Vol. 17, No. 3

Editorial: Disrupting the direction of militarism
21 October 2019

Ray Acheson 

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As general debate came to a close on Friday, many First Committee participants were privately speculating over what will transpire on Monday, steeling themselves against another potential fight to adopt the programme of work. It is not the programme itself that is controversial, but rather about whether or not to proceed with the work when representatives of certain countries are not being granted visas to enter the United States and be at the UN. During the opening days of this Committee, member states decided to conduct the general debate while UN authorities worked with the host country and affected states to find a solution to the visa issue that has disrupted work. But the remainder of the work programme needs to be adopted in order to proceed with thematic debate and the consideration of draft resolutions. It’s not clear what will happen on Monday, but it is clear that action on disarmament is desperately needed.

While the nuclear-armed states continue to posit the necessity of having the ability to incinerate cities, pretty much everyone else has either already rejected this or seem to be growing increasingly uncomfortable with the situation. Most of the states that claim “protection” from US nuclear weapons through the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation or bilateral arrangements expressed great concern with the dismantling of Cold War nuclear arms control treaties and rising threats of use of nuclear weapons. “Given the heightened tensions, we must be careful not to enter the path of a new arms race,” cautioned the Italian delegation. “Instead, we need a collective renewed commitment towards preserving international institutions and instruments, and guaranteeing their proper functioning.” The Netherlands similarly reiterated its commitment to the “fundamentals of the rules-based system” and called on all states to put forward their “strongest efforts in jointly upholding the existing nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament architecture.”

Yet these states also continue to insist on a step-by-step, or sorry, building blocks, no wait, progressive approach, ermmm…. stepping stones! approach to nuclear disarmament, which has not achieved the desired results in more than twenty years. Many of these nuclear umbrella countries also invest heavily in militarism themselves, seeking profits from the arms trade and weaponised “security” as the answer to rising tensions and threats. Several condemn the use of chemical weapons in Syria but sell weapons to Saudi Arabia so it can bomb Yemen into rubble. So what is the rules-based order they seek to protect? Is it genuinely multilateral? Does it serve the interests of human security, or a narrow definition of state-based “national security” and seemingly only applicable to some countries? If we are calling for multilateralism and the rule of law on one hand, and investing in militarism and the arms trade and supporting the possession of nuclear weapons (in select countries) on the other hand, what does that mean for disarmament?

Herein lies a key challenge, as the joint civil society statement on gender noted on Friday: militarism and violence are consistently posited as the best answers to tension or conflict in our international system. Understanding why, in the opinion of WILPF and the other organisations supporting the statement, requires examining the limitations on our thinking imposed by the sex/gender binary. This binary is dominated by heteronormativity and hegemonic notions of violent masculinity and passive femininity. It obscures the systems upon which conflict is built—it makes it difficult to see why we circle back, again and again, to violence as the answer to conflict. To the supposed necessity of weapons as the solution to insecurity.

It is exactly why France, a nuclear-armed state, ridicules even considering the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, saying that those involved in that effort are “ignorant” of the complexities of the international security environment. It’s why France also demanded states “move away from the logic of stigmatization” of nuclear weapons. France tested nuclear bombs on the populations, land, and waters of the Pacific, yet belittles the survivors of that experience and denies the validity of their perspectives on the international stage. Perspectives such as those of Samoa, which said nuclear weapons pose “needless, uncalled for, and unnecessary threats”. Or those of Senegal—a country France formerly colonised—which argues that preventing the humanitarian consequences of weapons should become principle for all disarmament initiatives.

This addiction to militarism as the solution to the problems of militarism is not unique to our sector. As Haudenosaunee author Alicia Elliott writes in her book A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, “Capitalism forever positions itself as the solution to the problem of capitalism. Colonialism forever positions itself as the solution to the problem of colonialism. As though shoveling more of what we’re currently choking on into our mouths would ever help.” Militarism, bound up in the practice of both capitalism and colonialism, is merely part of this self-reinforcing system of violence and inequality. But there are governments who reject this approach, who want to turn from the endless cycle of weapons production and war to building a different kind of security, one that actually serves people and the planet. This can be seen in the growing momentum for the entry into force of Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, to which countless states expressed their commitment throughout the general debate, and which a thirty-third country, Dominica, ratified on Friday. It can be seen in the number of states who have, here at First Committee and at the recent conference on urban conflict in Vienna, indicated their support for developing political and operational mechanisms to address the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. It can be seen in the expressions of commitment to the prohibitions on landmines and cluster munitions and the updates on stockpile destruction, land clearance, and victim assistance.

“Disarmament is a driver of security,” explained Ireland. The international security environment “is not a pretext to shirk obligations or to defer progress on disarmament. Concrete progress on disarmament creates an enabling environment, enhances security and provides a reinforcing loop to allow further progress.” This is the approach that is urgently needed in our work here at First Committee and beyond. It is the only approach that supports our collective survival in a world beset by challenges, risks, and tensions. As delegates consider the way ahead on Monday, we hope this is the perspective guiding their engagement.

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