Hope and hubris at the UN General Assembly
By Ray Acheson
30 September 2021
Hope is not just about aspiration or longing. It is a motivation to act; a determination to change the world—and a commitment to doing so. Hubris, on the other hand, is the expectation that this change will never come, usually stemming from the arrogance of believing one is powerful enough to prevent it, or because no one else is powerful enough to enable it.
Hope or hubris. This dichotomous approach to international affairs—and the future of our shared world—was one of the key themes at the UN General Assembly annual general debate this year. It was reflected across all issues raised by delegations during the debate, from climate change to the pandemic to armed conflict to socioeconomic inequalities and more. It is a theme that resonates strongly with the discourse on disarmament and militarism at the debate, which underpins all of our work for demilitarisation and peace.
The edge of the abyss
The theme of the general debate was “building resilience through hope”. In his opening remarks, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said he has hope, arguing, “The problems we have created are problems we can solve.” But, he warned, “We are on the edge of an abyss—and moving in the wrong direction.” Outlining the litany of self-made challenges facing the international community—from climate chaos to armed conflict—Guterres pointed out, “Instead of humility in the face of these epic challenges, we see hubris. Instead of the path of solidarity, we are on a dead end to destruction.”
This is not hyperbole. Read the news or spend at the day at the UN and you’re more likely than not to feel despair at the state of the world. “Previously, the Earth was whispering,” said Slovakia, “but now she is screaming that she cannot hold us any longer, that humankind is too heavy a burden to carry.” And while the impacts of our hubris are disproportionately suffered by the so-called global south, this will not be the case forever. As the Maldives warned, “The state of environmental ruin small island states endure now, will without a doubt catch up with bigger nations sooner than later. There is no guarantee of survival for any one nation in a world where the Maldives cease to exist.”
The ingenuity and resources to solve these global catastrophes are there, and yet the governments of the world—particularly the richest and most heavily weaponised—appear more interested in power politics than problem solving. The remarks from so-called world leaders at the general debate did little to assuage any fears that we are accelerating towards destruction. While small island states rang the alarm bells about the risks to their survival; while people around the world live in cities and countries awash with blood, bombs, and bullets; while the many countries—whose development has been deliberately subverted to serve the interests of capital—are still waiting to receive lifesaving vaccines for COVID-19; the “military powers” and their proxies thumped their chests and delivered lectures about the world order.
Rhetoric versus reality
At the end of its remarks, the United States claimed to stand at the UN “for the first time in 20 years, with the United States not at war. We’ve turned the page.” Yet its ongoing drone strikes, special forces operations, and military presence globally through at least 750 military bases says otherwise. And while the US President’s remarks to the UN General Assembly that its “military power must be our tool of last resort, not our first, and it should not be used as an answer to every problem we see around the world” are very welcome, it’s not easy to accept these words at face value when the country’s economy has become based on perpetual war.
Also at odds with these remarks is the reality of the new Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) military alliance, announced just before the general debate began. A wide variety of governments, analysts, and activists have criticised the alliance both for perpetuating militarism generally, and for violating non-proliferation rules with a nuclear submarine deal. Most view this alliance as an attempt by the United States to “contain” China, which is it perceives as a rising threat to its already crumbling empire. During the general debate, the United States claimed that it is not seeking a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs, yet continues to invest in building exactly such a world. And it is not alone in doing so. The rest of the permanent five members of the UN Security Council and many of their allies continue to invest heavily in militarisation, engage in wars and occupations that destroy and damage civilian populations, and accuse each other of violating the norms and principles of the world order built precisely to prevent more slaughter in the wake of the Second World War.
Russia argued that a “might-is-right” approach is being applied by other states. In asserting this, however Russia, like the US before it, failed to mention its own complicity in the dismantlement and violations of agreements that are meant to serve the interests of humanity. Both states have withdrawn from or violated a range of bilateral and multilateral instruments relating to disarmament and arms control, causing many other governments to appeal to preserving the “rules-based order” of international law and norms.
However, Russia questioned the legitimacy of the “rules-based order,” which it juxtaposed with international law. It argued, “There is no consensus among the leading powers as to the principles of the world order,” asserting that the rules-based order consists of norms developed by Western states behind closed doors, as opposed to international law that has been agreed by all. It accused these states of trying to manipulate the UN to promote selfish interests, without reflecting on its own actions to, for example, consistently disrupt the UN’s work on disarmament.
