claim to truth and power, rather than allowing truth to be spoken to power.

In doing so, however, they have more clearly than ever exposed themselves as violators of international law and defenders of nuclear weapons.

Their insistence upon the “necessity” of nuclear weapons as essential for (their) security is an incitement of proliferation. Their boasting about parliamentary decisions to renew their country’s commitment to maintaining and modernising nuclear weapons is a violation of their legal obligation under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to pursue and conclude multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations.

Even putting aside their decades-long failure to implement or advance effective measures for nuclear disarmament, their intransigence in the face of this new movement to ban nuclear weapons is revealing of their true level of commitment to the achievement of a nuclear weapon free world.

Their hypocrisy has likewise never been deeper or more insidious. Words like consensus and inclusivity have become shadows, containing no real meaning anymore in the context of multilateral disarmament diplomacy.

The nuclear-armed and nuclear-supportive states insist that any process dealing with nuclear weapons must be governed by the rule of consensus, interpreted (by them) as unanimity. But it seems this is only relevant to processes they do not want, whereas initiatives they do support are not subject to the same rule. For example, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1996 and the Arms Trade Treaty in 2013 were both voted upon after it became clear that reaching a unanimous agreement was impossible and the objections of the “blocker” were deemed unimportant or insignificant in the calculation of geostrategic power.

Similarly, the states wanting to retain nuclear weapons demand that processes must be “inclusive”. Apparently it is not enough to have a process that is open to all states for equal participation. A process does not seem to be considered inclusive unless every single state (at least, those of “relevance,” i.e. those with nuclear weapons) participates. But this too is apparently only necessary for those processes not supported by these states, because their own initiatives are often extremely limited and exclusive. The new resolution put forward by Canada on a fissile material cut-off treaty reportedly sets up a process open only to 25 states. The Nuclear Security Summits organised by the United States have been open only to 53 states.

The idea that some states are more equal than others seems to have taken firm hold in these contexts. But the UN General Assembly, founded on the basis of the equality of all states, must reject this approach. The vast majority of states have a different vision of collective security and sustainable peace than the minority that value nuclear weapons and take pride in wielding the threat of inflict massive nuclear violence. “Some countries measure their power in counting the number of weapons they hold. Others are left with counting the victims of these weapons,” noted the representative of the State of Palestine last week. “It is time to substitute the balance of fear and the arms race it entails, with a measure of reason, which can save us all.”

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