2017 No. 1 | Preview Edition
Editorial: Messages of mass destruction
2 October 2017
It’s not every day that a head of state threatens nuclear war at the United Nations.
Actually, it’s never happened before.
The podium at the UN General Assembly opening high-level session is, in fact, more commonly used to offer impassioned pleas for cooperation and common sense, or, at worst, to spout hypocritical hyperbole about the awesomeness of one’s governance. It is not used as a soapbox for a declaration of war.
Thus Donald Trump’s threat to destroy the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) on 19 September was a shock, even though it follows some outrageous pronouncements and not-so-veiled threats on Twitter.
“Sovereignty is not a sword, but a shield,” said the deputy prime minister of the small island state of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines a few days later. “The United Nations is not a forum for measuring whose sovereignty is bigger, or whose military is better equipped to pursue their narrow, short-term, self-interest. We are a community founded instead on the assumption of sovereign equality of all states; rich and poor, large and small. One nation’s ability to destroy another does not imbue it with special rights, but rather profound responsibilities, chief among those being restraint. President Roosevelt's realpolitik adage of speaking softly while carrying a big stick—whatever its limitations—cannot be replaced with irresponsibly bellicose sabre-rattling that inches us closer to the types of conflict that this Assembly was created to prevent.”
But ever since January of this year, things that don’t usually happen or are not supposed to happen have definitely been happening, and this is only the latest in a long string of events that don’t make any sense and that put most, if not all of us in danger.
This time though it’s about nuclear war and that’s about as far as we can go a species. Perhaps the invention of nuclear weapons spelled the end for us, but those of us working for the prohibition and elimination of these genocidal, suicidal weapons of mass destruction like to think we still have a chance.
That’s why we negotiated a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. It’s why over 50 states have already signed it, and why more are joining every day. It’s why 122 governments demonstrated moral courage to stand up to intense pressure from the nuclear-armed states to declare that nuclear weapons are unacceptable and must be outlawed.
It was the best we could do under the circumstances. The circumstances being that nine countries seem to think it’s a grand idea to have about 15,000 weapons that they (sort of but not really) swear they’ll never use. They’ve determined that they’d rather put the whole world into a Reservoir Dogs-like scenario, but one in which all of humanity is put at risk of extinction, rather than calmly and collaboratively pursuing a different approach, e.g. a world in which no one has these weapons anymore.
This approach is treated as naive, unrealistic, and even irrational. But if you listen to the countries that have experienced the horrors of nuclear testing, they’re telling us that there is no other way. Incidentally, many of these are the same countries facing decimation now from climate change. Small islands in the Pacific may not survive the rest of this century because of rising sea levels. But they’ll have even less of a chance if someone starts dropping nuclear bombs over the Pacific—a threat made callously by the DPRK government in response to US warmongering rhetoric. Samoa’s prime minister said that his country “cannot help but watch with trepidation and uneasiness the global dynamics nudging our world perilously close to a potential catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.” Together with its neighbours, Samoa appealed “for visionary leadership with sound moral judgment on both sides to ensure we give ‘peace a chance’.”
There were many appeals for dialogue over disaster during the general debate in relation to the tensions between DPRK and the United States, and also a good deal of support for the nuclear prohibition treaty. Yet overall, attention to nuclear weapons was diminished from last year, and other disarmament-related issues were almost entirely off the radar. There were some condemnations of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, a few references to the civilian harms caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (or at least, head nods towards an understanding that targeting civilians in conflict is not acceptable), and a few remarks about the consequences of illegal arms trafficking. That was about it. There was not a single reference to landmines or cluster munitions, which are also banned under international law but have been used in recent conflicts to devastating humanitarian effect. There was only one reference to incendiary weapons, ironically by the Syrian delegate accusing the US-led “international coalition” of using white phosphorous whilst renouncing any claims that it has used any banned weapons itself.
“Civilians–not soldiers–are paying the highest price” of today’s conflicts, noted the General Assembly President. “Schools and hospitals—not military barracks—are the targets of attacks.” This is true—yet very few governments have taken any action to prevent horrific humanitarian harms, violations of international humanitarian law, or human rights abuses. Many states that have recently declared, “civilians are not a target” are in fact fueling the deaths of civilians through arms sales or bombardment of towns and cities.
The hypocrisy is not lost on most of the world. We are witnessing our planet change catastrophically from our historic failure to protect our environment whilst we bomb parts of it relentlessly in the name of achieving peace and stability.
In his address to the General Assembly, Jordan’s Crown Prince pointed out the failures of the international community and the message it sends to youth. “What does it say about our common humanity, when last year alone the world spent close to 1.7 trillion dollars on arms, but fell short by less than 1.7 billion in fulfilling the UN appeal to support Syrian refugees and host communities in countries like Jordan?” he asked other delegates. “What does it say when trillions are spent waging wars in our region, but little to take our region to safer shores? There are no good answers. The sad reality is that war economies are thriving to the benefit of a few, while real economies are suffering to the detriment of all.” The message, he said, is loud and clear: “there is no shortage of money for fighting evil, but the appetite for rewarding virtue is nearly non-existent; that the voice of those who defend and build is drowned out by those who attack and destroy.”
This must not be the message sent from the United Nations. And those who do send this message through their actions must be confronted and challenged with alternatives for peace, dialogue, cooperation, and collaboration. The stakes are too high to let this stand.
What message will governments send from First Committee this year?