2018 No. 6

Editorial: Standing firm for the rules of law and humanitarian disarmament
11 November 2018

Ray Acheson

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Today marks 100 years since the armistice of the First World War. A devastating conflict that, as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) said in 1915, marked a “reckless sacrifice of human life and the destruction of so much that humanity has laboured through centuries to build up.” Since then, the world has seen many wars and much more bloodshed, and many, many more weapons.

More than a hundred years ago the women of WILPF articulated a plan for disarmament, the development of international institutions, and women’s enfranchisement, among other things, as a path for the prevention of war. Much of this project has been taken up by governments, and yet we are today faced with growing military expenditure, the dominance of foreign policy by the arms industry, and global inequalities amongst people and states. The UN’s work on disarmament, after a trying five-week session of First Committee, seems fraught at best and headed towards a downward spiral at worst. The international system to regulate or control weapons and war appears to be being actively dismantled by the very states that created it. 

The arms control and disarmament agreements put in place over the last century are at risk. It’s not just about the United States announcing its intention to withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or deciding to walk away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. The rot goes further. The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty continues to face a crisis of credibility with the nuclear-armed states still refusing to eliminate their nuclear arsenals nearly fifty years after the Treaty’s entry into force. The Chemical Weapons Convention is under strain as these abhorrent weapons are used in Syria and other locations while states parties to the Convention remain at odds over how to deal with ongoing impunity. Meanwhile, attempts to prevent the weaponisation of autonomous technologies and artificial intelligence, as well as of cyber space and outer space, are stymied by the most military advanced countries. These countries appear to seek dominance in all possible realms of warfare, regardless of the catastrophic impact this has on human life, rights, and dignity, the environment, and international security.

On the final day of the Committee’s work, the Egyptian delegation noted in frustration that we seem to be going in circles on several disarmament issues. Speaking to the fight between the United States and Russia over their competing cyber resolutions, Egypt noted that progress for achieving a reliable regime establishing agreed rules and norms on this issue has been stalled for more than a decade. Five groups of governmental experts have been convened and some have put forward valuable recommendations, yet efforts are not being made to utilise them to create binding rules. This is similar to the situation on autonomous weapons, where multiple meetings have been convened over years to discuss the best ways forward, and yet the most that those governments driven by militarism are willing to commit to is more talks. As the UN Secretary-General said last week in Lisbon, “machines that have the power and the discretion to take human lives are politically unacceptable, are morally repugnant, and should be banned by international law.” The majority of countries are ready to negotiate a new instrument, yet the road is currently blocked by a handful of countries that are, as WILPF warned, accruing private profits from the development of armaments.

Yet in listening to the delegations whose positions are invested in militarism, one might think the rest of the world is tragically hindering them from bringing us all the much-vaunted ideal of “international strategic stability”. This round of First Committee was a masterclass in victim blaming, gaslighting, and power politics, as governments possessing weapons of mass destruction engaged each other in diplomatic (or not so diplomatic) combat. Accusations, assertions, and demands amongst these countries replaced dialogue and negotiation in Conference Room 4. The only thing they came together on was their disdain for any attempts by the rest of the international community to try to sustain a rules based international order in which the use of force and the development and trade in weapons are regulated, controlled, prohibited, or abolished.

So what can the rest of the so-called international community do amidst all of this? We can return to the call of WILPF from 1915. We can return to the UN Charter. We can set out to do what those ensnarled in the profits and pains of militarism refuse to do. We can build an international order that provides security for all. We can pursue disarmament, by creating or rebuilding or maintaining institutions, laws, and norms against weapons of mass destruction and other indiscriminate weapons that cause humanitarian harm; against the increasing automation of violence through killer robots and drones; against conflict, repression, and violence in cyber space and outer space; against the use of explosive weapons in populate areas; against the rampant war profiteering from arms trading and illicit trafficking.

Disarmament is a crucial part of the path to preventing war. WILPF knew it in 1915 and we know it now. We have seen enough bloodshed. We know where weapons take us. We need instead to bolster the norms, tools, and techniques of peace and nonviolence. And we need to work together. As a handful of countries seek to dominate and destroy, it’s up to the rest of us to build something new. “As 21st-century challenges threaten to outpace 20th-century institutions and mindsets,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres at the Security Council on Friday, “let us reaffirm the ideals of collective action while pursuing a new generation of approaches and architecture capable of responding.”    

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