Vol. 17, No. 4
Liar, liar people on fire
28 October 2019
With two and a half days lost to debates over visa restrictions imposed by the UN host country against certain delegations, the First Committee bureau was compelled to impose strict time limits on statements during the third week of work. Delegates raced through the thematic debates on nuclear weapons, other weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and conventional weapons, but were still able to paint a starkly clear picture of the key challenges that weapons pose for human security—and of the demarcations between those governments who seek to end, mitigate, or ignore these challenges.
During the nuclear weapon debate, we saw the nuclear-armed states defend the “necessity” of their arsenals. The United Kingdom, for example, argued that its “independent nuclear deterrent remains essential to our security today, and will do for as long as the global security situation demands.” It, along with the United States, France, Israel, and the Czech Republic rejected the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Most nuclear-supportive countries, which include nuclear weapons in their collective security policy, did not refer to the Treaty directly, though most reiterated their commitment to the “step-by-step” approach to nuclear disarmament as a tacit dismissal of the TPNW. Finland, for example, said that “achieving nuclear zero requires serious negotiations” and that it “supports serious endeavours in nuclear disarmament.”
Meanwhile the vast majority of other states participating in the debate emphasised their alarm about the serious catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences of nuclear weapons. “Nuclear weapons by their very existence pose a potent threat and subject the world to needless fear and anxiety,” said Samoa, which has suffered “the emotional scars of terror and mistrust from real-life experiences of nuclear testing.” Recognising that the continued existence of nuclear weapons is fueled by the desire of certain states “to achieve a competitive edge over others at whatever cost,” Samoa pointed out how this has undermined united global action on climate change, peace, and prosperity. The Caribbean Community similarly said its fears about nuclear weapons are increasing due to “the obvious trend towards abandoning longstanding principles that have guided the international community's approach to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.” Switzerland reiterated its similar concern and appealed for the preservation of the rules-based nuclear order. “Precisely when the situation is demanding, the stakes rise for arms control, and we must together standup against a new and dangerous arms race,” said the Swiss representative.
This divide between those who seek to collective well-being of people and planet and those who seek to gain or preserve a sense of military might was also clear during the debates about other WMD and conventional weapons. Virtually all participating states condemned the recent uses of chemical weapons as an abrogation of a vital international norm, as immoral, repugnant, and unacceptable. The majority supported the work of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in investigating this use and identifying perpetrators in order to hold them accountable. Yet a handful of states insist this process has been politicised and that the OPCW should not engage in these types of activities. While assessing the activities and findings of the OPCW or other mechanisms is well beyond the scope of this publication, the key point here is the problematic double standards employed on all sides: many of those governments insisting on accountability for chemical weapon use defend the possession, threat of use, and, based on security doctrines, the use of nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, some of those governments complaining about investigation and attribution simultaneously insist on such accountability from the nuclear-armed states.
Meanwhile, the use of explosive weapons in populated areas has been shown time and again to primarily result in civilian death and injury and the destruction of homes, schools, hospitals, and markets. Ireland delivered a statement on behalf of 71 governments expressing grave concern with the “humanitarian impact resulting from the way active hostilities are conducted in populated areas and in particular by the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects.” These states called for full compliance with international humanitarian law and argued that such compliance could be strengthened through the development of a political declaration and other measures. On the other hand, the US delegation argued that efforts “to ban or stigmatize the use of explosive weapons is impractical and counterproductive,” arguing that it could “encourage bad actors to use human shields and to hide in urban areas.”
Stopping the use of explosive weapons in populated areas is not about letting “bad actors” get away with something. The illegal actions of some parties to conflict cannot justify illegal actions by others. But there are profits to be made from allowing the continued use of explosive weapons in populated areas: arms producers and exporters gain financially from supplying and resupplying those that are bombing and shelling towns and cities with bombs and other heavy weapons and munitions. The motivations of those seeking to prevent humanitarian crises and those seeking to profit from them comes further into view.
Not surprisingly, the division between those who seek profits from weapons and war and those who seek to prioritise the protection of human beings was clear also in discussions about the development of new technologies of violence. In regards to fully autonomous weapons, for example, Poland argued that the application of artificial intelligence to weapons is inevitable, while the US argued this will “improve” protection of civilians. Russia said no regulation of this type of weapon is necessary and that “humanitarian issues” should not lead to the imposition of restrictions. On the other hand, other countries such as Austria and Kazakhstan argued that the weaponisation of artificial intelligence poses dangerous risks and challenges. Austria articulated the position of many governments in arguing, “It is a legal, ethical and moral imperative that humans must remain in control of armed conflict and the weapons that are deployed and used.” This is why the members of the Non-Aligned Movement and other governments support a legally-binding approach to the autonomous weapon issue.
The examples of these opposing approaches to disarmament, arms control, and security are endless. And while a handful of delegates have consistently blocked the development or undermined the universalisation of multilateral treaty-based regulations and prohibitions on weapons, now we are also seeing the systematic dismantlement of bilateral treaties over which those same states have control. “The disarmament architecture has become weak with the rise of a new arms race and the bending of the international rules-based system to fit only a few States' competitive agenda for power and control,” warned Samoa. The answer for those opposed to this is to keep forging ahead with the development of rules and systems that protect humanity and our planet.
One of the best things about the conventional weapons debate is witnessing the increasing normalisation of the Mine Ban Treaty. It too was once treated as illegitimate, naïve, and unimportant. Now, the vast majority of countries—including non-states parties—pay respect to the Treaty’s efforts to eliminate the scourge of landmine and provide for victim assistance. While not yet universal and while implementation challenges remain, the turn towards humanitarian mine action and away from the profits of production of these heinous weapons is something we can all celebrate and view as a clear signal of how the majority can continue to make progress in disarmament despite the odds stacked against us. This is especially important as we listen to the so-called military powers call each other liars and bullies in repeated right of replies. People are dying and the rest of us have an obligation to act with urgency and determination.