Vol. 19, No. 4

Editorial: Dismantling disarmament's blockade
22 October 2021

Ray Acheson

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During the second cluster of First Committee thematic statements, delegations despaired about the state of the UN’s disarmament machinery—the various standing forums in which disarmament deliberations are conducted. Or, more accurately, are not conducted. “The Conference on Disarmament (CD) has not agreed, approved, and implemented its work program in more than 25 years,” Mexico pointed out, arguing that the CD generates employment for the delegations in Geneva but does not work to fulfill its mandate. It suffers from brain death and its members are keeping it on life support, instead of giving it “the dignified burial it deserves for its past achievements.”

This is all that is left to say of the CD. The forum, which has worked hard to maintain a club-like atmosphere with limited membership and the exclusion of civil society, is far past its expiration date. WILPF, which used to be the only non-governmental organisation left paying attention to its work, finally stopped covering the CD in 2015. When we left, we were explicit about why: the degrading treatment of civil society, and even more importantly, because it was clear that the forum was completely disconnected from the outside world; that it had lost all perspective of the bigger picture of human suffering and global injustice, and was more interested in maintaining the structures that reinforced perpetual deadlock than it was in fulfilling its purpose of negotiating treaties.

WILPF is far from alone in seeing this. Austria, for example, highlighted the tendencies of certain states “to use procedural manoeuvres to delay, undermine or even prevent substantive exchanges and productive work.” Yet, the CD continues to exist. Incredibly, governments keep on attending plenary meetings and talking about a programme of work and how important the CD is to advancing disarmament. By this time, it must feel like being stuck in a Kafka novel, in which diplomats chase an ever-elusive work programme and have the same conversations over and over again, while the world churns on outside the chamber.

The core problem, as Mexico explained, is that the CD operates under the “arbitrary rule of consensus, one of the worst practices of contemporary multilateralism.” Noting that consensus is an aspiration that should be pursued, Mexico argued that when it cannot be achieved, democracy is necessary. The narrative of those preventing forward movement is that the paralysis in the CD and other forums has to do with the “complex international security situation”. But in that case, Mexico asked, “how do we explain that other forums do work and produce results, even of a binding nature, among the same states that are represented on the CD?” This is about “simulation and deception,” argued Mexico. “There is no other way to say it.”

Consequences of inaction

The consensus-based blockade against action at the CD, and at the Disarmament Commission, and in the disarmament treaty bodies that operate by consensus such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, has serious real-world implications. It means that instead of disarmament and demilitarisation, instead of cooperation and collaboration, “security” at national, regional, and international levels is pursued exclusively through weapons, weapons, weapons, and for good measure, more weapons

A cursory review of the thematic debate statements on “regional issues” at the First Committee paints a clear picture of the result:

The Caribbean Community noted that significant resources have been diverted away from development in its region, in order to address threats to security. “Inevitably, repurposing of already limited resources often has a negative impact on social, educational, and infrastructure programs and creates an untenable burden for countries already suffering from debt overload and highly vulnerable to natural disasters.”

The Middle East, as Iran noted, has witnessed “several wars, massive foreign military buildups, the ensuing nightmare of extremism and terrorism, the dangerous accumulation of the most sophisticated weaponry, as well as aggression and power projections by various actors.”

Asia-Pacific, where everyone is already living under the uneasy situation of US military alliances and exercises in the region and the nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, is now facing even more strain with the announcement of the Australian, United Kingdom, United States (AUKUS) nuclear-powered alliance.

Europe is also under strain, with tensions rising between Russia and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation members and due to the last few years of US-Russian dismantlement of arms control agreements.

It’s a lot to contend with, especially since borders are manufactured ideas that do not actually contain or constrain violence. What happens in one part of the world affects other parts. A nuclear detonation in one part of the globe would impact the entire planet; the rising investments in militarism likewise ricochet globally when countries persist in investing in more weapons and more war. The concepts of “national security” or even “regional security” make little sense in the face of nuclear war and climate chaos. The responsibility for each lies only with some countries, but the burden is shared by all.

Solidarity for security

Countless governments throughout this First Committee session have highlighted how the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the interconnectedness of countries and the importance of solidarity. These lessons must be applied to international security much more deeply—to “reassess our security analyses and refocus our efforts around human and common security in the interest of all,” as Austria suggested. “We need to move away from the dangerous misconception that security can only be ensured by military and armament. The pandemic should be a wake-up call to lead us to a broader understanding of security and to better integrate disarmament instruments and measures into all efforts to build and maintain security.”

