10 October 2011 - First Edition

Editorial: Disarmament is the responsibility of the General Assembly
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF

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First Committee is facing its greatest opportunity—and its greatest challenge—in many, many years. Right now, in October 2011, it has a real, concrete opportunity to revitalize multilateral disarmament negotiations. To initiate real substantive work, for the first time on the four core issues on the CD’s agenda (nuclear disarmament, negative security assurances (NSAs), prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS), and fissile materials).

During the past fifteen years of deadlock in the Conference on Disarmament (CD), countless diplomats have come and gone. Their farewell statements are typically full of laments and frustration. They have invested incredible efforts in the CD, employing all their skills of practical diplomacy to overcome the challenges of the stalemate. But their efforts have been fruitless as the rule of consensus has solidified into a veto, used exclusively by those states that possess nuclear weapons in order to prevent any multilateral initiatives from affecting their arsenals of mass destruction.

Surely many of these diplomats would be thrilled to be in First Committee this year, to have the best opportunity in years—and the only one likely for the foreseeable future—to set up a viable plan of action for commencing multilateral negotiations.

In the meantime, non-CD member states and civil society actors have watched with concern, then disbelief, and now utter frustration, as the so-called so “sole multilateral disarmament negotiating body” has lost all credibility as a functioning forum for the international community to pursue and achieve agreements to enhance collective and human security.

It is time—past time—for action that will result in tangible progress on the items on the CD’s agenda. The draft resolution proposed by Austria, Mexico, and Norway, which would establish open ended working groups in Geneva on the four core issues in 2012 if the CD does not adopt a programme of work, is the best option for moving forward at this time. The proposal would establish a working group on nuclear disarmament, which includes action on nuclear disarmament and the achievement of a world without nuclear weapons; NSAs; and a fissile materials treaty, and a second working group on PAROS. The working groups would conduct their work in Geneva making use of existing and currently underused resources and infrastructure. They would only be established if the CD does not adopt a programme of work in the first part of its 2012 session.

In the final document of the first special session of the General Assembly devoted to disarmament, member states agreed that “The United Nations, in accordance with the Charter, has a central role and primary responsibility in the sphere of disarmament.” If the CD cannot adopt a programme of work, then the General Assembly must exercise that responsibility and establish a mechanism to begin substantive work on the CD’s issues. This would benefit the majority of the people and governments of the world (who, as Ambassador Anne Anderson of Ireland said at the July UNGA plenary on the CD, “depend on the rule of law and international treaties to ensure their security”) over the few states that seek to maintain the status quo quagmire in order to retain their tools of destructive violence.

The stalemate in the CD privileges the interests of each of those states that possess nuclear weapons, the ones that do not want to disarm, that do not want to stop producing fissile materials, and that want to preserve the possibility of putting weapons in space. The current stalemate therefore only furthers the interests of the nuclear weapons enterprises and their all-to-frequently associated corporate boosters. Continued stalemate only undermines the security of the majority—both governments and peoples—that must rely on the rule of law rather than the balance of terror to protect them. As Thailand’s Ambassador Srivali said last week, “Strengthened security for one nation should not come at the expense of all others.”

Some countries argue that the problem with the CD is not procedural but political. They’re not wrong. In the past, even during the darkest days of the Cold War, the CD has managed to negotiate international disarmament and arms control treaties, with the same working methods it operates under today. Furthermore, all nuclear weapon-possessors are currently undertaking or planning extensive modernization programmes for their nuclear weapon arsenals, delivery systems, and related facilities, in spite of the budgetary constraints on other areas of domestic spending imposed by the global financial crisis. These real commitments to nuclear weapons will only further entrench the powerful interests that make genuine political will for disarmament so hard to achieve.

However, creativity and new strategic approaches are not just required from those states that are blocking negotiations from beginning on nuclear disarmament, PAROS, NSAs, fissile materials. Political will, unity of purposes, and strategic thinking is required from all of those states that say they are in favour of disarmament, of PAROS, of NSAs, and of stopping the production of fissile materials. Every government that wants to establish a ban on nuclear weapons, a ban on fissile materials, and/or a ban on space weapons, must support concrete action to begin negotiations.

Returning to work would also help generate political will. As Ambassador Alexander Kmentt of Austria said in July, “by starting to address the issues that have been stuck on the CD agenda for all these years,” states that are resistant to engage can be encouraged to join in by the reality of the international community moving along without them. This has been seen in other negotiation process and with treaty ratifications.

Establishing the mechanism proposed in the draft resolution before First Committee to commence substantive work on these issues is in the best interest of the vast majority of states. It will prevent the establishment of ad hoc, exclusive arrangements set up by the few to dictate to the many. It will obviate the establishment of informal and ultimately redundant talk-shops when what is needed is negotiation.

Starting substantive work on these issues will also, as indicated above, disrupt the status quo of increasing militarism as the answer to global challenges, of increased investment in military-industrial complexes. These trends are rightly criticized by many delegations, but many of these same delegations do not support initiatives to get the CD back to work. By allowing the CD to continue to languish, these trends are permitted to continue and become entrenched. Without multilateral development of the rule of law on disarmament and arms control, the nuclear weapon possessors and other major arms producers will continue to pour massive funds into weapons and war while poverty and inequality increase throughout the world. The militaries and weapons industries will continue to consume the resources that could otherwise be spent on developing viable mechanisms for collective security and socioeconomic development.

Furthermore, the vast sums spent keeping the CD in operation each year must be taken into account—the cost of the venue, the Secretariat, the documents, the diplomatic salaries, etc. After fifteen years without substantive work, this waste of resources is completely unjustifiable. Governments concerned with economic justice should consider how these funds could otherwise be spent—perhaps on the UN regular budget, on viable fora such as the arms trade treaty negotiations process, or on implementation of disarmament and arms control programmes.

It appears that many delegations are ready to take a bold step forward at this year’s First Committee, to establish a mechanism that will ensure substantive work begins early in 2012. Those of us in civil society who are advocates for disarmament, arms control, and collective security encourage all delegates here in New York and in decision-makers in capitals to decide to take the path that leads concretely to substantive work on the issues we all care about.


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