Despair and determination at the UN General Assembly

By Ray Acheson
28 September 2022

At this year’s UN General Assembly high-level debate, countries that have been systematically exploited brought some heat to the discussions, including around weapons, war, and global militarisation. Resoundingly critiquing the capitalist and colonial systems that have extracted resources and wealth, exploited labour, and exacerbated climate change, countries from Latin America and the Caribbean to Africa and the Pacific called for a fundamental change to international relations and global governance.

Expressing frustration with persistent and growing inequalities, poverty, food insecurity, and climate chaos, these countries also called out the games of “great power politics,” which threatens the survival of all. Within the UN system, many called for the abolition of the veto at the UN Security Council, but many others focused on the need for broader systemic change—starting with reduction of military spending and an end to war. As Antigua and Barbuda said, “Peace in the world is not a commodity to be traded; it is a right to be protected in the interest of all.”

War and militarism

Russia’s war against Ukraine dominated many of the statements at this year’s general debate. Many governments strongly condemned the invasion and called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and withdrawal of troops. Most spoke about the urgent need for diplomacy and dialogue, warning that solving conflicts through militarism is not the 21st century solution to tensions or disagreements.

However, with military spending at an unprecedented 2.1 trillion USD, and with the nuclear-armed states spending billions more a year on their arsenals of mass destruction, military might clearly is still the go-to solution to conflict. Many of the same countries condemning Russia’s illegal aggression have committed the same acts themselves in other contexts; many profit from conflicts by selling weapons into other war zones. This hypocrisy came to ahead with the US President’s remarks that “if nations can pursue their imperial ambitions without consequences, then we put at risk everything this very institution stands for.” This was not the US position when it engaged in countless wars of imperialist aggression in violation of the UN Charter. Perhaps in order to sidestep this obvious hypocrisy, the US President focused his condemnation on the seizing of another country’s territory by force.

Furthermore, many western governments are using this moment to double down on militarism, increasing their military budgets and profiting from unprecedented levels of arms sales. The United Kingdom’s Prime Minister even said as much, saying that it is “fortifying our deep security alliances in Europe and beyond through NATO and the Joint Expeditionary Force” and “building new security ties with our friends in the Indo-Pacific and the Gulf.” She also announced that the UK “will spend 3% of GDP on defence by 2030, maintaining our position as the leading security actor in Europe” and pledged to “sustain or increase our military support to Ukraine, for as long as it takes. New UK weapons are arriving in Ukraine as I speak—including more MLRS rockets. We will not rest until Ukraine prevails.”

Military spending

Many other western governments highlighted their contributions to funding and arming the conflict. However, as Saint Lucia’s Prime Minister pointed out, “The billions and billions of dollars being spent in Ukraine in wanton destruction and war could have transformed for the better the economies, the livelihoods and the lives of millions and millions of people in the developing countries of the world, if spent on poverty reduction and economic transformation.

Speaking to the vast sums spent on militarism more broadly, Cuba’s Foreign Minister asked, “How much more could we maybe do if these resources were devoted to promoting health and development? How many deaths as a result of COVID and other diseases might have been avoided?,” while the President of Cyprus wished that “the trillions of dollars spent on destructive weapons would instead have been spent on actions and programmes aiming to bridge the gap between rich and poor states.” Mongolia’s President likewise stressed, “It is time for all of us to ponder and reflect on what progress could have been achieved if this huge amount of money had been spent on the pressing issues of combating global warming and climate change.”

“For my country, it is inconceivable that while millions of people are waiting for vaccines, medicines or food to save their lives,” said Costa Rica’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, “the richest countries continue to prioritize their resources in armaments at the expense of people's well-being, climate health and equitable recovery.” Costa Rica reiterated its call for a gradual and sustained reduction in military spending, arguing, “It is about prioritizing the lives and well-being of people and the planet over the profits to be made from weapons and war. It is about investing in and actively building alternative approaches to security, approaches that facilitate cooperation and care rather than competition and violence.

