Vol. 17, No. 6
It was a rough five weeks at First Committee this year. The conduct of the vast majority of delegates is commendable, particularly in the face of the belligerence and bluster of two delegations who spent many of the Committee’s meeting hours acting out the role of comic book archnemeses. Throughout the theatrical performance, most diplomats behaved diplomatically, working to find solutions for the significant challenges related to weapons and international security. However, the problems of the relations between those two counties—as well as some of their allies—are directly affecting the Committee’s work. This means, in some cases, competing resolutions, repetitive debates, and a distinct lack of forward motion; in other cases, outside of First Committee, it has led to total stalemate. At times it looked like the same fate awaited us here, but fortunately the Committee operates under UN General Assembly rules, allowing its participants to vote democratically rather than be stymied by an oppressive application of veto-by-consensus.
In the end, for now, First Committee is still standing. It will meet in New York in 2020, with the efforts to get agreement to move it to Geneva or Vienna next year having failed. The US government’s denial of visas to certain delegations, however, remains a critical issue. The Committee on Relations with the Host Country issued a report calling upon the host country to ensure entry visas to all representatives of member states and members of the Secretariat and to review its differing processes of granting visas to personnel of certain missions. But as long as this problem persists, so will the procedural headaches of engaging in substantive work at New York-based meetings. Russia warned as much in its many interventions on the subject. And for this, the US accused Russia of taking the disarmament machinery hostage. In a strongly-worded excoriation of amendments Russia tabled for a resolution on the Disarmament Commission, which aimed to tie the commencement of its 2020 session to the issuance of visas, the US argued that if this kind of “hostage taking” is tolerated, “it will spell the beginning of the end of the United Nations” and we will “never get the UN back.” (See the article on multilateralism on for details.)
None of the disarmament machinery should be able to be blocked one or a handful of states. But the criticism of Russia’s behaviour is difficult to accept when it comes from one of the main blockers of reaching agreement in consensus-based bodies. The Disarmament Commission was for many years unable to reach consensus agreement on recommendations, largely due to the United States. The Conference on Disarmament has not even been able to adopt and implement a programme of work in more than twenty years, due in recent years to Pakistan’s objection to negotiations of a fissile material cut-off treaty but previously due to the US government’s refusal to permit action on various agenda items, such as preventing an arms race in outer space. The US and Russia are both notorious for using consensus as a personal veto, intimidating or forcing others to acquiesce to their positions regardless of the clear majority view.
The grossly hypocritical positions of the most weaponised governments on the planet are holding us all hostage.
We only need to look at First Committee for a plethora of examples. Russia and Syria, and a few allies, condemn efforts to investigate and attribute the use of chemical weapons in Syria. They say this is political, while people suffer horrific injuries and death. At the same time, however, many of those that condemn chemical weapon use, and demand that perpetrators be held accountable, simultaneously defend the right of certain states to possess and even use nuclear weapons. Why it acceptable to threaten to incinerate entire cities and commit massive radioactive violence on generations of people, but it is not acceptable to incinerate people with chemical weapons? Why is nuclear deterrence the bedrock of security for some states, while the idea of a chemical weapon deterrent would undoubtedly be considered at odds with international conscience and morality? A joint explanation of vote from many delegations delivered on the chemical weapons-related resolution, delivered by the US, declared that “all responsible nations must have the courage of our convictions to banish the scourge of chemical weapons to the past forever.” Yet the US and many others who signed onto that statement condemn those who had the courage of their convictions to banish the scourge of nuclear weapons by negotiating and adopting the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
Russia, meanwhile, says that preventing an arms race in outer space is a top priority. During voting on related resolutions, the Russian delegation noted that we still have a possibility to take preventative measures, but that if we miss this chance we will find ourselves taken hostage by those who decide to gain advantage by setting up a destructive force in space. Yet Russia, as well as the US and a handful of others, are pursuing just such an advantage—not only in outer space, but also here on Earth, with the development of fully autonomous weapons. Russia, the US, and a few others have been blocking the development of preventative measures to ensure that meaningful human control is retained over weapons and the use of force.
And then there is compliance with existing treaties. Russia’s resolution on strengthening the system of relevant treaties was adopted with only five abstentions and no votes against. Several countries speaking about the resolution said they supported its words, but were concerned about the deeds of its main sponsor. The US and United Kingdom said they are mistrustful of Russia as a treaty partner—surely raising the eyebrows of all of the parties to treaties that the US government has walked away from recently, or of the civilians whose homes and hospitals are being destroyed by British-made bombs dropped on them by Saudi Arabia and coalition partners in Yemen.
So yes, First Committee is, for now, still standing. And once again the majority of delegates came to do the work to curtain armaments and prevent humanitarian harm. But the minority of states, seeking profits from weapon production and power from weapon possession, continue to prevent the real, meaningful actions we need in order to truly build international security through disarmament. Doing so is not impossible: only certain governments make it seem that way, by continuing to invest in weapons and war at the expense of people and planet. Moving on from these five weeks, it is up to the rest of us to take the necessary actions—real actions, not just resolutions or words spoken in conference rooms—by banning and eliminating weapons, building better relations among states and peoples, and working for a world where our shared humanity, rather than our shared hypocrisy, provides the basis of our decisions and actions.