2017 No. 4

Editorial: Sanctimony and smokescreens
23 October 2017

Allison Pytlak

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Sarin gas. Explosives. Ammunition. Small arms and light weapons. During the third week of the First Committee, delegates addressed all of these highly diverse weapon types. They are similar in their ghastly and inhumane effects, but what was also similar across thematic clusters was a lot of double speak from member states. Among other things, some states continue to juxtapose the “dangerous” possibility of non-state actors acquiring and using weapons with the right of “responsible” states to possess them.

This is nothing short of hypocritical. Weapons are, by design, tools of death and destruction no matter whose hands they are in. The notion that there are some actors in the international community that can be “trusted” to possess or “responsibly use” weapons is undermined by countless examples of state-sponsored armed violence. It also plays to dangerous double standards among and between states such, as we’ve seen for decades in the context of nuclear weapon possession.

Let’s begin with other weapons of mass destruction (WMD). At least half of the countries that spoke in this cluster expressed worry about non-state actors, usually referred to as terrorists, obtaining biological or chemical weapons. The presumed logic is that such actors are difficult to control, more likely to deploy these weapons, and nearly impossible to punish. Yet, would the use of chemical or biological weapons by a state really cause less, or a different type of harm than if deployed by a non-state actor? The people who died in Halabja or in the Idlib province of Syria were no less precious or innocent that those who were lost when a doomsday cult distributed sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system over 20 years ago.

A parallel double standard is also emerging in the growing interest from states to address improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Undoubtedly such devices are a problem. They are, however, prohibited by the Ottawa Convention on Anti-personnel Landmines, which includes victim-activated IEDs. The Convention applies to any device that explodes due to the presence, proximity, or contact of a person, even when it is made from improvised materials. Yet some states seem eager to pursue a separate tract of work against IEDs exclusively in the hands of non-state actors, while state actors remain outside of the Convention. Efforts against these horrific weapons need to focus on all use, not particular users.

Some states assert that they are responsible while their neighbours are dangerous, which apparently justifies the use of weapons against civilians or the trade of weapons to be used against civilians elsewhere. Israel stated that arms should only be in the “hands of responsible states,” highlighting itself as such as a state—but this overlooks the country’s use of weapons against civilians or its exports to contexts of concern, such as war-torn South Sudan and Myanmar in the midst of the Rohingya crisis. Meanwhile other countries in the region, such as Syria, Iraq, and Yemen are engulfed in conflicts where civilians are dying or fleeing en masse both from state and non-state armed violence, with weapons provided by predominantly by Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is likewise experiencing double standards in its implementation. There is ample evidence that states parties such as the United Kingdom and France, and signatories like the United States, are continuing to authorise arms transfers to recipients that should raise red flags per their ATT (as well as regional and national) obligations. The most well known example is transfers to Saudi Arabia that are being used to destroy Yemen and to oppress civilians domestically. Canada, which said that it is in the process of preparing to accede to the ATT, has provided Saudi Arabia with armoured vehicles that were used to suppress riots in the country’s Eastern Province as recently as a year ago. It’s not a good sign that these violations are occurring, particularly only a few years after the ATT entered into force. It sends the message that it is acceptable for some states to break the rules. It plays into criticisms being leveled by other states, such as Ecuador, which noted in its statement that the ATT is politicised and used as a political tool. France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, all of which are transferring weapons to Saudi Arabia, declined to comment on this in their conventional weapons statements.

This is not say that pushing back against hypocrisy is to advocate for non-state actors obtaining weapons, or that use by any actor is more acceptable than any other. But if states want to talk about responsibility and weapons, they need to look at their own responsibilities as well, and face up to shortcomings. The weapons that were illegally trafficked out of Libya and are being used by non-state actors to wreak havoc in Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, and elsewhere had their origins as military aid and state supply. Most explosive weapons are held by state militaries; their use in populated areas is one for national governments to take up. The over-emphasis on the actions of non-state actors is a smokescreen and a distraction.

And when it comes to nuclear weapons, the tiny handful of states have decided they have the right to threaten the world with annihilation need to get serious. This small minority of states assert themselves as responsible enough to possess nuclear weapons—even though there is clear disagreement among that group over who should actually possess the weapons, and obvious dissent from the majority of the world that no one should possess them. The handful of states possessing nuclear weapons demands that the rest of the world “create conditions” for them to disarm by “strengthening the security environment,” when they are the only ones that have the power to exterminate us all. Japan’s revised resolution on nuclear disarmament feeds into this paradigm of hypocrisy (see the “nuclear weapons” on page 3 for details), but the problem is engrained across the spectrum of weapons issues discussed at First Committee, indicating that perhaps it’s time for “united action” against double speak at the UN.

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