This should be a clarion call to all the UN’s structures and systems, especially those related to disarmament and demilitarisation. Serious work must be undertaken to implement the UN Charter’s Article 26 obligation for a system to regulate armaments and reduce military spending. Instead of pouring resources into keeping the CD on life support, the UN’s work on military spending and political economy should be revived to establish concrete mechanisms for reducing militarism and directing resources from weapons and war toward global social goods. New treaties to prevent war and conflict in cyber space and outer space, and to prevent the development of autonomous weapon systems and other new technologies of violence, must be agreed. Commitments against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas must be made, and the use of armed drones, landmines, cluster bombs, incendiary weapons, and chemical weapons must stop.

All of this—and more—is possible. But it is only possible through real work, not endless cycles of platitudes and laments delivered at annual conferences. Multilateral action, not performance, is required.

All militarised countries talk about the importance of dialogue. China, Russia, and the United States called for renewed engagement in multilateral diplomacy for arms control and disarmament. Yet they instead prepare for a multilateral arms race, which will inevitably destroy us all, either from the weapons themselves or from the waste of resources that could otherwise be spent dealing with the climate crisis and global poverty. We are running out of time. Stalemate is not an option. The governments who see this, who do not profit from endless war but actually want to protect people and planet, have to get creative.

Surmounting the siege against disarmament

In the face of the ongoing blockade of the established disarmament forums, the international community has found a way to move forward. During the time that the CD has failed to adopt a programme of work, states, international organisations, and civil society have negotiated, adopted, and entered into force the Mine Ban Treaty, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, the Arms Trade Treaty, and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Two of these were negotiated in ad hoc processes, two in the UN General Assembly. Ireland is currently leading a process to establish standards against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The First Committee has established several open-ended working groups to take forward key issues. Such “avenues have created space to give effect to the aspirations of a majority of States long frustrated elsewhere in the procedurally and often politically deadlocked disarmament machinery,” explained South Africa.

What has made these alternative processes possible is the commitment of all involved to achieve meaningful results, not to simulate negotiations or give the impression of work. This has taken courage on behalf of diplomats and government officials, to stand up to those blocking progress and to proceed, sometimes under extreme pressure to stop. It has also required, in each and every case, a meaningful partnership with activists, organisers, survivors, and affected communities, which work tirelessly to help build capacity, awareness, knowledge, passion, and commitment.

“Despite our best efforts, States cannot achieve all that we set out to do alone,” said Sweden. “Representatives of civil society, academia and industry … help raise awareness, provide ideas, and push our work towards meaningful action that contributes to movement in the right direction.” Ireland likewise highlighted the valuable contributions of civil society, noting that its “knowledge and expertise is essential in ensuring that disarmament machinery remains connected to emerging issues” and arguing that “inclusiveness must be at the forefront of our approach to the disarmament machinery.” Austria also called for the establishment of more inclusive processes that involve civil society and youth.

Yet, civil society remains locked out of UN Headquarters. While permitted in Geneva, we are barred in New York. In the Third Committee on Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural Issues, 59 states delivered a joint intervention opposing civil society’s continued exclusion from the work of the UN and calling for the allocation of adequate spaces for civil society representatives in the Committee’s in-person work. While no such statement has been delivered at the First Committee, some delegations have reiterated its call. Costa Rica, which along with Denmark led the initiative in the Third Committee, argued at the beginning of this First Committee session that “civil society is a vital partner in this work. Continuing to exclude civil society representatives from the UN and preventing their full participation silences the voices of the people we serve, including the victims and survivors of armed violence.” Sweden likewise warned, “We must not let the pandemic become a pretext for restricting [civil society’s] continued participation. Dialogue and cooperation with civil society is central both inside and outside the UN. States carry a common responsibility to do what we can to curb the shrinkage of civil society space.”

The restrictions on UN access to ensure safety during the COVID-19 pandemic are important and must be maintained. But it is clearly possible maintain safety without compromising inclusivity: the UN Office in Geneva has done so. In New York, journalists and others have been allowed back in the building. The longer that civil society is refused access to UN Headquarters, the less meaningful and resilient the UN itself becomes. Yes, it is a gathering place for states, but states are there to represent—and be accountable to—the people of the world.

The UN Charter itself begins, “We the peoples of the United Nations”—not “we the states”. If the UN is to ever achieve its purported goals of saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war, reaffirming human rights and dignity, establishing the conditions for justice and respect, and promoting “social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,” it cannot prohibit the people from its chambers. And it can no longer allow those that profit from the scourge of war to dictate what security is or how to achieve it. This is a matter that must be decided by all—and one session at the First Committee, or the CD, or any other forum, is enough to understand the will of the majority is for all countries to lay down their weapons and invest instead in peace and planetary well-being.

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