Bolivia’s President noted, “We live in times in which the concentration of a large number of weapons of mass destruction in a small group of countries, which, by refusing to eliminate them and prioritizing their geopolitical interests, endanger the peace and security of our planet.” Arguing that the “lack of dialogue and preventive diplomacy measures dragged us into an era of great global tensions, growing uncertainties, and instability in global security,” Bolivia urged the replacement of “military expenditures for the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction with a fair economic compensation that the capitalist countries owe, morally and historically, to the countries of the periphery and the poor of the world.” Guatemala’s President made a similar appeal, calling for “No more fratricidal wars. No more unjustified, unnecessary wars. No more death. It is now or never….. Instead of taking up arms, let’s try to make the world a better place to live in peace, progress, development, peaceful coexistence between human beings and nature.”

Nuclear weapons

Speaking to the risks posed by global tensions and conflict, as well as climate change, Palau’s Minister of Foreign Affairs said, “There is no profit sufficiently large to be worth the price of war or the destruction of our planet.” Yet, as several governments pointed out, the nuclear-armed states spend billions each year on their arsenals of mass destruction, putting the entire world at risk of annihilation.

The President of the Marshall Islands expressed grave concern “at an increasingly polarized world where nuclear weapons testing and detonation are only growing in risk.” Noting that the Marshall Islands “was ground zero for the testing of the 67 nuclear and thermonuclear weapons for twelve years during the UN-US administered trusteeship era,” he said that the “exposure of our people and land has created impacts that have lasted—and will last—for generations. These impacts to our human rights, land, culture, health, and lives, are burdens that no other nation or country should ever have to bear.”

Yet the risks of nuclear weapon use currently appear as high as ever. Many governments condemned or raised concerns with the Russian government’s recent threats to use nuclear weapons, including Albania, Australia, Austria, Cambodia, Canada, Costa Rica, Côte d’Ivoire, Croatia, Czechia, Denmark, Djibouti, Fiji, Holy See, Iceland, Ireland, Jamaica, Japan, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Marshall Islands, Montenegro, New Zealand, Netherlands, Nigeria, Poland, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, San Marino, Sweden, Thailand, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States, Vanuatu, and Viet Nam.

A few governments, including Bangladesh, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Cuba, Kiribati, Mexico, Nauru, New Zealand, and San Marino, highlighted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and called on other states to join it. The TPNW is the only international agreement that categorically prohibits the use and the threat of use of nuclear weapons, along with all other nuclear weapon activities. In the margins of the high-level debate on 22 September, five more countries signed the TPNW (Barbados, Burkina Faso, Equatorial Guinea, Haiti, and Sierra Leone) and two ratified it (Dominican Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

Overall, the TPNW and its states parties stand against the possession of nuclear weapons and the dangerous mythology of nuclear deterrence. The Prime Minister of Aotearoa New Zealand noted that while some believe that we are safer as a result of nuclear weapons, “in New Zealand, we have never accepted the wisdom of mutually assured destruction. It takes one country to believe that their cause is nobler, their might stronger, their people more willing to be sacrificed. None of us can stand on this platform and turn a blind eye to the fact that there are already leaders amongst us who believe this.” She also noted that while “there will be those who agree but believe it is simply too hard to rid ourselves of nuclear weapons at this juncture,” this is a choice between “the challenge of disarmament” and “the consequences of a failed strategy of weapons-based deterrence.”

Other nuclear dangers

Nuclear weapons are not the only source of potential radioactive contamination, as many countries noted during the high-level debate. Some governments expressed concern with the fighting around the Zaporizhzya Nuclear Power Plant, which poses grave risk of a nuclear catastrophe. The European Union, Costa Rica, Czechia, Estonia, Holy See, Italy, Lithuania, Montenegro, Türkiye, and Ukraine called for an end to the fighting at the plant or warned of the risks from occupation and military activity around it.

At the same time, however, a few states also still encouraged the proliferation of nuclear power. Belgium even argued nuclear energy is “safer than ever”. In contrast, Micronesia, Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu expressed concern with Japan’s intention to dispose of radioactive water from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant disaster in 2011 into the ocean. “We cannot close our eyes to the unimaginable threats of nuclear contamination, marine pollution, and eventual destruction of the Blue Pacific Continent,” said the President of Micronesia, arguing, “The impacts of this decision are both transboundary and intergenerational in nature.” The Solomon Islands echoed these concerns, and also highlighted risks posed by nuclear-powered submarines, as did Kiribati.

