Calling for courage from the UN General Assembly

By Ray Acheson
30 September 2020

The world is an unequal place and being actively made more unequal by the day. This reality was firmly reflected and critiqued during the UN General Assembly high-level “debate”. Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, armed conflict, and the climate crisis, government representatives highlighted inequalities in political economy, digital access, racial justice, and impacts of climate change and the pandemic, as well as in accountability and compliance with international obligations. Many considered the impacts of militarism on the lives of people around the world and urged disarmament and demilitarisation as essential to achieving the objectives of the United Nations.

While many governments issued strong appeals for change in order to overcome these inequalities, to a large extent the debate lacked the urgency that this moment in history should compel. Rising temperatures and sea levels are matched with rising fascism and isolationism; increased investments in weapons and war—including nuclear weapons—have directly resulted in divestment from peace, health, and welfare of people and planet and place all our lives in peril. This is not a drill. Yet despite the urgent calls for action, many of the countries in a position to help generate this change—foremost by changing their own way of doing business, whether in relation to fossil fuel consumption, militarism, immigration policies, or aid and debt—did not give a strong sense that they have the courage or the capacity to cooperate for meaningful change. Moreover, while strong critiques were levelled abstractly against those who have made the world so violent and inequitable, it was not clear that there is yet critical mass to effectively challenge the member states that are willfully undermining international peace, security, and justice.

Those governments that did speak with passion and vision need to collaborate now, with activists and others committed to building solidarity and care for all. We have no more time to simply demand better from those who make the world more dangerous. We need to figure out how to build alternative paths to peace and equality. Multilateralism is key, but only to the extent that it is used to advance common goods, not cower to bullies.

Global inequalities surge

While many governments spoke positively of the United Nations’ success over the past seventy-five years in maintaining international peace and security, several also offered critical reflections of the ways in which certain member states have undermined the organisation’s object and purpose by exercising and enforcing these inequalities. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, for example, expressed concern with “the uneveness and contradictions of a lopsided multilateral system in which the norms and rules are conveniently applied and upheld in favour of the powerful.” Similarly, Iceland noted, “Too many seek to apply the principles and values of the UN Charter selectively, tilting the balance between rights and responsibilities.” In this context, the Icelandic foreign minister argued, “Our organisations and institutions should never serve or shelter those who seek to undermine the basic principles of the international rule-based order.”

Yet this is precisely the state of current reality. For the past seventy-five years, while the majority of UN member states have worked together to advance agendas related to development, gender equality, the climate, peace, and security, certain states have worked in the opposite direction—throwing their vast economic and military resources behind projects that entrench their power and privilege.

Militarism versus solidarity

Investments in militarism have grown astronomically, with current world military spending sitting reaching nearly $2 trillion in 2019. The “might makes right” mentality has infected all levels of the UN’s work, enabling the most heavily militarised governments in the world to dictate terms to the rest of the world. At the general debate, the United States boasted about its role in manifesting this global system of extreme inequality and violence, stating, “We are stronger now than ever before, our weapons are at an advanced level like we’ve never had before, like frankly we’ve never even thought of having before, and I only pray to God that we never have to use them.”

With echoes of its racist and genocidal “manifest destiny” philosophy that the United States used to justify its slaughter of Indigenous populations and theft of land and water on the American continent, the US president told the UN General Assembly that his country is fulfilling its “destiny as peacemaker,” but that “it is peace through strength”. The outright positioning of the ability to commit massive violence, including with nuclear weapons, as the source of a country’s strength conveys the embeddedness of militarised masculinities as well as a flagrant disregard for human life and international law. While the UN General Assembly debate was still underway, the US government asked its military how quickly nuclear weapons could be pulled out of storage and loaded onto bombers and submarines, as some sort of disgusting and dangerous power play with Russia meant to convey strength in negotiations over nuclear arms control.

In contrast, most other governments called not for more weaponisation or for “strength through violence,” but for solidarity and care, for each other and for our shared planet. Quoting Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s president highlighted the endurance of solidarity in building a common and inclusive future: “It is human solidarity, the concern for the other, that must be at the centre of the values by which we all live.” Costa Rica underscored this relationship between solidarity and multilateralism, urging all governments to understand that there cannot be “individual or national welfare if there is no shared and global welfare.”

Healthcare not warfare

Many governments also firmly criticised the waste of resources that militarism represents. Cuba lamented that $1.9 trillion is “being squandered today in a senseless arms race promoted by the aggressive and war-mongering policies of imperialism,” while Nepal questioned what is more important in the midst of a pandemic: nuclear weapons or an accessible vaccine against COVID-19. “The world needs more masks, not muskets; more protective equipment, not destructive weapons; and more social spending to save lives, not military spending to destroy lives.”

