Vol. 19, No. 5

Editorial: Out of the sandbox, into the world
5 November 2021

Ray Acheson

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In some ways, this First Committee was much more relaxed than the last. Instead of dueling cyber and compliance resolutions, hostile amendments, and hyperaggressive rhetoric between Russia and the United States (US), the two delegations toned things down and even jointly tabled a single cyber resolution that was adopted without a vote. Israel and the US, for the first time since the mid-2000s, joined consensus on the resolutions on the prevention of an arms race in outer space and transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space activities. In explaining these changes, each of the countries involved said they were acting in the spirit of flexibility and cooperation.

Yet, to say that the First Committee was not used as a battleground this year would be taking it too far. Russia tried once again—and failed once again—to undermine the UN Secretary-General’s independent mechanism to investigate the use of biological and chemical weapons. It also declined to support the UK-led initiative for an open-ended working group on outer space norms and behaviours and changed its vote on the annual cluster munitions resolution from abstention to opposition. The US, meanwhile, once again tabled its nauseatingly hypocritical resolution about the importance of treaty compliance. It and Israel also continued to reject the process initiated in 2018 for a series of conferences aimed at establishing a weapon of mass destruction free zone in the Middle East. Japan once again tabled its attempted rewrite of Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) commitments, while the US voted “no” on paragraphs in a resolution calling for a substantive outcome at the next NPT Review Conference and for universalisation of the NPT. The nuclear-armed states also voted against all paragraphs across multiple resolutions that even dared to mention the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

To top it all off, China and the US flexed some Cold War-esque muscles at each other, signalling that the growing tensions long warned about are indeed well underway. As part of the theatrics to this end, China introduced a new text that seems to suggest states have the “inalienable right” to technology for development and that export controls undermine this right. It tried to posit this as the global south versus the west, but the voting didn’t exactly break down this way and delegates on both sides of the issue made some valid as well as hypocritical remarks. Beyond the fight over this resolution, reports also came out about China’s growing nuclear arsenal, which contradicts its repeated claims about a “minimal deterrent”. Of course, the US government criticised this, as if it didn’t have a many-times-over greater arsenal that it is actively modernising. Finally, on the penultimate day of the Committee’s work, China even said that it wasn’t going to support a US-led resolution because the US didn’t support its—and thus the feeling that the First Committee can sometimes be a schoolyard sandbox was complete.

United in violence

While some of the resolutions adopted at this year’s Committee indicate majority support for new tracks of work on cyber and outer space, it’s been a while since we’ve had a pathbreaking resolution that propels states to negotiations of a treaty or to undertaking concrete action for change. The last time that happened was 2016, with the adoption of a negotiating mandate for the TPNW. While most of the world sees this treaty as a breakthrough for nuclear disarmament, five years later, the five nuclear-armed states parties to the NPT—which failed to stop the TPNW’s negotiation, adoption, or entry into force—continue to use the First Committee as a soapbox from which to rail against it. “We will not support, sign or ratify this Treaty,” they reasserted, calling—patronisingly—“on all countries that support or are considering supporting the TPNW to reflect seriously on its implications for international peace and security.”

TPNW supporters have, of course, reflected seriously on this question. Their unflappable position is that nuclear weapons are a grave and unacceptable threat to international peace and security—indeed, an existential threat to the entire planet. The prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons is the only answer to the peace and security implications of nuclear weapons.

For many years, their hatred for the TPNW has been the only thing uniting the so-called P5, the permanent five members of the UN Security Council. These states, despite all their differences, share at least one thing in common: their governments derive their sense of power and privilege from their possession of nuclear weapons and the recognition accorded to them as “nuclear weapon states” under the NPT. This hierarchal, patriarchal system of dominance and control is a stain on the United Nations’ alleged commitment to equality, justice, and well-being for all. This inequality is, in essence, the “cornerstone” of the systemic problems we face in disarmament and non-proliferation, and more broadly in the UN and the larger world (as we’re seeing right now at COP26).

Digging deeper into the sandbox

We’re soon heading into the tenth NPT Review Conference. This treaty has been placed under extreme pressure by the nuclear-armed fraternity and their pledges (i.e. NATO, Australia, Japan, and Republic of Korea). Their refusal to eliminate nuclear weapons, remove them from their doctrines and territories, and end nuclear exercises, along with their willingness to violate non-proliferation rules and norms when it suits them (i.e. US-India deal, AUKUS) means that the NPT is weighted down by lopsided implementation. While states in the global south that are accused of violating the treaty are hit with sanctions or bombs, the nuclear-armed states arrogantly flaunt their treaty abrogation while simultaneously claiming their actions are perfectly lawful and even desirable. The epic amount of gaslighting and manipulation that takes place in discussions about nuclear disarmament would be astounding if it wasn’t so normalised.

As part of this normalisation process since the last Review Conference failed in 2015, Japan has engaged in a concerted effort to rewrite, reinterpret, and water down commitments made throughout successive NPT review cycles for the past twenty years. Each year, its First Committee resolution digs a little deeper into the schoolyard sandbox. Japan claims to be building a bridge between nuclear-armed and non-nuclear-armed states, but in reality, is taking the entire international community down a dark hole away from international law, political commitments, and the possibility of achieving the stated objectives of the NPT: the end to an arms race and the total elimination of nuclear weapons.

Before and after the vote on Japan’s text this year, numerous delegations explained that they could not vote in favour of this attempted rewrite of the NPT and emphasised that this resolution must not—cannot—be used as a basis for negotiations of an outcome document at the upcoming Review Conference. This is crucial, particularly since we face a situation where we know that the P5 and their cronies will do everything they possibly can to backtrack on commitments made previously while claiming they have already done all they possibly can in the “current security environment”.

Building for all

This environment—global tensions, arms racing, etc.—is of course an environment of their own making. Like everything else made by human beings, we can recognise that this is not working, and make something else. This is what human ingenuity is all about. And as abolitionist Mariame Kaba always says, “Everything worthwhile is done with other people.” Cooperation and collaboration are key to our survival. But this does not mean “building a bridge” towards violence. It means standing firm as a majority and not letting the bullies set the terms for our entire world. Perceiving power as resting with the capacity for massive violence has led to white supremacy, patriarchy, the climate crisis, and all the other ills of our world.

Earlier this session, Costa Rica called for a feminist approach that “challenges the archaic assumption that power competition is the right way to conduct foreign relations and ensure national security.” This should guide governments and others as we head into not just the NPT Review Conference but also the final Group of Governmental Experts on autonomous weapons and the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons Review Conference in December, where countries will need to decide whether or not to prevent automatic death by machine, among other big questions. The first session of the new open-ended working group on cyber issues will also kick off in December, providing an opportunity for participants to set some boundaries against the proliferation of virtual violence from which we are all increasingly—and not at all virtually—suffering. Right now, states are negotiating new climate commitments, in which military emissions must be included. Demilitarisation and disarmament are crucial to mitigating climate chaos—and nuclear energy is not part of the solution. Next year we should also see the conclusion of the diplomatic process for a political declaration against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, which must prioritise the prevention of humanitarian and environmental damage and destruction.

Which way these discussions and negotiations go is not inevitable. Human beings will make choices that will determine the outcomes, which will have real world impacts on our lives for generations to come. It’s time to claim power on the side of nonviolence, cooperation, justice, and peace, instead of force, dominance, inequality, and fear.

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