This dichotomy between the rules-based order and international laws is challenging within the UN context. The establishment or imposition of agreements reached among a subset of the international community seeking control sets up a power struggle with those left out of the decision-making and lends not to cooperation but to division. But many states seem to have a more holistic view of things, seeing the whole range of agreements (treaties adopted inside and outside the UN; bilateral, regional, and international initiatives; etc.) as useful attempts to collectively constrain militarism and violence and to protect humanity. Appeals to the “powerful” states to conform to a rules-based order are often not just about Western-imposed rules but about international law as well.
States on each “side” of this purported division undermine all these constraints, whether the agreements are developed behind closed doors or through democratic or consensus-based multilateral processes. The governments most embroiled in this debate each reject or violate critical legal instruments for disarmament and arms control, such as the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the Arms Trade Treaty, and so on. And just as Russia rejects the rules-based order, so do the order’s own proponents—such as Australia, which said rather ominously at the general debate, “We must reinforce a sustainable rules-based order … while ensuring it is also adaptable to the great power realities of our time.” (The ellipses aren’t to mark the extraction of text, they are in the written statement to indicate, one supposes, a sense of grave importance.)
Living above the law
The problem isn’t as simple as rules versus laws. It’s that certain governments believe they live above the law—that they are exempt from anything that seeks to constrain their behaviour. This is the crux of the challenge currently facing the United Nations and the concept of collective security: when some members of the so-called international community reject the measures that have been agreed over time to ensure peace and equality; or violate these agreements while claiming not to, with complete impunity; or refuse to allow new agreements to be reached that would safeguard humanity—what can the rest of the world do about? So far, there has not been an adequate answer beyond striving forward where possible, often without these states, and condemning the actions and policies that are leading us into peril.
Unfortunately, this means that for now, while the warmongers rage against each other, the world burns. But this situation is untenable, and most of the world’s governments know it.
“Power rivalries are worsening, and armed conflicts are raging on almost every continent,” warned Switzerland, noting that international humanitarian law and human rights are violated daily, sowing the seeds of future conflicts. In this context we face a choice, proclaimed Malawi, between “a future of good governance delivered through strong democratic institutions that safeguard human rights, uphold the rule of law, and maintain world peace,” and “a future of corrupt and oppressive governments propped up by proxy wars between developed nations and enabled by a weak and undemocratic United Nations that serves the interests of its Security Council at the expense of its member states’ development and inclusion.”
To this end, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines appealed to the “metaphoric lions and lionesses” to “converse with each other meaningfully, rather than hanker for perpetual disorder, insecurity, and war.” It noted, “they do not actually need to lay down with each other in joyous embrace; they ought simply to resolve their differences, whether ancient or modern; and compromise, where necessary and desirable, in the interest of all. But for the sake of humanity, let us drop the vaunted self-interests, the vanities, and divisiveness—real or imagined, and work together, for the better.”
What would this look like? In part, it will mean overcoming the systems that perpetuate violence, tension, and conflict. It will mean abolishing the structures of violence—war and militarism foremost among them—that are leading humanity to its own demise. This is, after all, the purpose for which the UN was created. Quoting the words inscribed on a wall near the UN building in New York, that “nations shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore,” Zambia argued this is a call to action. In this same spirit, Mongolia urged for the “horrendous phenomenon called war” to be eliminated, calling instead for dialogue and diplomacy to prevail. But eliminating war means eliminating the profits of war. What else but the “savage capitalism” described by Nicaragua—the “insatiable attitude of accumulation at the expense of international peace, security and human life”—could keep us going down the path to our own extinction?
As the entire world strains under the pressure of the pandemic, the climate crisis, and socioeconomic inequalities, global military spending has continued to rise. “How will we explain to the next generation that while there was a raging pandemic in which vaccines were not available to all people, and an unprecedented climate crisis, the world invested more funding in weapons?” exclaimed Costa Rica. “How is this irrationality possible? The future is raising its voice at us: Less military weaponry, more investment in peace!” As Fiji declared, “If we can spend trillions on missiles, drones, and nuclear submarines, we can fund climate action.
