First Committee Monitor, Vol. 21, No. 4

Editorial: In the Interest of Life and Law
21 October 2023

By Ray Acheson

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Attending this year’s First Committee means witnessing many governments’ inaction in the face of repeated violations and abrogation of international law. As noted in an earlier editorial, the “erosion” of international disarmament and arms control architecture is not a natural process, it is a deliberate disregard for and dismantling of the limits, norms, and customs of “acceptable state behaviour”. From Russia’s de-ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty to Israel’s genocidal actions against Palestinians, the stakes couldn’t be higher to demand compliance with international law, end impunity for violations, and construct new rules for constraining violence and weapons. Yet, while countless governments bemoan the “erosion” of international law, many are complicit in or are actively participating in its destruction.

Context still matters

In the First Committee this past week, Israel continued to denounce critiques of its bombardment and siege of Gaza, and to deny responsibility for the deaths of thousands of Palestinian civilians. On Monday it argued that any “contextualisation” for Hamas’ attack on Israeli civilians is using “linguistic sophistries as a weapon” and denying that Israel is a settler colonial state. The Israeli representative proclaimed that civilian deaths in Gaza are “the sole responsibility” of Hamas, asserting that anyone who argues otherwise is “morally disoriented”.

This position is not consistent with international humanitarian law, which makes it clear that disproportionate and indiscriminate attacks against civilians are unlawful. On Tuesday, the representative of the State of Palestine continued to question how Israel’s actions in Gaza are consistent with international law, asking, how can self-defence include killing thousands of civilians? How can it include killing UN staff members, journalists, medics? How can it include imposing a full siege on Gaza, depriving 2.3 million people of electricity, food, water, and medical drugs? How can self-defence include using internationally prohibited weapons such as white phosphorus?

Israel did not directly address these questions but instead reasserted that any attempt to discuss context for Hamas’ attack is the equivalent of justifying the massacre of Israeli citizens. According to the Israeli right of reply, any mention of UN resolutions condemning Israel’s settler colonial and apartheid policies apparently means support for the slaughter of civilians.

As noted in last week’s editorial, one can condemn both Hamas’ unlawful attacks on Israeli civilians and Israel’s unlawful attacks on Palestinian civilians. This is clear from the tens of thousands of Jewish people around the world and in Israel speaking out against the Israeli government’s bombardment and siege of Gaza. Acknowledging that Hamas’ attack did not occur in a vacuum does not justify it, but instead makes it clear that the attack was not against Israelis “for who they are,” as Israel asserts, but rather because of where they were—on occupied Palestinian land. This is not a justification for Hamas’ horrific attacks but does help show that Israel’s disproportionate response and collective punishment of Palestinians is part of its broader campaign of settler colonialism, apartheid, and now, it seems, genocide.

Genocide Now

The only way to not harm civilians—all civilians—is to stop the violence. But there are no signs of abatement of the violence from what’s being said within the UN and what’s being done outside of it.

Last Friday, 13 October, the Israeli representative ended her remarks saying that “Israel will win.” What does winning look like? Does it mean the complete extermination of all Palestinian people? The statements being made, and the actions being undertaken by the government of Israel strongly suggest this. Ben Gvir, Israeli Minister of National Security, said on social media that “the only thing that needs to enter Gaza are hundreds of tons of explosives from the Air Force, not an ounce of humanitarian aid.” The Israeli military’s bombing of hospitals, schools, and residential buildings, its indiscriminate killing of civilians, medical workers, and journalists in Gaza are all consistent with genocide.

Palestinian human rights organisations, Jewish civil society groups, feminist peace organisations, US constitutional rights groups, Holocaust and genocide studies scholars, and others have all warned of an imminent genocide against the Palestinian population in Gaza. On 12 October, a large group of UN Special Rapporteurs condemned “Israel’s indiscriminate military attacks against the already exhausted Palestinian people of Gaza.” On 14 October, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory warned that Israel seems to be carrying out a “mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinians under the fog of war.” On 15 October, over 800 scholars and practitioners of international law, conflict studies, and genocide studies signed a public statement warning of the possibility of genocide being perpetrated by Israeli forces against Palestinians in Gaza. On 19 October, seven UN Special Rapporteurs warned, “There is an ongoing campaign by Israel resulting in crimes against humanity in Gaza. Considering statements made by Israeli political leaders and their allies, accompanied by military action in Gaza and escalation of arrests and killing in the West Bank, there is also a risk of genocide against the Palestine People.”

