Vol. 18, No. 1 | Preview Edition

Choosing well-being over weapons 
8 October 2020

Ray Acheson

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This year’s First Committee session will be unusual for all of us. Delegates will meet in the General Assembly Hall in masks and in limited numbers. Most delegations will have colleagues monitoring from home across many time zones, along with civil society—which isn’t allowed in UN Headquarters at all. There will be no chats over coffee, no heated arguments in tiny, overstuffed rooms about resolutions, and no thematic debate. Nevertheless, the session is on—which means we all need to make the most of this strange situation. We should use it as an opportunity to figure out what parts of the work are actually useful—do we need 60 resolutions that are largely repetitive from year to year, or can we focus our efforts on urgent needs that advance policy? Given the limited time for governments to lay out their positions, what can we focus on that will actually lead to cooperation and action on the most important issues? 

“Power” vs. disarmament, peace, and security 

The pandemic-shaped shadow hanging over our work is not the only challenge we face. Our world is also confronted with ongoing armed conflict, the climate crisis, inequalities and poverty, as well as issues of accountability and compliance with international obligations. Last year, the First Committee also almost didn’t happen. It was delayed multiple times due to concerns about restricted access for some delegations by the host country. When it did eventually stumble into gear, the most militarised governments in the world attacked each other relentlessly for several weeks, accusing each other of undermining the “international security environment,” violating international “law and order,” and imperilling our planet. 

The “law and order” of the so-called international community is not about adherence to or respect for international law, but is arguably an order that privileges the militarily powerful over the rest of the world; and that permits the selective implication of the law (disarmament and arms control law, in relation to the First Committee) in ways that serve this unequal and unjust order. Whether it is discussions about violations of the Chemical Weapons Convention, the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or international humanitarian law, or about the development of norms and rules against the weaponisation of or warfare in cyber space or outer space, certain countries tend to dominate in a way that undercuts the very object and purpose of the First Committee—to pursue international security through disarmament and demilitarisation. They demand others comply with the law while flouting it themselves. 

Investments in violence 

While last year’s session of the First Committee did manage to scrape through its general and thematic debates and pass about 60 draft resolutions along to the General Assembly for adoption, it’s important to examine the tangible impact this has had on our world. There is always, of course, the immeasurable but positive impact that diplomacy has in terms of building or sustaining channels for cooperation among states. We certainly saw some delegations come together in innovative ways through joint statements, pressing for deeper commitments against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and raising gender perspectives on disarmament, for example. We also saw governments recommit to various disarmament processes and principles. 

But we also saw the exhausting pattern of disengagement or disassociation by nuclear-armed states, or chemical-armed states, or explosive-weapon-using states, or autonomous-weapon-building states, etc., from any of the initiatives or decisions that could constrain their armament intentions and capabilities. We witnessed the ways in which countries that assign value to their weapons fighting to preserve not just their right to possess weapons of mass destruction or indiscriminate human suffering but to ensure that value continues to be ascribed to these weapons by their allies—while also trying to prevent their proliferation to those deemed too “irresponsible” to handle them.

We also saw, throughout the year, massive investments in militarism. Global military spending increased by 3.6 per cent in 2019, rising to a staggering $1.9 trillion. During the pandemic, in many countries arms producers have been deemed essential services—putting workers at risk and diverting money away from those in desperate need of protective gear, ventilators, medical personnel, and affordable access to health care. Arms transfers also largely continued unabated, despite the resounding rhetorical support for the UN Secretary-General’s appeal for a global ceasefire in March. Investments in nuclear weapon modernisation has also continued despite those billions being needed elsewhere; and while some joint military exercises were cancelled, the US and some other countries continued to deploy troops to military bases around the world—exposing soldiers and local populations alike to the coronavirus, all in the name of “security”.

Shaping peace together

This “order,” maintained through militarism at the expense of human and planetary well-being, is not the faith of the majority of governments, however. Most countries continue to reject nuclear weapons, and militarism more broadly, as beneficial to security. Many recognise that weapons and war are in reality the main impediments to security, as well as to peace, freedom, justice, and equality. At the UN General Assembly high-level debate in September, Italy called for reinvestment in politics, diplomacy, dialogue, and international law over militarism. “We should do so not only to fulfill our natural aspirations toward peace, but because history—the most recent even more so than earlier chapters—shows that the recourse to arms is not sustainable nor lasting.”

The rejection of weapons and war as assets of “peace and security” is where the First Committee must ground its work. We are marking 75 years of the organisation’s existence—75 years since the end of the horrific slaughter that was World War II and 75 years of the Charter’s promise to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” We are also, however, marking 75 years since the first detonations of atomic bombs, in New Mexico, USA and on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. Seventy-five years of nuclear violence. Seventy-five years of war and armed conflict, of military interventions and coups, of continued investments in weapons, of the spread of nuclear bombs and drones and explosive weapons and small arms.

As the First Committee meets in this 75th year of the United Nations, it must stake a claim for peace and security based on cooperation and collaboration, not on competition and corrosive politicking. “Global security is improved through mutual trust, transparency, and disarmament,” noted the Austrian ambassador at a recent UN event against nuclear testing. This is the foundation of diplomacy, and of disarmament. Participants in the First Committee’s work must advance disarmament not just through platitudes but through action that has a tangible impact on the material realities of world, and our cultural attitudes towards weapons and war. 

Allowing the governments with the most weapons to dictate what is possible to the world is not acceptable. They have led us to violence; we must refuse to follow them any further and embark instead on a new road to peace, building our future through collective actions and investments not in weapons but in collective care for each other and our planet.

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