As Ukraine pointed out, “Coronavirus spares no one. It does not care whether the country has nuclear weapons or what is the level of its GDP.” The Costa Rican government noted that the pandemic has clearly shown that the current definition and pursuit of “security” do not reflect true human security. It offered comparative statistics from the International Peace Office, “which estimates that the cost of a war tank could treat 26,000 people against malaria and that, with the cost of an aircraft carrier, an area larger than the State of Florida could be reforested. This is also equivalent to the size of Switzerland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium combined.” Calling for a reprioritisation of expenditure and approach to global issues, Costa Rica urged “less weapons, more resources for development. More resources to fight the pandemic, more resources to counter the climate crisis, more resources for the Sustainable Development Goals. And less militarization and death. That is the true human security of the peoples.”

Ecuador, the Holy See, and several others also critiqued the squandering of resources on militarism and urged disarmament as a critical to efforts for advancing peace and equality. Some states noted that militarism has brought us closer to the brink of extinction than ever before, with global tensions between heavily militarised countries once again on the rise and the treaty-based advancements made over decades coming increasingly under fire. “In this forum in which peace was sealed 75 years ago, I wish to express my concern about the dangers posed by non-compliance with disarmament agreements or the withdrawal of some parts, which may lead to the resumption of arms races that take us back to a time when the world lived in the shadow of a possible nuclear conflict,” warned Uruguay.

Confronting nuclear weapons

Several countries raised concerns about the threat of nuclear war and of nuclear weapon possession, use, and testing. Such weapons “pose an existential threat to life on this planet and cause tremendous human suffering,” noted Austria, while Guatemala said they put “the continuation of life on Earth at risk.” The Marshall Islands, in which 67 nuclear weapon tests—authorised by the United Nations at the behest of the United States—were conducted between 1946 and 1958, said the lasting legacy of these tests has been a significant human rights challenge. “No other people should ever have to bear the burdens which we know from nuclear exposure,” said the Marshallese president. “Real results, not symbolic lip service, is needed to unpack and address the often complex situations which often accompany nuclear risk.”

Unfortunately, lip-service has been the dominant approach to nuclear disarmament over the past decades. Rather than working to achieve the elimination of nuclear arsenals, all of the nuclear-armed states have engaged in “modernisation” programmes. Moldova noted its concern with the “scale of the armament race” in this regard, as well as with “the persistent uncertainty of the situation related to the existing disarmament and control agreements of strategic armaments.” Despite all the evidence of the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences of nuclear weapons, the nine nuclear-armed and some of their allies continue to assert the “necessity” of nuclear weapons for international peace and security. The Holy See cited this as one of the main impediments to peace, noting that the theory of nuclear deterrence “creates an ethos of fear based on the threat of mutual annihilation; in this way, it ends up poisoning relationships between peoples and obstructing dialogue.”

This poising of relationships has meant that the nuclear-armed states brush off or even refute their legal obligations and related commitments to eliminate their nuclear weapon programmes. Costa Rica, among others, criticised the selective approach to collective security, noting that nuclear-armed states “ignore or threaten to ignore the obligations emanating from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, while demanding them for others.”

This is part of the reason why the majority of countries negotiated and voted to adopt the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2017, as a way to positively to advance the stigma of nuclear weapons and help set the stage for their elimination. Several governments used the opportunity of the UN General Assembly debate to announce their support for the Treaty and to encourage others to sign and ratify it as soon as possible—including Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Ireland, New Zealand, Nigeria, Palau, Peru, and the Philippines, amongst others.

Some states also expressed their support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, several of which also appealed to all parties to implement the agreement fully. However, while the European Union pointed out that the “agreement endorsed by UN Security Council Resolution 2231 remains in place and for us there is no doubt that the sanctions lifting commitments under the agreement continue to apply,” some other countries demanded strict application of sanctions as initiated by the United States in violation of this agreement. Meanwhile, Sweden, Ireland, Japan, Costa Rica, France, and the Republic of Korea referenced peace and denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

Weapons and war

While most arms-related comments focused on nuclear weapons, some governments highlighted other weapon and disarmament issues. A few delegations spoke, if tangentially, about the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The Holy See noted that “conventional weapons are becoming less and less ‘conventional’ and more and more ‘weapons of mass destruction,’ wreaking havoc on cities, schools, hospitals, religious sites, infrastructures and basic services needed by the population.” Uruguay highlighted the importance of defending hospitals and schools from attack and for the protection of civilians in conflict situations.

