Every year the team at Reaching Critical Will, the disarmament arm of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom report on all international forums concerned with disarmament. At this time of year they follow the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly which deals with “disarmament, global challenges and threats to peace that affect the international community”. Here states set out their positions about everything from nuclear weapons to small arms. We republish here the editorial of RCW’s First Committee Monitor from 8 November 2020.
By Ray Acheson, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
As the electoral politics of the UN Headquarters’ host country played out this past week, the First Committee reconvened to begin taking actions on the more than 70 draft resolutions on its docket. To some this may have felt like a distraction, welcome or unwelcome, but the work of the First Committee is intimately tied to the domestic politics of all its member states, as much as it is to the relations between them. And the theatrics within the First Committee give us an indication—often times quite worrying—of what governments are doing, or are willing to do, at home as well as abroad.
The action over the resolutions related to chemical weapons this past week is (unfortunately) a good example of this. Over the past few years, divisions around the use of chemical weapons have deepened. While virtually every delegation condemns, in the abstract, the use of these weapons, there is a sharp divide between those who are willing to condemn specific uses and those who argue that singling out and stigmatising users is “political”. This has led to a breakdown in consensus on the standard chemical weapons-related resolution, which until recently was adopted without a vote. But more importantly, it has led to a breakdown in support for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and other UN offices and mechanisms that are meant to investigate alleged chemical weapon use. It has also meant that while in certain cases investigations have been carried out and attribution for these crimes has been applied, the findings have been rejected by certain governments and the perpetrators have not been held accountable.
The idea that the use of chemical weapons—chemical weapons!—could be politicised should give us all pause. That the functioning of treaties, international organisations, and agreed mechanisms could be disputed and disparaged at the time when they are needed most requires us to take a look at our systems and structures. Institutions are being tested right now. The institutions of individual states and of international relations are all under pressure, from more or less the same forces: from governments that do not respect the rule of law and that put their own profit and privilege above those of human beings; and from a manipulation or disregard of facts in favour of opinions or positions that suit political interests.
When the institutions that are meant to protect us from weapons of mass destruction, from crimes against humanity, war crimes, and human rights violations are being undermined, we need to be worried. We also need to pay attention to the ways governments are talking about these weapons—the subtle nuances in condemnations, or the outright defence of their possession and possible use.
Which brings us to nuclear weapons. While the number of countries joining the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) rises, the handful of states that possess these genocidal bombs are clinging ever more tightly to their arsenals. All nine nuclear-armed states voted against the First Committee resolution on the TPNW; collectively or individually they delivered explanations of vote that asserted the Treaty is useless, harmful, or both. At the same time, they argued that their possession of these weapons is necessary and “responsible”. But this is where they begin to tear each other apart.
The United States, along with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, voted against the First Committee resolution on the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). The US delegation said that it could not support the resolution’s call for the CTBT to enter into force because this would constrain US actions while allowing other nuclear-armed states like Russia and China to test their weapons in secret. This is, of course, false, as all states bound by the Treaty are subject to the same constraints. Instead, this statement is further signalling a possible intent to restart explosive nuclear testing, which the current US government has previously suggested it might do.
In keeping with this, the United States also successfully incited Japan to further water down its already tasteless resolution on nuclear weapons, including in relation to the CTBT’s entry into force. The resolution has turned signing and ratifying the CTBT into one item in a list of options aimed at preventing nuclear weapon testing. This language was condemned even by other nuclear-armed states, such as France, which argued that the entry into force of the CTBT is not optional but essential.
The Japan-led resolution also vigorously backtracks from agreed outcomes of past Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conferences. The nuclear-armed and nuclear-supportive states posit that the NPT is the only relevant nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation instrument, yet most seem comfortable either encouraging or going along with this brazen attempt to undermine, discard, rewrite, condition, or ignore legally-binding obligations and political commitments they have agreed to over the past fifty years.
Some of the states supporting Japan’s resolution suggest it is “pragmatic” in the current context, asserting that it reflects “the international security environment”. But since when is destroying international law pragmatic? Especially when many of these very same countries are demanding that international law be respected and upheld when it comes to chemical weapons? Egypt called out this hypocrisy during the action on resolutions this week, as Palestine and others did during the general debate.
Hypocrisy is a hallmark of failure. While those who perform it seem to think they will be able to get away with it forever, such actions are likely to become part of their undoing. The Japanese resolution, which used to be adopted by consensus, is now eviscerated each year, its paragraphs pulled out one by one for separate votes. This year it met with fifteen paragraph votes. While each secured enough votes to be retained, the vexation of many states with this resolution was made clear through this process and their explanations of vote. They will not sit by and let decades of progress and commitments be ravaged because certain governments no longer feel like being bound by earlier agreements.
Actions that stand up to hypocrisy and violations of international law are imperative to not just hold the line, but also to advance us further towards our goals: in this case, the elimination of nuclear weapons. As stigmatisation of these heinous weapons of mass destruction increases through the TPNW and associated processes and actions, the nuclear weapon possessors try to proclaim their legitimacy and their responsibility more loudly than ever. Just like an aspiring tyrant faced with downfall, the nuclear-armed states try to hold onto their perceived power by cajoling, threatening, and demanding. But as others rise to contest their position and speak together in solidarity and courage, the tides are fated to shift.