The Rapporteurs also argued, “There are no justifications or exceptions for such crimes. We are appalled by the inaction of the international community in the face of belligerent war-mongering.” The 800+ scholars called on all states “to take concrete and meaningful steps to individually and collectively prevent genocidal acts, in line with their legal duty to prevent the crime of genocide.” To this end, the scholars explained, “All states should immediately act under Article VIII, and should call upon the competent organs of the United Nations, particularly the UN General Assembly, to take urgent action under the Charter of the United Nations appropriate for the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide.”

They also pointed out that their emphasis on the General Assembly is because the UN Security Council is compromised by the United States and the United Kingdom, which are sending weapons and military forces to the region in support of Israel. This corruption of the UN Security Council was clearly evidenced on 18 October by the US veto and UK and Russian abstentions on a resolution brought to the Council by Brazil calling for “humanitarian pauses” in the bombardment to allow aid access to Gaza.

The urgent imperative of a ceasefire

The Security Council’s failures do not abdicate UN member states of their responsibilities. They must work through multilateral and bilateral channels for an immediate ceasefire and the allowance of humanitarian access to Gaza.

A ceasefire on its own of course is insufficient to bring safety and security or peace and justice to Palestinians or Israelis. But we also need to avoid the situation that has emerged in the context of Russia’s war against Ukraine, wherein a ceasefire has come to be seen by many as a capitulation to Russia’s imperialist aggression. During the UN General Assembly high-level debate in September, for example, the Netherlands’ Prime Minister noted, “Some countries feel they are supporting peace in Ukraine simply by calling for an immediate ceasefire. They think that this will help end the war.” But, he asserted, “There can be no ‘shared’ solution. Russia is the aggressor here. And it is not Ukraine’s supporters that are prolonging the war. It is Russia.” The US President similarly argued that negotiations will grant Russia impunity for its war. “If we abandon the core principles of the [UN Charter] to appease an aggressor, can any member state in this body feel confident that they are protected?” he asked. “We have to stand up to this naked aggression today and deter other would-be aggressors tomorrow.”

But has this approach deterred would-be aggressors? It did not deter Hamas from attacking Israeli civilians; it has certainly not deterred Israel from collectively punishing Palestinian civilians in response. Arguably, the condemnation of calls for ceasefires and peace has emboldened Israel’s war crimes. It solidifies the concept of “might make right,” just as the illegal wars, coups, drone strikes, and special forces operations of the United States throughout the world have done. The more that states invest in violence, the more that they respond to violence with more violence, the more likely it is that violence is perpetuated. Violence becomes the language of communication, the backbone of economies, the metric of “global governance”.

In the US and other Western states, calls for a ceasefire in Israel’s attacks on Gaza and Hamas rocket launches have been met with the same derision they have regarding Ukraine. “Now is not the time to talk about a ceasefire,” said US Senator John Fetterman. “We must support Israel in efforts to eliminate Hamas terrorists who slaughtered innocent men, women, and children…. We can talk about a ceasefire after Hamas is neutralized.”

Not only does this morally bankrupt position condone Israel’s unlawful collective punishment of Palestinians, it also makes no sense. A ceasefire is meant to break the fighting immediately, to save lives—it is not something declared once one side has completely decimated the other. Ceasefires are not meant to be the end point, but instead are tools to end the killing of civilians. After the bombs and guns have stopped, peace and justice must be pursued. Ceasefires should not be used to lock in present conditions or entrench injustices. In the case of Ukraine, a ceasefire needs to be followed by withdrawal of all Russian forces. In the case of Palestine, Israel’s occupation must end.

