Vol. 17, No. 5
As First Committee delegates worked their way through thematic debates on outer space, cyber security, disarmament machinery, and other issues last week, concerns about the international rules-based order remained high. These concerns spilled into the commencement of action on resolutions on Friday, where many delegations flagged in particular Japan’s annual disarmament resolution, which it has been increasingly weakening since 2016, for undermining this rules-based order. But last week’s discussions highlighted that it is not only the existing rules and norms that are under threat: when what has been agreed upon in the past is no longer seen as relevant or applicable by certain parties, how can new rules and norms related to new weapons or environments be credibly developed?
There is a significant challenge in trying to build a rules-based order in the virtual world or outer space while the rules here on Earth are disintegrating, being pulled apart thread by thread. While this international order, made up of various treaties and agreements collectively negotiated and tested over time, has always encountered issues of non-compliance and normative challenges, we do seem to now be witnessing a more concerted unweaving of this system. Built by the victors in the wake of a global conflict, this system is under now direct threat from those very states, which are led by governments threatening to build the capacity for and embark upon new conflicts using new weapons in new spaces.
Within First Committee discussions about cyber space or outer space, there is tension between those who push forward with a presumption of militarism—that both will inevitably be warfighting domains—and those who seek to avoid conflict and violence in either space. France, for example, adopted a doctrine earlier this year “for using its defensive and offensive cyber warfare capabilities.” Meanwhile Malaysia urged that the weaponisation of cyber technologies “should be rejected, as it risks triggering a new arms race between nations,” while Austria warned, “Fighting malicious cyber activities … must not serve as a pretext for tightening control over citizens/users and thereby undermining basic human rights such as the right to privacy and the freedom of expression.”
This multifaceted issue requires us to safeguard against militarism. The unending cycle of support of weapons and war does not need to be, and must not be, transported into cyber space and outer space. If we tacitly or actively accept weaponisation of more and ever more technologies and environments, we will only exacerbate the violent conflict, human rights violations, and threats to societal and planetary survival that we already face.
In the meantime, we also need to safeguard against the restrictions on militarism we have already built. On Friday, Algeria, Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Liechtenstein, and Mexico raised concerns that Japan’s resolution on “future-oriented dialogue” for nuclear disarmament reinterprets, limits, or places conditions upon past agreements. In the midst of the current geopolitical situation and erosion of the international rules-based order, Liechtenstein warned that we must call for unequivocal support for past agreements, while Austria said it cannot accept any resolutions that seek to backtrack or question existing obligations. It is vital this approach is maintained throughout action on First Committee resolutions and in relation to all other forums for disarmament and international security—including the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference next year. Our world is on fire. The least that those working for disarmament can do is preserve the norms and implement the agreements we already have, while collectively shaping additional constraints and preventing the creation of new domains and tools of violence.