2018 No. 4
First Committee is not typically punctuated by fist banging and outbursts of yelling, but the US government’s announcement last week of its intention to withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty has brought some serious political tensions to a head. The Committee is not immune from external realities—the recent uses of chemical weapons, ongoing military actions and occupations, political maneuverings and manipulations: all of these have an impact on what happens in Conference Room 4. But until recently, it was rare to see delegates yelling at or mocking each other brazenly in front of the world. Now, it seems to be becoming the new normal.
This concept of a new reality, incidentally, has been thrown around quite a bit recently. “A new reality” is how some diplomats have described the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). A new reality in which nuclear weapons are prohibited; in which the world has ostensibly become safer. It’s the same term the Russian delegate used to describe the “potential apocalyptic consequences” of US withdrawal from the INF Treaty. A new reality in which the former nuclear superpowers of the Cold War will rise from the ashes of the intricate networks of bilateral and multilateral agreements to control and restrain their arsenals of mass destruction to rebuild their weapons anew.
Are either of these realities new? Are either of them reality? Is the world safer because the majority of the world has outlawed weapons that their possessors are ever more desperate to retain? Is the world in more danger because the US wants to walk away, yet again, from an international instrument that constrains some of the worst of its bad behaviours?
Is it all a game? Was anyone ever really constrained? Do we have any possibility of making the world, this world, safer?
In seeking to answer these questions, an interesting point of investigation is the glimmer of unity amongst those considered powerful. The permanent five UN Security Council members, all nuclear-armed states (China, France, Russia, United States, and United Kingdom) do not seem to agree on much these days, across a range of political issues. Just on the nuclear question alone, they are clearly suspicious of each other’s motivations and intentions, condemning each other’s nuclear weapon modernisation activities, force postures, and security doctrines. In relation to other First Committee issues, these countries are also at odds on questions of cyber security and the attribution of the use of chemical weapons, among many other things. Yet the one thing they can all agree on is that an international agreement prohibiting nuclear weapons for all is a Very Bad Thing. The only thing they hate more than each other’s nuclear weapons, it seems, is the rest of the world opposing any of them having nuclear weapons.
And so the TPNW is painted as a security-destroying machination, something that will ruin “strategic stability” and the “international order”. Yet simultaneously, the P5 rip up their own arms control agreements and provoke each other to rage in diplomatic conference rooms. This, it would seem, is their contribution to “persevering security and stability in the international security environment”.
This unity is interesting in how it wreaks of hypocrisy and gaslighting. The unity is based around a common narrative in which those governments with the capacity to destroy us all are the ones who also have the best grip on stability and security for the entire world. That those who threaten to kill us—to slaughter us in nuclear holocaust, or drone strikes, or explosive weapons dropped on our towns and cities, or, perhaps soon, autonomous robots programmed to end life with an algorithm—that these folks are the ones best suited to determine how to keep us safe. The only thing they can agree on is that no one else should have a say over the “international order” they have built. Only they can destroy it, by tearing down what “they” have built in the past.
Witnessing the anger of the men in the room last week was reminiscent of witnessing the anger of US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh during his job interview. Men with power, angered by what they perceive as a challenge to this power. Men with the power to destroy the world, outraged with each other for also having this power, outraged with the countries or the women who are demanding they behave better, participate in a world constructed for all of us rather than just a few of them.
It’s not clear where the impetus for change lies in this situation, and yet hope is essential. The radical notion of hope, which Czech political dissident-turned-president Václav Havel said in 1990: “Hope is not a feeling of certainty that everything ends well. Hope is just a feeling that life and work have a meaning.”
Our work does have meaning, if it is sometimes hard to see how we can make change in this “international security environment” controlled by men with weapons of mass destruction. Nevertheless, we persist. 50 countries banned together last week to deliver a statement highlighting the devastating humanitarian harm caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and committing to address this problem through concrete action. Another group of countries, led by Canada, has sought to incorporate gender perspectives into First Committee resolutions this year, to try to tackle some of the serious gendered impacts of weapons and ensure that disarmament and arms control policies and processes account for gender norms and promote gender diversity. In this vein, the Latvian delegation, president of the next conference of states parties of the Arms Trade Treaty, announced the intention to examine gender-based violence as a priority theme in 2019. There is widespread acceptance of the relevance of disarmament for achieving sustainable development, and a rising focus on the concept of humanitarian disarmament as necessary for real security—that focused on human beings and our collective survival on this planet.
These seemingly small gestures or initiatives can seem insignificant in comparison to the gravity of the challenges we are up against. But this is precisely where their significance lies. The willingness and tenacity to keep trying to create change despite the obstacles is where hope lies and where change is achieved. Giving into the powers is not an option, for it is only in giving up that we fail. Dwelling on the words of French philosopher Albert Camus while sitting through First Committee is becoming increasingly essential: “Revolt is the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it.” Countries revolted when they adopted the TPNW; they revolved in insisting ammunition be included in international work on small arms and light weapons; and they revolt every time they come back to this room and try to make something out of the spectacle of belligerence performed by the nuclear-armed states. Our choice is continue to stand up to build new approaches for collective, human-based security, or resign ourselves to accepting the world the way the nuclear-armed keep trying to impose upon us. It’s a choice that has to be made each day anew.