Of course, this takes effort. It is not a given. And the suspicion of ceasefires even by those living through violence indicates something is wrong with the international system as people experience it. This lends weight to the call for reordering how things work—for preventing the militarised countries from dictating terms; for the democratisation of negotiation, diplomacy, and decision-making in international affairs, in institution building, in reconstruction and reparation. This goes beyond any specific case of ceasefire—it gets to the heart of multilateral diplomacy, to which almost all First Committee delegates claim to be committed.

We have plenty of examples of how not to do things after a ceasefire, from the Dayton Accords in Bosnia and Herzegovina to the Oslo Accords between Israel and Palestine. But past failures should give us guidance for how to do things better in the future, not condemn us to repeating the failures of the past.

Dismantling deterrence instead of dismantling disarmament

The importance of not repeating the past also relates to another tragedy unfolding during this year’s First Committee: a possible return to the era of nuclear weapon testing.

On 18 October, the Russian parliament completed its process to revoke Russia’s ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which Russian President Putin requested in order to “mirror the manner of the United States,” which has signed but not ratified the Treaty. The Russian government remains a signatory to the CTBT and says it has no intention of carrying out a test, unless the United States does so first, but its de-ratification makes the resumption of full-scale nuclear tests more likely. This is especially the case given the evidence that China, Russia, and the United States have all been upgrading their nuclear weapon test sites.

Russia’s action undermines the global norm against nuclear testing, which all states except for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea have upheld for a quarter of a century. The attempt to dismantle the norm against nuclear testing is in no state’s interests, let alone the interest of people or the planet. As the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has said, “Russia weakening its commitment to the CTBT is senseless and irresponsible behaviour, and is part of a pattern of Russia using nuclear weapons to intimidate opponents of its invasion of Ukraine.” International treaties, including the CTBT and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, “are critical to making sure nuclear testing that has harmed people’s health and spread lasting radioactive contamination is not resumed.”

Once again, international law is being flouted in the pursuit of a perceived “security interest” by a heavily militarised, nuclear-armed, imperialist state. The Russian government believes that nuclear weapons bring it security and enable to exact its desires upon the world without repercussion. Israel, another nuclear-armed state, clearly believes this, too. Both governments violate international law and expect impunity for it. The member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) likewise believe that nuclear violence is the best way to get their way in the world. In a series of social media posts this past week, NATO asked the question, “Why are nuclear weapons key to our security?” It answered, “To deter aggression: keeping NATO’s nuclear forces credible is central to preventing attacks from hostile actors;” “To prevent coercion: they are the supreme guarantee of our security,” and “To preserve peace: NATO’s goal is to create a safer world for all.”

NATO literally created posters advertising the virtues of weapons of mass destruction. Weapons that most of its own member states have acknowledged have catastrophic and environmental consequences. Weapons that its own members have spent billions of dollars trying to prevent the proliferation of. Weapons that its own members have condemned Russia for threatening to use in relation to its war against Ukraine. Just this past week during the First Committee, NATO members (among others) condemned the Russian government’s decision to de-ratify the CTBT.

What all these governments have in common, other than a history of colonial extraction and economic exploitation, is their dogmatic faith in the power of the bomb to maintain their supremacy in an unequal world order. But just as the situation in Israel and Palestine shows that violence does not deter violence, nuclear weapons do not deter war. The mythology of nuclear deterrence has not prevented acts of war and aggression by nuclear-armed states, nor has it made the world a safer place as NATO alleges. Palestinians, Ukrainians, Iraqis, Afghanis, and millions of others globally would likely dispute the idea that NATO’s atomic bombs, or anyone else’s, have brought them peace and prosperity.

As Austria said in its nuclear weapon thematic debate statement, “the precarious logic of wanting to achieve security by the permanent threat of mass destruction” is based on the capacity and willingness to actually use nuclear weapons, which is a violation of international law and has the potential to result in catastrophic global consequences.

Deterrence theory doesn’t prevent violence, but it does sell weapons. The reckless promotion of deterrence fills with cash the pockets of those running weapon companies and nuclear laboratories. So do the condemnations of calls for ceasefires. Just as at the beginning of the war in Ukraine weapon contractors stock prices shot up, they did so again as Israel began indiscriminately bombing Gaza. Blood is more profitable than peace.