Hope as action
Hope gives us reason to act. And act we must. We’re told we can’t change things. We’re told that the system is unstoppable. This conceals, and exempts, those running the system from responsibility and accountability. But we are not helpless against the systems we have built. We have the means to enact change, we simply choose not to, as Barbados said at the general debate. “The world knows not what it is gambling with. If we do not control this fire, it will burn us all down.”
Right now, we are at a precipice, in the midst of what Saint Vincent and the Grenadines described as “a parallelogram of unruly and complex forces” for which “fresh initiatives and directions are required; and transformational leadership is needed, now more than ever.” The calls to action from most governments and people in the world must not go unheard. Abolishing war, disarming and demilitarising, dismantling the military-industrial complex: these are the actions that are necessary to not just save future generations from the scourge of war, but to begin to deal with the other crises we face.
Now is the time for action, and the UN is a crucial place for it. As the UN Secretary-General said, “This is our time. A moment for transformation. An era to re-ignite multilateralism. An age of possibilities. Let us restore trust. Let us inspire hope. And let us start right now.”
Report on specific disarmament and demilitarisation topics
The following provides an overview of references from the general debate regarding disarmament, arms control, and weapons. A full accounting of such references can be found in our online country-based index.
Condemnation of the continued existence of nuclear weapons came through strongly at this year’s debate. With converging crises like climate change, the pandemic, and rising global inequalities and geopolitical tensions, many delegations reiterated the importance of the total elimination of nuclear weapons. Malaysia argued, “The development and deployment of nuclear weapons continues to be a threat to all mankind. Given the global health crisis, we find it disheartening that billions of dollars are being spent to maintain and modernise nuclear weapons, rather than on saving lives and livelihoods.” Nepal also criticised the arms race and modernisation of nuclear weapons, calling upon relevant states to “divert precious resources from military spending to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and lift the most vulnerable people out of poverty.” Similarly, Nicaragua said, “It is unacceptable that in the midst of this pandemic, weapons of mass destruction continue to be modernised, endangering the whole of humanity.”
Putting profit ahead of people requires “justifications” for the possession and modernisation of nuclear weapons, which is borne out through the widely critiqued theory of “nuclear deterrence”. As Austria pointed out, “We cannot increase our security by increasing our potential to destroy. And, most of all, by hanging on to the myth of nuclear deterrence. We need to eliminate these horrendous weapons of mass destruction.” Similarly, the Holy See argued, “The threat of nuclear weapons, possessed under the guise of nuclear deterrence, creates an ethos of fear based on mutual annihilation, and poisons relationships between peoples, obstructs dialogue, and undermines hope. Humanitarian and security issues require us to end the nuclear arms race and to undertake effective measures toward nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and prohibition.”
Fiji pointed out that after World War Two, “world leaders saw unilateral action as kindling for another world war, one fought with nuclear weapons of planet-destroying potential,” noting that to prevent this they built the multilateral system. Nuclear disarmament is part of the origin story of the United Nations, yet progress to this end has been prevented by the nuclear-armed states for decades. Further, the UN has in the past been complicit with the perpetuation of the nuclear age. The Marshall Islands highlighted that the UN Trusteeship Council specifically authorised nuclear detonations. “This was part of a wider nuclear weapons testing program of 67 atmospheric tests conducted by the United States as administering authority” of the Marshall Islands, between 1946 and 1958, which delivered “the equivalent of 1 .6 Hiroshima-sized shots every day, for 12 years.” The legacy of these tests, noted the Marshall Islands, “remains a very contemporary threat—in our waters, our lands and our bodies.” It announced that it recently formed a National Nuclear Commission to coordinate effective responses through a human rights lens. “We tirelessly underscore that no people or nation should ever have to bear a burden such as ours, and that no effort should be spared to move towards a world free of nuclear weapons and nuclear risk, through any and all effective pathways.”