Cyber peace and security

Some highlighted the damage caused by cyber-attacks and online disinformation, including in the context of Russia’s war. Some states called for further action to advance cyber peace and security, including through a UN cybercrime treaty and through the UN open-ended working group on information and communication technologies. These included, among others, Albania, Argentina, Bangladesh, Czechia, Equatorial Guinea, Estonia, Holy See, Jamaica, Kenya, Liechtenstein, Mauritius, Moldova, Monaco, Namibia, Nepal, New Zealand, Philippines, Russia, Samoa, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Togo, Tonga, Uruguay, and Zimbabwe.

“We need an open and inclusive global framework to harness and optimise the opportunities of digital transformation, while effectively addressing its challenges,” urged Singapore. “A zero-sum, exclusionary, bifurcated approach benefits no one. An erosion of trust and an atmosphere of confrontation will only breed cyber threats and malicious cyber activities.” Albania spoke of its experience of a cyberattack, which it announced has caused it to sever diplomatic relations with Iran, while Argentina argued that the UN “is the right place for the international community to find the necessary agreements that guarantee the maintenance of a free, open, stable, secure and, above all, peaceful cyberspace, where hatred and violence are not sown from anonymity.”

Conventional weapons

A few governments addressed other disarmament-related issues, including the impacts of landmines and the proliferation of small arms and light weapons and ammunition. Some governments called for compliance with the Arms Trade Treaty and the UN Programme of Action on small arms to address this scourge. China announced that it has decided to launch its domestic procedure to ratify the UN firearms protocol, “which will contribute to strengthening global cooperation on gun control and closing the security deficit.”

The Mexican Minister for Foreign Affairs highlighted its actions to stop the flow of small arms and light weapons, arguing that their widespread availability undermines regional and international security, hinders demobilisation and disarmament processes, and jeopardises any stabilisation scheme for a country in a situation of armed conflict. Zimbabwe noted that the continued proliferation of small arms throughout the African continent has been a setback to its quest to “Silence the Guns”.

Noting that his country does not manufacture guns, Jamaica’s Prime Minister pointed out that Jamaica’s population nevertheless suffers from the effects of widely available guns. “The countries that manufacture weapons that are available to the public must implement stronger measures to ensure that those weapons do not end up on streets and in the hands of people for whom they were not intended,” he urged. Similarly, Saint Lucia called on “the major manufacturers, exporters and importers of conventional weapons in our hemisphere to live up to their commitments, under these instruments, to lend the necessary expertise and technical assistance and cooperate in good faith to stem the tide of unregulated conventional arms and ammunition.”

The use of explosive weapons in populated areas, particularly in the context of Russia’s war in Ukraine, also drew some condemnation. While not always using the phrase “explosive weapons in populated areas,” several governments, including those of Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Costa Rica, Czechia, Djibouti, Israel, Italy, Moldova, Norway, Palau, Palestine, Poland, Spain, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, and United States, condemned or expressed concern about the bombing of civilians and civilian infrastructure. However, Ireland was the only country to highlight the adoption of the political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas earlier this year, which will be formally adopted in Dublin in November.

Warmongering and economic inequalities

The human suffering and environmental contamination caused by weapons and war underlies and compounds global inequalities. The inextricable link between militarism and capitalism has catapulted many countries into conflict and poverty, and has kept them there despite the promises of humanitarian aid or the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The entire framework of development, and the international financing of it, perpetuates poverty and inequality, as several governments critiqued during this year’s debate. As the 2030 deadline for the SDGs approaches quickly, many governments lamented the lack of progress in achieving them, even while recognising their limitations.

The global economy is a “two-lane highway, repressively patrolled by a rising tide of exclusionist nationalism,” said Kenya’s President. “A specter that undermines prospects of collective action and significantly impairs the resolve of the international community to guarantee fundamental rights, including safety and dignity of the world’s vulnerable majority.” The President of Malawi argued that the “global economy is now a house on fire, yet we continue to use evacuation methods that rush some nations out to safety while leaving the rest of us behind to fend for ourselves in the burning building.”