A few countries urged action against the development of autonomous weapon systems. Austria’s intervention on this subject was the strongest, with an appeal to everyone to “act now, before the survival of civilians in a conflict zone is determined by an algorithm and before all constraints laid down in international humanitarian law become redundant and decisions are taken by killer-robots without any human control or ethical concerns.” Noting that the development of “machines with the power to decide, who lives and who dies” is not science fiction, but fast becoming a reality, Austria recalled the UN Secretary-General’s remarks that autonomous weapon systems are “politically unacceptable and morally repugnant”. In this context, Austria announced that it will organise an international conference in Vienna next year to address this urgent issue and invited all states to participate.

For the first time, issues related to cyber security and digital access and accountability was a prominent issue at the general debate. Many governments spoke with concern about the risk to human rights, privacy, and security in the online world—Latvia, for example, highlighted the “considerable threat to personal freedom” posed by data collection, digital tracing, and profiling. Other states urged more concerted action to prevent militarisation and conflict in cyber space. Liechtenstein noted that the provisions of the UN Charter governing the use of force are clear, “but they are increasingly diluted in practice,” which “is particularly dangerous in an era of increased militarization and of cyberwarfare.”

Ceasing fire

While concerns grow in relation to advanced technologies of violence, small arms and light weapons continue to wreak havoc around the world. Several delegations raised concerns with the international arms trade and arms trafficking; governments of African countries in particular urged more action to prevent human suffering in relation to conventional weapons. Several countries indicated support for the African Union’s “Silencing the Guns” initiative, while a handful highlighted the Arms Trade Treaty as an essential tool for stemming the flow of weapons. Trinidad and Tobago described it as “indispensable in addressing the menace of the illicit arms trade.”

It was in the context of preventing human suffering from conventional weapons that

UN Secretary-General António Guterres reiterated his call for a global ceasefire, urging all parties to armed conflict to lay down their arms before the end of the year. While he acknowledged that “enormous obstacles stand in the way: deep mistrust, spoilers and the weight of fighting that has festered for years,” he also expressed hope that even where conflict is raging, people will not give up the search for peace.

The vast majority of states addressing the debate indicated their support for a global ceasefire, with several governments issuing appeals for it to be made permanent. Others referenced specific countries or regions where a cessation in hostilities—and weapons supplies—is needed, including Libya, Yemen, Syria, and the Sahel. Armenia and Azerbaijan raised concerns about each other’s military build-ups and arms imports, and Armenia stressed its “unequivocal support” to the global ceasefire appeal; yet fighting renewed between the two countries in Nagorno-Karabakh on 27 September.

Some states expressed concern, as Germany did, that the ceasefire appeal has not been heard or has been ignored, while others have expressed concern with the abysmal way the UN Security Council has handled the situation. Luxembourg, for example, noted the Council’s long delay in supporting the ceasefire appeal and pointed out that the obstacles encountered in this process are unfortunately emblematic of the Council's difficulty in mobilizing and deciding, even in the most urgent situations.”

Security Council abolition

This critique was not in isolation. A number of statements addressed the exclusions, inequities, and political gamesmanship exercised by the UN Security Council. Ireland expressed concern with the repeated abuse of the veto at the Council over recent years, which has prevented “the Council from taking necessary actions, including on access to vital humanitarian relief and in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria.” Iceland called on the Council’s permanent members in particular to “act in accordance with the UN Charter, instead of being motivated by narrow political gains in a zero-sum game,” while

Cuba argued that their violations of the UN Charter perpetuate “an unequal, unjust and anti-democratic international order where selfishness prevails over solidarity and the mean interests of a powerful minority over the legitimate aspirations of millions of people.”

Such concerns and criticisms have driven calls for UN Security Council reform, including expanding its permanent membership—particularly to include a representative from the African continent—or eliminating the veto of its permanent members. However, as a new WILPF report on the conduct of UN forums during the pandemic argues, the Council has continued to demonstrate “that it is beyond ineffective; it is actively harmful to the UN principles of cooperation, inclusion, and equality, as well as to achieving and sustaining international peace and security.” The report notes, “Discussion as to its reform has failed to make progress. It is time for those states that adhere to international law and multilateralism to restore the UN to the Charter. This means removing the power of the Security Council and effecting its dissolution.”

While that may sound exceptional, it is a long time coming. Governments are also beginning to think outside the box when it comes to the Council, with some calling now for transformation rather than reform. Costa Rica, for example, has suggested the replacement of the Security Council with a Human Security Council, which it envions as a “more democratic, representative, accountable and transparent” body that “examines the root causes of conflict and not just its symptoms;” that “creates incentives to transfer human and economic resources of the world towards development and peace and not towards the war industry. A Council capable of overcoming its deep internal divisions to work together and with one voice.”