To this end, the UN Secretary-General called for progress on nuclear disarmament and Zimbabwe for the realisation of a world free of nuclear weapons. Kazakhstan urged the nuclear-armed states to commit to the complete elimination of nuclear weapons by 2045, which will be the centennial of the United Nations. Guatemala called for “complete, irreversible, and transparent disarmament” and condemned “any nuclear test or threat of the use of force with this type of weapon, which put at true risk and endanger the continuity of life on our planet.” New Zealand highlighted the “tireless efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons and the spectre of a conflict that no one can recover from.”
A number of delegations, including Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Holy See, Ireland, Malaysia, Nicaragua, San Marino, Thailand, and Zambia, highlighted the significance of the entry into force of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and urged all states to join the Treaty. Austria looked forward to the First Meeting of States Parties, which it is scheduled to host in Vienna in March 2022. Nigeria said it will participate actively in this meeting.
Unfortunately, as Croatia noted, nuclear weapons “still loom large in the security calculus of leading global powers.” It urged the avoidance of “nightmare scenarios” through commitment to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Other states, including Holy See, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, Malaysia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Norway, Sweden, and Thailand, highlighted the importance of the NPT and/or its upcoming Review Conference. Australia said it will “always honour” the NPT, despite the violations of the Treaty posed by the recently announced agreement to acquire US nuclear powered submarines, which is part of the AUKUS military alliance noted above.
AUKUS is only the latest in a long line of actions that have undermined international arms control. The situation has become so dire that much of the UN’s work on disarmament seems focused these days on appealing to the major weapon possessors and users to stop tearing down the international norms and laws that have built since World War Two. “In an era of intensifying great-power competition and rapid technological progress, we are also faced with a serious risk of a new arms race,” warned Finland. “If the unravelling of the international arms control system is allowed to continue, it reduces predictability and increases the likelihood of unintended escalation.” Similarly, Montenegro highlighted the significant pressure on the international architecture for disarmament, non-proliferation, and arms control, including from modernisation of weapon systems and the collapse of important agreements. In this context, Oman called on all UN member states “to fulfil their commitments undertaken through treaties and agreements related to disarmament, in particular, those agreements and treaties relating to nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, in order to ensure global stability.
The United States pledged to “uphold the longstanding rules and norms that have formed the guardrails of international engagement for decades,” including “support for arms control measures that reduce the risk and enhance transparency.” While refuting the overall concept of a rules-based order, as noted above, Russia purported to be holding up established arms control agreements. It said that after the US withdrawal from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, it “made a unilateral commitment not to deploy land-based intermediate-range or short-range missiles, both nuclear and non-nuclear, in regions where no similar US-made weapons would appear.” It also said it is waiting for a reciprocal moratorium from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, reinforced withmutual verification measures.
Russia also noted that “great expectations are also linked with the prospect of the Russian-American dialogue on the future of arms control,” highlighting the extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) without any preconditions and the joint presidential statement reaffirming that there can be no winners in a nuclear war and one must never be fought. Finland, Norway, and Sweden welcomed the extension of New START, and called for further dialogue and cooperation. France called for a summit of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council to set out a joint action programme, including in relation to arms control and collective security, while Japan urged all countries “to make sincere efforts in a transparent manner in international arrangements on arms control and disarmament.”
Some delegations also highlighted regional arms control efforts, with Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates, calling for the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. Kuwait noted that it will preside over the second session of the conference to establish this zone in November 2021.
Peace and denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula
Another key regional issue remains the process for declaring an end to the war on the Korean Peninsula, establishing a peace agreement, and achieving denuclearisation. The Republic of Korea (ROK) emphasised the importance of formally ending the Korean War with an end-of-war declaration, which will help create a new order of reconciliation and cooperation on the Korean Peninsula and help foster denuclearisation. It proposed that the two Koreas, the United States, and China come together and declare that the war on the Korean Peninsula is over. “When the parties involved in the Korean War stand together and proclaim an end to the War,” said ROK President Moon Jae-in, “I believe we can make irreversible progress in denuclearization and usher in an era of complete peace.”
The United States said it seeks “serious and sustained diplomacy to pursue the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” and that it is looking for “concrete progress toward an available plan with tangible commitments that would increase stability on the Peninsula and in the region, as well as improve the lives of the people in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), however, argued that US militarism and hostile policies towards the DPRK is what is preventing peace and denuclearisation. It noted that almost 30,000 US troops are stationed in the ROK, “maintaining a war posture to take military action against the DPRK at any moment.” The DPRK also highlighted joint US-ROK military exercises; US military spending on supersonic weapons, long-range precision-guided armaments, intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic bombers; ROK development and acquisition of modern weapons; all as binding the ROK “with the chains of military alliance,” which is what prevents an end of the Korean War.
