Vol. 18, No. 5

Editorial: Hostile amendments to disarmament
13 November 2020

Ray Acheson

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2020 has proven to be a universe of unprecedented happenings. The First Committee was no exception. Not only did it have to adjust to limited in-person meetings, virtual webcasting, and the physical exclusion of civil society, but it also dealt with new procedural antics that required a dusting off of the rules of procedure and a fortitude of spirit from most participants and observers.

While some of what went down this year may seem to be procedurally wonky, or perhaps even irrelevant compared to the challenges being faced every day in our world, it seems worth documenting and analysing because, regrettably, it may not be as irrelevant as we may wish. The goings-on at this year’s First Committee session provide insights into what some of the most violent governments in our world are up to in relation to international law, intergovernmental institutions, and the use and development of weapons. Unfortunately, this has real-world implications for us all.

Four new moves

It’s often difficult to determine what is behind the public theatrics at intergovernmental forums—to decipher motivations or to have a full picture of the debates going on behind the scenes. This is even more challenging when activists are only able to watch meetings on UN Web TV and not engage with flesh and blood diplomats. But based on what was visible, it seems that Russia tried at least four new things this year, which together provide a picture of a government flexing its muscles and trying to assert its authority over “law and order” at the international level. And while this story is not exclusively about Russia, as will be explained below, it’s important to go through each of these moves to set the stage.

1. Russia tried to give the UN Security Council authority over the UN Secretary-General’s Mechanism for Investigation of Alleged Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons (SGM). Right now, the SGM gives the Secretary-General the authority to launch an investigation in response to allegations made by any UN member state. In draft resolution L.65/Rev.1, Russia sought to give the Security Council the role of requesting the Secretary-General to undertake investigations—rather than the Secretary-General being able to take such decisions on its own—and for the Security Council to inform states of the results and consider any further action.

Most First Committee delegations saw this as an attempt by Russia and others (such as co-sponsors China, Nicaragua, and Venezuela) to undermine the SGM. As Filippa Lentzos reported previously, while Russia argued its resolution was meant to strengthen the SGM, it has previously condemned any further development or development of the mechanism, undermining this claim. In reality, the resolution’s attempt to put the SGM under the authority of Security Council would give Russia and every other permanent member a veto over future investigations. This gambit was clearly seen and rejected by the majority of UN member states, with a vote of 31 in favour, 63 against, and 67 abstentions, making it one of the few resolutions in recent years that has failed to pass.

2. Russia tried to block the First Committee from taking action on the United Kingdom’s new resolution on outer space. The UK delegation tabled a new initiative at the First Committee this year focused on “reducing space threats through norms, rules, and principles of responsible behaviours,” in L.45/Rev.1. In an unprecedented move, as Jessica West reported previously, Russia argued that the First Committee is not competent to address the resolution’s content, arguing that it is not strictly related to preventing an arms in outer space (PAROS). A few states agreed, including Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Iran. In response, the UK argued that to the contrary, the development of norms of behaviour is an urgent component of PAROS. Russia’s point of order was defeated with a vote of 15 in favour, 105 against, and 33 abstentions. Some delegations called for separate votes on various paragraphs of L.45/Rev.1, but each was easily retained and the UK’s resolution was adopted as a whole.

During the same segment, the usual controversies over Russia’s space-related resolutions continued. While it prefers to focus on preventing the placement of weapons in outer space or declarations of no first placement, others argue that Russia’s own development of offensive systems undermine the credibility of these initiatives. At the same time, however, the US government’s development of a Space Force and its clear intentions of turning outer space into a “warfighting domain” undermine the claims of the United States and some of its allies that they are concerned with preventing irresponsible behaviour in outer space. The United States and Israel continue to be the only two countries that vote against the annual PAROS resolution in the First Committee.

3. Russia sought to establish a new open-ended working group (OEWG) on cyber security issues without allowing the current group to decide collectively what should be next. In 2018, as Allison Pytlak explains in this edition of the Monitor, Russia and the United States forced the establishment of two separate UN processes on cyber issues. Russia argued that its OEWG was open and inclusive—though apparently this does not, in the Russian mindset, apply to civil society, which has been effectively locked out of a great deal of the proceedings, at the behest of Russia and a few others. But the OEWG was and is open to the participation of all UN member states, unlike the US-backed Group of Governmental Experts. Yet Russia’s move at this year’s First Committee to establish a second OEWG, to operate for the next five years (!), clearly runs counter to the Group’s asserted inclusivity. Some of the meetings of the OEWG were postponed due to COVID-19—meetings where states would have considered different options for next moves on this issue, including the possibility of streamlining the two forums. Instead of allowing that discussion to take place and for recommendations to be formulated, Russia’s tabling of L.8/Rev.1 sought to pre-empt collective decision making and institutionalise its own preference for moving forward. Perhaps Russia believes this will give it more control over the direction of the OEWG, which it apparently sees as its personal property—proclaiming this week that the OEWG wouldn’t even exist without Russia. But forcing the issue in this way undermines the good will of other states and thus risks sabotaging Russia’s own process.