Investing in conflict prevention

Whether UN member states choose to transform or abolish the Security Council, it is clear from the overwhelming consistency of statements at this year’s debate that there is an appetite for investments in conflict prevention instead of conflict; in diplomacy and disarmament instead of militarism and aggression.

Sierra Leone urged “collective engagement in the prevention of conflict as well as advancing durable peaceful settlement of conflicts and disputes,” calling on states “build on gains made in our preventive diplomacy efforts.” The Czech Republic argued that “effective conflict prevention and mediation are essential tools” for the promotion of international peace, while Uruguay uged states to “bet on dialogue and negotiation,” and to “find solutions to current conflicts that contemplate the rights of all parties.” For this, Uruguay said, “we need to redouble our commitment to preventive diplomacy and mediation as conflict prevention” and we need “a United Nations that acts more in coordination, both in discourse and in practice.

Speaking against the backdrop of a global pandemic, the appeals for cooperation and coordination have a renewed urgency. Romania appealed to fellow governments to “transform this crisis into a new opportunity and to revitalize the security and peace agenda, with a strong emphasis on conflict prevention and the consolidation of peace processes,” as well as “greater integration of the principle of the responsibility to protect in actions and projects focused on prevention.”

Improving transparency and access

Transparency, accessibility, and accountability of the multilateral system is vital to any such projects. Yet few governments addressed the issue of civil society access. Among the few who did was Luxembourg, which noted that the COVID-19 crisis “has exacerbated the temptations to curtail public freedoms beyond what was necessary” and to shrink space for civil society in many forums. Luxembourg announced that “involving civil society in United Nations forums will be one of the priorities” of its candidacy for the Human Rights Council next year.

The points about freedoms and rights of people around the world is an important one—and it is an issue that a gathering of all governments of the world should be addressing first and foremost. The world is on fire—it is literally burning, thanks to the pursuit of capitalist accumulation through displacement, dispossession, and destruction of people and planet. “We cannot continue to attend meetings to discuss solutions within the current framework,” argued Saint Lucia. “We must first agree that the global economic development architecture has to change.” Several countries called for debt cancellation by the international financial institutions and bilateral creditors, arguing these debts preclude the achievement of global quality.

These debts are rooted in colonialism: richer countries have extracted resources and value from the world and have poured carbon into the atmosphere, and now loan money to those they have exploited in order to gain. The inequalities manifested through the colonial system mean suffering for millions of people today. Now, we are simultaneously suffering from a global pandemic; a climate crisis; nuclear weapon modernisation and potential use; horrifying armed conflicts; rising fascism, intolerance, and inequality. Yet so few statements contained the courage or conviction necessary to confront let alone overcome these challenges.

The imperative of disarmament, demilitarisation, degrowth

Spain was one of the few governments to acknowledge just how much our so-called leaders have let us down. “In most parts of the world, when young people look around them, they can see no life opportunities,” noted the Spanish president. “Instead, they see that the doors to progress and personal advancement are closing; they are seeing the environment deteriorating before their very eyes.” He noted that the virus of “disappointment, ennui, distrust and indifference” infects young people “every time we allow a new dispute to come between us; every time we renege on an agreement; every time we turn our backs on our commitments and responsibilities to other countries.”

To inoculate against these “insidious developments,” Spain said all governments are morally obliged to act, to prevent condemning young people from a hopeless future, to understand that the socioeconomic order has been disastrous. “We cannot continue to aspire to rampant, unnatural growth. We cannot build a world based on the destruction of guaranteed public services or of the environment in which we live. We cannot continue to nurture the fiction of a progress that only means greater injustice and inequality for millions of human beings.”

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) likewise lambasted the current world order and the “business as usual” attitude conveyed by so many—particularly since “business as usual” has already led to so much death and suffering around the globe. Noting the rise in nationalist isolationism and the building of walls, SVG urged countries to instead build bridges and to disarm. “The complex challenges of the 21st century will not be solved by military means or by a quest for hegemony,” said SVG’s prime minister warned. “While those who sell weapons have been traditionally positioned to broker peace, we cannot expect to use outdated tools to address effectively contemporary exigencies.” Likewise, 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.”

As UN member states conclude the General Assembly debate, it is clear that they need to take serious action immediately if they want to preserve multilateralism—not just as a system or method of operation within the United Nations, but as a principle necessary for the achievement of international peace and security. While the most militarised governments in our world continue to put their interests above those of our collective needs and our shared planet, the majority of UN member states need to stand up together, now, and build structures, forums, and processes that work for the rest of us, placing at the forefront disarmament, conflict prevention, solidarity and equality, and mitigating the climate crisis through green, degrowth politics.

Reaching Critical Will has extracted all references to disarmament- and militarism-related issues in a country-based index.