Meanwhile, Japan condemned the recent ballistic missile tests by the DPRK as a violation of UN Security Council resolutions. It called on the DPRK to engage in diplomatic efforts to progress denuclearisation, and said it would continue to seek to normalise its relationship with DPRK. Sweden called on the DPRK to “adhere to its international obligations and take steps towards denuclearisation.”
Nicaragua condemned “the US hegemonic political aggressions against the peaceful settlement of conflicts, including in relation to the DPRK, while Cuba opposed the sanctions against DPRK. Costa Rica advocated for a nuclear-weapon-free Korean Peninsula and urged the parties to “build peace, stability, and security together.”
Iran’s nuclear programme
The status of Iran’s nuclear programme and the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) also received some attention at the debate. Iran reiterated that the production and stockpiling of nuclear weapons is “forbidden based on the religious decree by His Eminence, the Supreme Leader.” It said that the US withdrawal from the JCPOA and imposition of “maximum pressure” on Iran has failed, but noted the policy of “maximum oppression” remains. Iran demanded all parties comply with the JCPOA and called on the US to lift its sanctions.
Cuba and Nicaragua opposed the sanctions against Iran, and Nicaragua further noted that the JCPOA “demonstrates that dialogue and diplomacy are the most appropriate means for peaceful resolution, as an essential part of the functioning of multilateralism.” Qatar similarly argued “there is no solution to the disagreements and differences in viewpoints with Iran except through rational dialogue based on mutual respect.” It argued that this “also applies to the issue of returning to the nuclear agreement with Iran. I do not think that anyone has an alternative to this approach, even those who oppose reverting to the agreement.”
Several others echoed support for the JCPOA, with Russia calling for “the soonest possible resumption of the full implementation of the JCPOA on settling the situation around the Iranian nuclear programme” and Croatia arguing that “reviving the Iran nuclear deal is a key instrument of regional security and stability that can still serve as a useful platform for broader regional dialogue.”
The United States said it “remains committed to preventing Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon” and that it is working with the P5+1 to “engage Iran diplomatically and seek a return to the JCPOA. We’re prepared to return to full compliance if Iran does the same.” Bahrain reaffirmed its support for “international efforts aimed at preventing Iran from acquiring the ability to develop a nuclear weapon” and called on Iran “to fully cooperate with the IAEA to ensure the maintenance of regional and international security and stability.” Germany said it is ready to renew the JCPOA and called Iran “to return to serious negotiations as quickly as possible.”
Saudi Arabia said it is “very concerned at Iranian steps that go counter to its commitments as well as daily declarations from Iran that its nuclear program is peaceful.” Czech Republic argued that “Iran’s continued escalation of nuclear activities far beyond its commitments coupled with the suspension of the implementation of transparency measures under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action raises serious concerns. All these actions impede the execution of the IAEA’s verification and monitoring mandate.” France asserted that “Iran cannot be allowed to think time is on its side, because the more dangerous its nuclear programme becomes, the greater the risk of a major crisis.” France said it “will take all necessary action to encourage dialogue,” but argued that “the only possible path remains an agreement to establish that Iran is once again fulfilling its obligations. It is therefore essential that negotiations resume very quickly.
As the UN Security Council Facilitator for Resolution 2231 on the Iran nuclear deal, Ireland said it has “engaged extensively to encourage a return to compliance by all parties.” Ireland welcomed the commitment of the US administration to return to the agreement and urged Iran “to seize this opportunity, to return swiftly to talks in Vienna, and to come back into full compliance with the agreement, including by cooperating fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency.” Oman also expressed hope “that the Vienna talks on the Iranian nuclear program will lead to the desired consensus among all parties, because we firmly believe that this will be in the interest of the Region and the world.”
A few countries expressed concern with the JCPOA, with the United Arab Emirates arguing that “any future agreement with Iran must address the shortcomings of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and must involve the countries of the region,” and Israel asserting that Iran is continuing to develop its nuclear weapon programme. Israel proclaimed, “We will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.”