Unlike the other moves Russia made during this First Committee session, this one was successful. Despite the consternation expressed by many delegations, L.8/Rev.1 passed its vote. Not without difficulty, however. Certain delegations requested a separate vote on the paragraph in L.8/Rev.1 that set out the parameters for the new OEWG, a request that Russia vociferously condemned as “unethical” and “cunning,” pointing out that without this paragraph its resolution would be pointless. It challenged the motion calling for the paragraph to be put to a vote—but this challenge was defeated by a vote of 57-31-63. Yet when the vote on the paragraph was held, the paragraph was retained, with 92 states voting in favour, 52 opposing it, and 24 abstaining. If Russia had been confident that the paragraph would hold and the resolution would be adopted, would it have tried this procedural move to prevent its division? Or, did it object to the division in the grander scheme of procedural moves it undertook at this session, regardless of its anticipated outcome?

4. Which brings us to the final example in this story. Russia both introduced hostile amendments to the standard annual draft decision on the UN Disarmament Commission (UNDC) and introduced a competing resolution on the UNDC. Russia’s discontent with the UNDC stems from the failure of the US government—as the host country of UN Headquarters—to comply with the host country agreement’s obligation to grant visas to diplomats. This issue has plagued multiple New York-based disarmament forums in recent years, including the First Committee. In 2019 this issue delayed the Committee from starting its work for several days. Most delegations have repeatedly expressed sympathy and solidarity with the Russian delegation but have been equally firm that substantive work must not cease. They have urged the host country to comply with its obligations and for the matter to be resolved in the relevant UN bodies that deal with these issues, so that it doesn’t halt or impede the work of disarmament. While First Committee was able to get to work last year after getting bogged down initially in this issue, the UNDC has not been able to commence its work at all for the past two years.

At First Committee this year, Russia decided to introduce “hostile amendments”—the term for amendments to a motion that changes or defeats the purpose or direction of the motion—to the annual draft decision on the UNDC. This text, L.49, is typically tabled by the chair of the UNDC (currently Australia) and sets the dates for the Commission’s next session. Russia’s proposed amendments added several paragraphs about the visa issue and requested the Secretary-General deal with the problem. Only 16 countries voted in favour of these amendments, while 56 voted against and 70 abstained.

But Russia didn’t just try to amend L.49. It also introduced its own draft decision on the UNDC, along with co-sponsors Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, Syria, and Venezuela. This text included much of the same language from the amendments proposed to L.49, as a second attempt to get states to support its approach to solving the visa issue. But the majority of countries also rejected this effort, calling for separate votes on six paragraphs and then rejecting the decision as a whole with a vote of 34 in favour, 55 against, and 67 abstentions.

Hypocrisy Now

If you’re wondering what all this means, you’re not alone. On the face of it, it seems like Russia spent a great deal of effort throwing mud at the wall to see what would stick. But to what end? To demonstrate that they could jam the works of intergovernmental bodies in general? To sabotage disarmament forums specifically? To force their approach and perspectives on the international community?

From listening to the US and its allies in explanations of vote and right of replies, you might assume all of the above. And you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. But, while Russia and its group of ardent supporters that co-sponsored its resolutions and backed its moves are being publicly disruptive, the US and some of its allies are doing the exact same things.

There is a lot derision expressed by certain—in particular Western—countries to Russia’s moves. Yet their disdain for Russia’s subversion of procedural norms and substantive rules is matched by their disdain for these same norms and rules themselves. For every accusation against Russia for undermining international law or the international security environment, the same can be said about the United States, as well as many of their allies. All of these countries—particularly the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and others that support US nuclear weapons—flout international laws and attempt to do so with impunity for themselves and with arrogant denunciation of the other. They, too, engage in nuclear weapon modernisation and deployment, as well as in wars of aggression and occupation, in arms exports and sales, in economic warfare and manipulation, and in border imperialism.

All of this hypocrisy comes to a blinding head—in terms of its sheer ironic power—in the two competing Russian and US resolutions on compliance with treaties. L.59, “Compliance with non-proliferation, arms limitation and disarmament agreements and commitments,” is a draft decision tabled by the United States, while L.64, “Strengthening and developing the system of arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation treaties and agreements,” is tabled by Russia.