These economic disparities have an increasingly catastrophic environmental dimension. Kiribati argued that while its developmental agenda is grounded on its culture and traditional values and norms, this agenda is “oppressed by neo-colonial thinking that does not take into account our needs, our priorities, and our national context.” There is a “system of ‘global thinking’ that remains steeped with legacies of environmental destruction which our peoples have now inherited.” Meanwhile, as Fiji noted, humanity is now waging a war against itself, along with ecosystems and the ocean. “This war isn’t fought with bullets and bombs, but apathy, denial, and a lack of courage to do what we all know what must be done.”

Delivering perhaps the most impassioned and heartbreaking speech of the session, the President of Colombia tied together the violence of the war on drugs; environmental destruction and climate change; the racist carceral system in the United States; war profiteering to protect profits and preserve inequalities; the militarization of borders and horrors inflicted upon migrants; vaccine apartheid; and the cost of global militarisation. “The jungle burns, gentlemen, while you make war and play with it,” Colombia proclaimed. “World power has become irrational.” The ruling class, which extracts profits by killing the planet and disposing of human beings, have only paid lip service to mitigating climate change:

When actions were most needed, when speeches were no longer useful, when it was essential to deposit the money in the funds to save the humanity, when it was necessary to move away from coal and oil as soon as possible, one war was invented and another and another. They invaded Ukraine, but also Iraq, and Libya and Syria. They invaded in the name of oil and gas…. Wars have served as an excuse for them not to act against the climate crisis. Wars have shown them how dependent they are on what will end the human species.

Drawing a parallel between violence of past wars and the violence against people on the move from conflict and climate chaos, Colombia asked, what good our empires, if what is coming is the end of humanity? The climate disaster is not produced by the planet, it is produced by capital. The alleged logic of accumulation of capital is an accumulation of death. “Only in peace can we save life on this land of ours. There is no total peace, without social, economic and environmental justice. We are at war, too, with the planet. Without peace with the planet, there will be no peace among nations. Without social justice, there is no social peace.”

Honduras, too, condemned the capitalist system for the despair it has wrought. “The industrialised nations of the world are responsible for the serious deterioration of the environment, but they make us pay for their onerous lifestyle, and for this, they spare nothing, to plunge us into their plans and into an endless crisis.” The Honduran President said this “arbitrary world order, in which there are third and fourth category countries,” is unacceptable, especially “while those that are believed to be civilized do not tire of making invasions, wars, financial speculations, and crucifying us with their inflation over and over again time.”

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG)  likewise called out the “economic and trading system, awash with antagonistic contradictions, which has delivered unacceptable burdens to the poor and the weak, on the one hand, and benefits in abundance to the rich and the strong, on the other.” Along with “unnecessary and unwise conflicts, declared and undeclared wars, which subvert the settled norms and precepts of international law, and contribute to economic hardship, and immense suffering globally,” SVG’s Prime Minister condemned the hubris of those in power, “particularly in the global centres of imperialism and in the locales of those intoxicated with the quest for hegemony” for their devastation of the world. He noted that the “powerful” countries—and those that want to join this club—have each proclaimed the necessity of constructing a “New World Order,” each with its own peculiar agenda. “But from the global periphery, which encompasses most of humanity, I ask the relevant and haunting questions: What's New? Which World? And Who Gives the Orders? The future of humanity depends on satisfactory answers to these queries.”

Hope and action

Instead of war and competition, SVG called instead for “respair”—the pursuit of “fresh hope conjoined with love for humanity and an abiding faith, made perfect in works.” Without this, SVG warned, “a desecration of our future awaits us.”

While the challenges of the world may seem immense and insurmountable, there are those who have the courage and vision to push back. Although the General Assembly debate is primarily a platform for speeches, it does offer a glimpse of what might be possible—and an opportunity to find those who might organise together for change.

“It is within our power to make that difference, that definable change,” asserted the Prime Minister of Barbados. “We must decide whether we want to stand for peace, whether we want to stand for love, and whether we want to stand for prosperity, knowing that we choose to do so at the most difficult time, and from the most difficult and deep place…. It is up to us to change possibilities into realities.”

Reaching Critical Will maintained a country-based index of all references to weapons, militarism, and disarmament at the UNGA high-level debate.