Biological and chemical weapons
The other weapons of mass destruction did not receive much attention at the general debate. Iraq noted it has suffered the use of chemical weapons, and Norway said, “The increased threat from chemical weapons must be countered.” Syria reiterated its claim that it has fulfilled its Chemical Weapons Convention obligations and has cooperated with the Organisation for the Probation of Chemical Weapons, and accused others of politicising the issue.
Russia said it is “awaiting the response to the Russian initiative to elaborate a convention on the suppression of acts of chemical and biological terrorism,” while Kazakhstan highlighted its proposal last year for an “International Agency for Biological Safety.”
A few states raised issues related to drones. Pakistan highlighted that the United States has conducted 480 drone attacks in Pakistan. “And we all know that the drone attacks are not that precise. They cause more collateral damage than the militants they are targeting.”
Israel accused Iran of making operational a “new deadly terror unit—swarms of killer UAVs [uncrewed aerial vehicles] armed with lethal weapons that can attack any place any time.” Israel said Iran plans “to blanket the skies of the Middle East with this lethal force.” Saudi Arabia said it will defend itself against drone attacks, among other things.
Only two speakers addressed the issue of autonomous weapon systems (AWS), but they did so strongly. The UN Secretary-General called for a ban on autonomous weapons, which “choose targets and kill people without human interference.” Austria similarly called for “clear red lines that we as humankind are not willing to cross,” which “includes stepping back from creating killing machines—lethal autonomous weapons systems—systems where an algorithm decides in a split second who lives and who dies.” Austria highlighted that the previous week it organised a conference to ensure meaningful human control over weapons. “Together with partner countries and civil society, we hope to establish a process leading to a ban of killer robots.”
Cyber peace and security
An increasing number of delegations raised concerns about cyber-related issues, including Belarus, Cameroon, Canada, Colombia, Côte d’Ivoire, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Japan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Malta, Mauritius, Micronesia, Monaco, Niger, Romania, Russia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, San Marino, Sierra Leone, Slovenia, Switzerland, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, United States, and Zimbabwe. Many highlighted cyber-attacks and the deliberate spreading of misinformation online as key concerns; others noted the impact of growing digital divides on global equality.
The UN Secretary-General noted that “restoring trust and inspiring hope means bridging the digital divide.” He pointed out that half of humanity has no access to the internet and highlighted his Roadmap for Digital Co-operation, which seeks to get everyone online by 2030. However, he also noted that there are dangers associated with the use and abuse of data online:
A vast library of information is being assembled about each of us. Yet we don’t even have the keys to that library. We don’t know how this information has been collected, by whom or for what purposes. But we do know our data is being used commercially—to boost corporate profits. Our behavior patterns are being commodified and sold like futures contracts. Our data is also being used to influence our perceptions and opinions. Governments and others can exploit it to control or manipulate people’s behaviour, violating human rights of individuals or groups, and undermining democracy. This is not science fiction. This is today’s reality. And it requires a serious discussion.
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines similarly noted that “the behemoths in global communications,” which are “enveloped in mega profits and profiteering,” also “own and control the various internet platforms, with little or no public regulation, and have ignored or abandoned any real sense of responsibility for the anti-vax misinformation and disinformation which occupy cyberspace. As a consequence, real people die in their multitudes across the world. Surely, this irresponsibility must stop!” Barbados likewise raised concerns about “fake news,” arguing that states have “come together with alacrity to defend the right of states to tax across the digital space but we are not prepared to come together quickly to defend the right of our citizens not to be duped by fake news in that same space.” Qatar also highlighted misuse of cyberspace as a concern, such as “breaching private domains of individuals and international piracy.” It reiterated the call for the UN to unify efforts “to prevent the misuse of the scientific progress in cybersecurity and regularize these vital aspects according to the rules of international law.
Some delegations highlighted their efforts on securing cyberspace. France said it is working within Europe to adopt legislation on digital markets and encouraged others to do the same in order to “establish a new digital public order in the wake of the Paris Call and the Christchurch Call to Action, which, since 2019, has enabled us to take decisive action to remove terrorist content from the Internet.” Japan said it is working with the UN and regionally for “a free, fair, and secure cyber-space.”