What’s to be done?

Instead of watching international law get crumpled like a ball of paper while people are being killed, there are specific actions states and people can undertake to prevent further violence now and shore up the law from further “erosion”. Here are two sets of recommendations directly related to the issues covered by the First Committee—this is of course far from an exhaustive list.

Ending war profiteering

Confronting and dismantling the war profiteers is one of the most important actions all states that truly support peace and justice can take right now. In the context of the current violence in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, governments should work through the UN General Assembly, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), and their regional and national systems, to end their own arms transfers to all parties to the conflict and to impose a two-way arms embargo on Israel.

ATT states parties and signatories have a particular obligation to end their arms transfers to Israel for its violations of Articles 6 and 7 of the Treaty. Article 6(3) of the Treaty prohibits arms transfers by states parties if they know the weapons could be used in genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, attacks directed against civilians, or other war crimes. Under Articles 7 and 11, states parties cannot authorise any export of weapons, munitions, parts, and components that would, inter alia, undermine peace and security or be used to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law. Article 7(1) mandates a risk assessment before arms transfers to prevent such violations. As Control Arms notes, “There is not only an overriding risk of such violations, but some of them are occurring in real time, and in plain sight.”

Control Arms has called for an extraordinary meeting of ATT states parties, as outlined in Article 17(5) of the Treaty, “to discuss the legality of transfers to parties involved in the current fighting.” In the meantime, the coalition is calling on all ATT states parties “to halt the transfer of arms or other items controlled by the Treaty to any combatant party to the conflict.”

Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq, which has called for a two-way arms embargo on Israel, also notes that “arms imports from Israel are wholly inconsistent with obligations under the ATT.” The group explains that “Israeli military and industry sources openly boast that their weapons and technologies are ‘combat proven’—in other words, field-tested on Palestinian civilians ‘human test subjects’.” Thus, when states import Israeli arms, “they are encouraging it to keep bombing Palestinian civilians and persist in its unlawful practices. No one—neither Israel, nor arms manufacturers in ATT States parties—should be allowed to profit from the killing or maiming of Palestinian civilians.”

In support of the calls to end arms sales to Israel, there have been several important direct actions against arms manufacturers providing the weapons. World BEYOND War Canada has created an excellent resource showing where the companies sending weapons to Israel are based, what weapons or parts and components they are sending, and ideas for actions to urge these companies and the Canadian government to stop the arms transfers. In the United Kingdom, Al-Haq and Global Legal Action Network have called on the UK government to suspend all weapons export licences to Israel because there is a clear risk that UK weapons may be used to violate international humanitarian law. In the United States, a US State Department official who worked on global arms transfers resigned due to his opposition to the US government’s provision of additional military aid to Israel. In addition, activists have been undertaking direct actions against Elbit Systems factories in the United Kingdom and United States.

Serious efforts are needed at national and multilateral levels to fundamentally disrupt and dismantle the military-industrial complex and the systems of war profiteering that lead to the oppression of the majority of people in the world. When the head of an arms company reacts to the outbreak of war with, “Lots of good news out there,” this is indicative that there is a serious problem. As WILPF has said since 1915, the main impediment to the abolition of war is “private profits accruing from the great armament factories.”

Many of the same factories that build weapons for war also build nuclear bombs. Their private profits are one of the main factors leading to the possible resumption of nuclear weapon testing and that have prevented the abolition of nuclear weapons. As ICAN has calculated, the nine nuclear-armed states spent 82.9 billion USD on their nuclear weapons in 2022. Some nuclear-armed states have increased the size of their stockpiles; others are expanding their nuclear weapon facilities; all are modernising their nuclear bombs and delivery systems.

Ending war profiteering requires ending structures of weapon manufacturing that enable private profits and political influence within government systems. It includes reducing military spending, in line with Article 26 of the UN Charter, and redirecting those resources toward reparations for harm, towards disarmament and demilitarisation programmes, toward diplomacy and humanitarian aid, toward climate mitigation, ecological restoration, and social justice globally.

