2017 No. 5

Editorial: United action?
30 October 2017

Allison Pytlak

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First Committee seems particularly fractious this year, influenced by events in the conference room but also by events in other conference rooms, and of course, in the real world. Inherently different perspectives and approaches to multilateralism divide states, as they always have, but those who wield the most military might out in the world seem even more fortified in their positions on many issues.

Over the past week such differences manifested in increasingly vitriolic exchanges during rights of reply, notably during the cluster on regional disarmament, and in explanations of vote for the nuclear cluster. The rejection of nuclear weapons by the vast majority of countries through the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) is putting nuclear-armed states and their allies the defensive—but also the offensive. It is forcing a long overdue conversation about what constitutes security in the eyes of the majority and an examination about how effectively the instruments we’ve developed can bring about that security. Not surprisingly, nuclear-armed states are lashing back by refusing to acknowledge any reference to the TPNW in any resolution and re-affirming support for a nonsensical approach to nuclear disarmament that purports to somehow be both progressive and step-by-step. This dynamic was a factor in the controversy around resolution L.35, sparking an unusually high number of explanations of vote from a diversity of states. This is outlined in greater detail on this week’s article on nuclear weapons.

Albeit to a lesser extent, divisions in perspectives on security are also what prevented the most recent Group of Governmental Experts on Information and Communications Technology to agree a consensus report at the end of their deliberations in June, as the Committee heard last week during the “other issues” cluster. In his informal report, the chair of the group stated that by highlighting remaining differences “we do ourselves no favour to paper over divisions”.

Other UN-system events relate to First Committee dynamics. The Russian Federation’s veto on a draft Security Council resolution last week that would have extended the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) of the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in Syria has direct implications for the treatment of this issue in First Committee. The veto takes place in a Council context that is already heavily divided on this issue, in which diplomats are not mincing words or hesitating to stymie action. It would not be surprising to see this reflected in explanations of vote or general statements during voting on the Other WMD cluster.

More positively, one issue that may be bringing some states together is the consideration of gender perspectives in disarmament. On Thursday, Canada delivered a cross-regional statement on behalf of 42 other countries focused exclusively on women’s participation in disarmament machinery, the first time that this subject has ever received such significant attention during that cluster (or any other). The statement advocates the inclusion of gender perspectives in all disarmament instruments and supporters commit to work toward balanced representation of men and women in the disarmament machinery, and make gender perspectives an “everyday part of its discussions and documents, so that, what started as a norm, becomes just—the normal.”

Acknowledging the gendered impacts of many weapon types and increasing women’s participation at a leadership level is a subject being referenced by a widening group of states and across more disarmament and security issues—but the challenge for states is to implement their words. “Imbalance at First Committee is evident, delegations need only take a look around this room to see this for themselves,” noted the representative of Ireland. We’ve still a long way to go.

Yet, where to go to? There have been wider divisions before, and there is much common ground. But the way forward cannot look like the landscape of the past. If we want genuinely united action on any part of the disarmament agenda, it will have to take into account shifting attitudes, new evidence, and new realities of the world in which we’re operating.

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