Vol. 17, No. 2
“No, YOU’RE the bully!” is probably not what most people entering the United Nations would expect to hear in an official meeting. Not unless those people had spent the last few years participating in the UN’s disarmament machinery. Here, it has become fairly typical—though some might credibly argue that it is getting worse. For having only two days of substantive work last week, First Committee has already seen a lot of fire. Three of the nuclear-armed states have gone for each other’s jugulars, so to speak, while almost every other delegation participating so far has expressed alarm about the new arms race, rising tensions, rising military spending, and weakening arms control architecture. All of this is transpiring while people are on the streets of major cities around the world engaged in nonviolent direct action to demand governments declare a climate and ecological emergency, halt biodiversity loss, and cut greenhouse gas emissions. All of this transpiring while people living in conflict and violence around the world watch their lives, homes, and communities be destroyed by war profiteering and geopolitical war mongering.
So yeah, someone is a bully. Multiple someone’s. We know who they are. But we don’t come to the United Nations to call someone a bully. We come to talk, to work it out, to find another way to live together without killing each other. To build community, not burn it down.
But the United States seems intent to burn it all down. It has walked away from multiple multilateral and bilateral arms control and non-proliferation arrangements over the past few years. First Committee was stalled for two days last week because the US government apparently denied visas to the diplomats from certain countries, causing Russia and Iran to ask for the work of the Committee to be postponed on the basis that this is discrimination and manipulation of countries’ participation in the United Nations. Then, when work finally got underway after an agreement was reached to hold the general debate while efforts are made to resolve the visa issue, the United States issued a statement blasting Russia and China as “autocratic powers … determined to undermine the liberal democratic order established in the wake of the Second World War and upon which the United Nations was founded.” The US delegation called on all UN member states “from every region of the world that value the democratic way of life and share a sincere interest in further progress on disarmament” to “demand that Russia and China join the United States at the negotiating table in good faith, to initiate a new era of arms control for the sake of international peace and security.”
In turn, China said the US remarks were “replete with jaundiced ideological bias and anachronistic sentiments.” It said the international community “bears collective witness to the US perversities in international affairs, in defiance of norms and reason.” Russia, meanwhile, said it and China are on their “best behaviour,” in full compliance with international law and norms, while the world witnesses the United States “deliberately dismantling the system of arms control agreements developed for decades, that it now believes to be unacceptably limiting in terms of its capabilities to project and use force.”
The space allowed for this editorial does not permit a thorough accounting of the ways in which all of these statements are direly hypocritical when applied against these governments’ own behaviour. What’s important for First Committee and for disarmament is the fundamental problem that these statements illuminate. It’s something the Prime Minister of Malaysia touched upon in his remarks to the UN General Assembly last month: “Almost three quarters of a century ago five countries claimed victory in the Second World War, he said. “On the basis of that victory they insisted on the right practically to rule the world. And so, they gave themselves veto powers over the rest of the world in the organisation they built—an organisation they claim would end wars in the solution of conflicts.” That veto power allows each of them to “negate the wishes of the nearly 200 other members. It is totally and absolutely undemocratic. Yet, there are among them those who berate other countries of the world for not being democratic or being not democratic enough.” Furthermore, “that very power has resulted in an arms race. Each one of the five rely on their military might in order to challenge any attempt to take their power away.” The Malaysian Prime Minister identified this as the key structural impediment that renders the United Nations “incapable of achieving its principle objectives—that of preventing wars between nations. Indeed, the structure enabled the promotion of war within countries and between countries.”
This is a problem felt very acutely in the Committee that deals with disarmament and international security. The system is set up for the benefit of the five permanent members of the Security Council, and now they are destroying many pieces of that system, accusing each other of lighting the fire while they all throw on the fuel. We can see it everywhere in the disarmament machinery, a system in which militarism and might make right, where those who spend the most on weapons get to have the biggest say in how our world is ordered and who benefits from it. It’s why some governments express outrage about the use of chemical weapons, saying, as the European Union did, that “we must ensure accountability and end impunity,” or, as Germany did, “that we must enforce the rules we’ve set for ourselves,” but at the same time defend the “necessity” of certain states possessing even more horrific weapons of mass destruction. It’s why the major arms producing and exporting states parties of the Arms Trade Treaty scold developing countries for failing to meet their financial obligations to the Treaty while profiting wildly off the blood their weapons spill in countries around the world. It’s why some states bomb towns and cities, violating international humanitarian law and human rights, devastating civilians lives and homes and hospitals, and then claim they are acting in the interests of preserving “security and stability” or acting against imperialism or terrorism.
We see this dynamic again and again and again. It is a constant in the disarmament field, disrupted only when other states band together with activists and international organisations to throw off the shackles of despair and take real action. This is how landmines, cluster bombs, and nuclear weapons were prohibited. It is how we can create new structures and systems for disarmament that do not privilege those with weapons over those without.
If the United States wants to draw a line between disarmament and democracy, great. Let’s eliminate the veto power of the UN Security Council. Let’s allow voting in all of the UN disarmament machinery and end the Kafkaesque insistence on absolute consensus that allows a single state to prevent work from even beginning. Let’s hear from survivors of gun violence, of drone strikes, of explosive weapons, chemical weapons, nuclear weapons—let’s allow them to take a seat at this table. Let’s all meet to discuss a new era for disarmament. Let’s use First Committee to do it—we’re already here in the most democratic body of the United Nations. It would certainly be a better use of time and resources than calling each other bullies, delaying action, deferring responsibility, and deflecting blame. The nuclear-armed states can go do that on their own time. The rest of us have work to do.