Anyone reading the resolutions under these agenda items could be forgiven for assuming they are the exact same. They are nearly identical in their urging of states to implement and fully comply with their obligations under relevant treaties and agreements. Most delegations, surely with a warranted eye roll, vote in favour of both texts. But Belarus, Bolivia, Cuba, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Egypt, Nicaragua, Russia, Syria, Venezuela, Zimbabwe abstained on the US draft (Iran voted no). The US voted in favour of Russia’s text, but together with the United Kingdom it delivered an explanation that Russia’s leadership on this resolution stands in sharp contrast to its behaviour, outlining the litany of ways in which Russia violates international agreements. 

The “two men enter, one man leaves” approach to international relations

The gamesmanship on display here and throughout the First Committee’s work is more than unsettling. It arguably represents the pursuit of Cold War-style hegemony by Russia and the United States over the norms and rules of disarmament law, but also the ways in which the United Nations itself operates on these issues. Russia’s moves against the UNDC and the SGM described above are matched, for example, by the United States’ demand that the international community either support its call on China to join arms control discussions with Russia immediately, “or else”.

Both Russia and the United States are increasingly audacious and outrageous in their attempts to assert that their way of doing things is the right way, and that the other is hypocritical, is violating international law, is endangering humanity. The true story is, they both are. All of the countries involved in this game are putting the lives of people and the fate of our planet at risk. All are hypocritical; all are gaslighters. They say they are acting in the interests of peace and security while they bomb civilians, build nuclear weapons, possess chemical stockpiles, develop space weapons, and then tell us, “there’s nothing to see here—look over there, at the other guy.”

Meanwhile, other states are caught in the middle. Do they support one side or the other in this Thunderdome-esque match? Or can they ignore this polarising death match, or get around it to pursue work that is actually in the interests of all humanity? The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) is a good example of this—the majority of countries came together in rejection of the false convictions and violent hypocrisy of the nuclear-armed states to negotiate and adopt an instrument that builds new norms and laws against nuclear weapons.

This is why the nuclear-armed states hate the TPNW so much, of course. In their attempts to win “hearts and minds” in the fight over who is abiding by norms and rules and who is violating them, the rest of the world just went ahead without them and established new norms and rules. And the nuclear-armed states are all equally in violation of them.

Building and staying in community

It seems then we need more of this—more efforts by the majority to stay out of the ridiculously patriarchal and definitively childish attempts by the so-called major powers to reduce international affairs to violent competition, and instead to build with each other a real community. 

Community requires reciprocity, trust, and understanding. It requires us to live in relationship with others, not simply to demand that everyone else obey our commands or conform to our way of thinking. This is not easy to build, and even more difficult to maintain, but this is the only way we can actually achieve the objectives of the UN Charter.

Australia made some welcome comments to this end during the final days of the First Committee, asking, are we here to work collaboratively or to try to oppose our will on others? It said that the failure of most of Russia’s moves this year make it clear that “those who come to steam roll people or take over the Committee will not be rewarded,” and argued that we need to think beyond day-to-day wins and procedural battles, to how we embrace each other and move forward together.

This is exactly the kind of approach that the First Committee—and all international work—requires. Unfortunately, as Australian citizens pointed out, hypocrisy is not limited to the two nuclear-armed bullies—its is a game played by many. The Australian government, noted one critic, “blocks and undermines disarmament efforts, holds refugees in criminalised detention for years, and regularly tries to steam roll regional governments on climate and security issues.”

This point is important. Rhetoric, and even good intentions, are not enough. Compelling words at international forums cannot replace actual behaviour. This is not just about Australia or any other single government. All of the delegations participating in the work of the First Committee and other disarmament forums represent governments that engage in problematic behaviour at home and/or abroad, undermining their claims to “responsible” behaviour or to acting in the best interests of humankind or our shared planet.

What this means is everyone needs to do better. The governments that say they believe in the rule of law, in cooperation and dialogue, and that they renounce violence and bullying—they need to work for consistency across their policies and practices in order to truly build community, internally and internationally. This includes working with activists and other non-governmental actors to build a world that works for everyone, not simply for the elite segments of certain populations. It includes, as San Marino urged in the general debate, setting aside animosity and investing in cooperation, dialogue, transparency, trust, education, and development, rather than in armaments and wars.

We do not have unlimited time to work for peace and to build community. Those who are opposed to it—those who seek the preservation of their own power at any cost—are determined to undo the norms, laws, and institutions we’ve already built, and to dismantle our communities and our means and methods of cooperation so that we cannot build any more. This is a death project. We all hold the responsibility to stop it, and the only way we can is by working in solidarity and care with each other. There are more of us than there are of them. But to be effective, we must stop tacitly, implicitly, or actively supporting the behaviour of the death cult leaders—we must be willing to break with traditional practices, alliances, or actions and do what is necessary to save our planet and those that live upon it.

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