More broadly, a number of delegates spoke about the efforts to address the militarisation of cyberspace, including cyberattacks and cyberwar. The UN Secretary-General noted that there is a lack of legal framework to address this, while Latvia noted that security threats in cyberspace are increasing and called for the development of new legal principles to “avoid risks and damage to human rights and freedoms.” Austria said, “We have to make sure that our human centric approach applies online as well as offline. New technologies are no new frontier where human rights do not exist!”
To this end, work is underway at the UN on these issues. Switzerland noted that “the virtual world is not a lawless zone” and said it is working in the UN “to promote responsible state behaviour and the application of international law in cyberspace. It also participates in efforts to combat cybercrime.” Estonia also highlighted its long-standing involvement in developing a “normative framework for responsible state behaviour in cyberspace,” noting that at the heart of this work is international law, including the UN Charter, international humanitarian law, and international human rights law. “Discussions on cybersecurity and cybercrime must ensure that we make a concentrated effort to implement the rules of the road we already have,” said Estonia, calling on states to implement existing legal frameworks and urging the inclusion of companies and civil society in discussions.
Russia warned about states’ intention “to militarise the internet and unleash a cyber arms race.” It highlighted ongoing work at the UN to agree upon ways to ensure cyber security, emphasising that the process “should not be based on someone’s special rules, but rather on universal agreements allowing to examine any concerns in a transparent manner, relying on facts. This is the aim of our initiative to elaborate standard norms for states’ responsible behaviour in the use of ICTs and are preparing a universal convention on combating cybercrime.” The United States said it is working to protect its “critical infrastructure against cyberattacks, disrupting ransomware networks, and working to establish clear rules of the road for all nations as it relates to cyberspace.”
Armed conflict and the use of explosive weapons in populated areas
While efforts are underway to prevent future weapons and wars, many governments also raised concerns with ongoing armed conflicts. Most delegations addressing the General Assembly called for a peaceful resolution to specific armed conflicts around the world. Some highlighted the destruction caused by warfighting in populated areas, and the impacts of conflict on civilians. Bahrain, for example, noted that armed conflicts “have resulted in the loss of lives, the displacement of millions of refugees and displaced persons, and the destruction of cities, villages, and infrastructure, turning the lives of these people into a painful tragedy of daily suffering, driving away opportunities for peace, security, and stability.” Similarly, Dominica highlighted that the “destruction brought about by wars within and between countries continues to displace millions of people from their homes creating unprecedented refugee crises.”
Delegates did not often address the use of specific weapons in armed conflict, though Azerbaijan highlighted the challenge posed by “the vast presence of landmines planted by Armenia,” and urged the international community to “force” Armenia to provide it with accurate mine maps. Georgia, meanwhile, said that Armenia provided these maps.
Several delegations condemned violations of international humanitarian law more broadly, including the deliberate targeting of civilians or aid workers. In relation to the conflict in Syria, Malta said the “attacks on children, hospitals, schools, and other vital civilian infrastructure including potable water production plants is of grave concern.” Niger critiqued the deliberate targeting of “civilian populations and schools, as is the case in the Central Sahel region, where villages are frequently attacked and thousands of children are deprived of education as a result of these attacks.” Malta also addressed the impact of conflict on children, noting that every year, the international community fails to protect children “from violence, from cruelty, from harm, and from realising their full potential.” It condemned the recruitment and abduction of children into armed conflict and called on all states to “support the full implementation of strong child protection mandates, including through the speedy deployment of senior child protection advisors and teams, and by prioritising the protection of children in peacekeeping transitions.”
Ukraine condemned bombings in Afghanistan, while Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen condemned the targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure in Saudi Arabia, including with ballistic missiles and armed drones. Yemen also critiqued the use by militias of “ballistic missiles, drones, and heavy weaponry” in Yemen, “with total indifference to the lives of civilians and the displaced persons that escaped their areas of control that are estimated by more than two million people.” France heighted the targeting of humanitarian and medical personnel, even as they are providing emergency relief to populations. It called for better prevention and accountability.