Stigmatising weapons and war can help disrupt the military-industrial complex. ICAN’s work with financial institutions has led 109 banks, pension funds, asset managers, and other financial sector actors to restrict investments in the companies involved in the development, production, testing, maintenance, and stockpiling of nuclear weapons. Sustained action against nuclear weapon companies and war profiteers can and does impact policy. More is needed, urgently.

Ending the use, testing, and possession of indiscriminate weapons

In the meantime, there are some straightforward actions that states committed to peace, justice, disarmament, and arms control can take now in defence of international law and human life.

States that have endorsed the Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences arising from the use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas must denounce Israel’s unlawful, indiscriminate bombing and shelling of Gaza and its collective punishment of Palestinian civilians, as well as Hamas’ launch of rockets into populated areas in Israel. In line with the above section on arms transfers, states that have endorsed the declaration should also stop supplying all parties to the conflict with explosive weapons and delivery systems. As recent events show, regardless of attribution or intention, the use of explosive weapons in populated areas inevitably has catastrophic consequences for civilians and must end immediately.

High contracting parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons Protocol III on  Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Incendiary Weapons must condemn Israel’s use of white phosphorus in Gaza and Lebanon. They should also work to strengthen the Protocol to expand the definition of incendiary weapons and to include stricter provisions against ground-launched munitions.

States parties to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) must condemn Russia’s de-ratification of the CTBT and call on all states that have not done so to ratify both treaties. They should also demand that all nuclear-armed states maintain a moratorium on nuclear testing and dismantle their nuclear test sites. Beyond testing, of course, all nuclear-armed states and their nuclear-supportive allies must end nuclear sharing arrangements, renounce their deterrence doctrines, and dismantle their nuclear weapon programmes. They also need to provide reparations, assistance, and remediation to those impacted by nuclear weapon activities in the past. In the First Committee, they should support the resolution tabled by Kazakhstan and Kiribati on Addressing the Nuclear Weapons: Providing Victim Assistance and Environmental Remediation to States Affected by the Use or Testing of Nuclear Weapons, as well as the resolutions on the the TPNW, the CTBT, the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, ethical imperatives for a nuclear-weapon-free world, and accelerating the implementation of nuclear disarmament commitments, among others.

All states should also support the development of new international law prohibiting and restricting autonomous weapon systems. A first step is to co-sponsor and vote in favour of the resolution tabled by a cross-regional group of states at this year’s First Committee, which mandates the UN Secretary-General to seek the views of states and others on the topic.

Where violence is already being perpetrated with little regard for the suffering being caused, this will only worsen with the adoption of technologies that further enable the sorting and categorisation of people. Outside of weapons, artificial intelligence and algorithms are known to be biased and discriminatory to people of colour, women, trans people, persons with disabilities, and others. They are already causing harm in the context of policing and border surveillance; once weaponised these technologies will bring untold horror to humans around the world.

Israel and Russia are two of the states currently blocking the development of international law on autonomous weapons and that are currently developing and deploying related technologies. In these cases and others, the military-industrial complex, tech companies, and governments are working together to exacerbate systems of apartheid and dehumanisation enabling more violence, repression, and profiteering. A resolution in the First Committee is a step toward stopping these developments and must be supported by all those concerned with maintaining meaningful human control over weapons.

Protecting life and law

Of course, human control over weapons is not the end goal. But it is an important aspect of prioritising human life over profits, and of preventing further atrocities and oppressions. With states walking away from hard-won treaties and willfully violating international law with impunity, it is difficult to see hope for the future of humanity. Working now to stop a future where killing is delegated to machines programmed with algorithms, able to execute human beings based on sensors and software, seems like an important place to start. But it’s not where we should stop.

There are a lot of states out there who rely on international law “as a shield,” as Costa Rica and others have said in the past. Hundreds of thousands of people have been in the streets this past week in solidarity with Palestinian lives, often in defiance of criminalisation of this solidarity by their governments. There is common cause among the majority to protect life and law. It’s up to us to demand better and to do better.

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