A few countries highlighted the importance of stopping such violations of international humanitarian law. New Zealand called on all states to “strengthen and improve respect for the laws of armed conflict, and to enhance the protection of civilians.” It argued, “Preventing both the use of illegal weapons, and the illegal use of legal weapons, is essential, as is ensuring there is no impunity for any such use.” Switzerland said it is “working hard to promote international law, including humanitarian law, in order to avoid conflicts or reduce their effects.” It highlighted that it has prepared a report on the implementation of international humanitarian law and called on UN member states to do the same.
While many delegations highlighted the importance of ceasefires in specific contexts, few delegations addressed last year’s call by the UN Secretary-General for a global ceasefire and cessation of all armed conflict during the pandemic. Even as many states recognised the conflagration of conflict and COVID-19, it seems the appeal for peace is no longer foremost on the agenda. One exception was Malaysia, which highlighted its efforts earlier this year to lead on the issuance of a joint communiqué on a global ceasefire. “We strongly believe that the UN membership must speak with one voice on the need for an immediate cessation of hostilities in all corners of the world,” said Malaysia’s Prime Minister, but “it is unfortunate that we are far from realizing this global ceasefire.”
Small arms and light weapons and the international arms trade
While a global ceasefire remains elusive, so too does control of the flow of weapons. Many delegations, including Croatia, Gabon, The Gambia, Jamaica, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, São Tomé and Príncipe, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Trinidad and Tobago, Zambia, and Zimbabwe pointed to the illicit trafficking in small arms and light weapons (SALW) as a key concern for international peace and security, as well as a contributing factor to global inequalities and violence.
Jamaica noted, “The widespread availability of these arms and their ammunition is a key enabler of conflict and endemic crime, and represents a significant danger to our internal security, fostering criminal activities which destabilize the social order.” It pledged to work with its partners “to enhance the capacity of member states to address issues related to arms control and disarmament, by preventing the diversion of conventional arms to the illicit market.” Trinidad and Tobago likewise recognised that the “increasing incidence of violent crime domestically, bedevils our efforts toward achieving sustainable development and the maintenance of the rule of law,” arguing that the illicit trafficking of small arms and increasingly sophisticated weaponry facilitates these activities.
Mexico highlighted the links between “the irresponsible arms trade and trafficking” and “the increase in violence, homicides and the commission of high-impact crimes that affect the security of citizens, limit their possibilities for development and undermine the social fabric.” It urged the UN Security Council to “take measures to ensure stricter control of small arms and light weapons, as these are the fuel that fuels the world's conflicts.” Saint Kitts and Nevis explained that “the uncontrolled proliferation of the illicit trade of Small Arms and Light Weapons has significant impacts on the health and well-being, socio-economic development, human rights and human development of every citizen in the world.” It urged that “new challenges faced as a result of technological developments” be taken into consideration and confronted.
Several delegations highlighted actions against the illicit trade in SALW. Croatia said it “will continue advocating for effective multilateral action on tackling illegal arms transfers and build-ups.” Zambia said it “remains committed to the call of the Lusaka Roadmap to silence guns in Africa and the initiative being implemented by all African Union (AU) member states to promote peace and security, which has since been endorsed for extension for a further ten-year period from 2021 to 2030.” It called for further support from the UN on this initiative. The Gambia, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Zimbabwe also highlighted the importance of the Silencing the Guns initiative. The Gambia said there is “undisputed recognition of strong interlinkages between peace and development, with studies confirming that armed conflicts remain a major obstacle to development in the continent.” In this context, it called on the international community to “act coherently to address the root causes of conflicts and recovery in Africa by adopting new approaches and narratives that suit the demands of our time.”
Nigeria agreed the excessive accumulation and uncontrolled spread of SALW “in many regions of the world are having devastating humanitarian and socio-economic consequences, especially on the continent of Africa.” Due to this reality, it called for the “world-wide application of the Arms Trade Treaty [ATT] to codify accountability in conventional arms trade, which is critical to the security of nations.” Mozambique and Trinidad and Tobago also highlighted the importance of the ATT in this regard. Some countries mentioned the challenges of weapons proliferation in zones of conflict, including Burundi, while a few raised the importance of disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) programmes in post-conflict situations, including Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Malta, and Mozambique.