What do outcomes of the UN First Committee mean?

Last week the curtain closed on the 69th session of the UN First Committee on Disarmament. It is the forum for states to discuss the wide ranging disarmament agenda, including nuclear weapons to small arms, and fully autonomous weapons. Critics of the First Committee quote the fora’s stale format and inability to achieve progress; diplomatic representatives are usually quite conservatively entrenched in traditional notions of what security is and what states need to achieve this. It appears to leave little room for the imagination and moving beyond stale Cold War-like thinking.

Credit, however, must be given in recent years as there have been notable successes on the disarmament stage, most recently 2013’s Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) which will officially enter into force later this year. The UN First Committee is the starting place for initiatives like the ATT; creating space to explore and build consensus around areas of international concern. Open to all UN member states, it achieves a universality that can present a weakness for the Conference on Disarmament (the UN body that is meant to formally negotiate multilateral disarmament treaties) and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But the First Committee is limited in that resolutions discussed and adopted are non-legally binding. The six weeks of session each year endure robust discussions that culminate in voting over the last two weeks.

One of the biggest downfalls, though unsurprising, is that the First Committee rarely – if ever – makes headlines. Bar some stalwart civil society representatives, it is rare for anyone outside of the non-proliferation and disarmament realm to know that it is going on or pay attention to it. In a busy society where we have so much going on at every hour of every day, it seems unrealistic to prioritise attention on the multilateral humdrum voting at the First Committee. But let’s put it this way: how states vote, respond and interact at the First Committee is a measurement of where they sit on issues relating to the most pressing global challenges of our time: disarmament and international threats to peace. These issues to varying degrees affect all of us, whether it be in monetary terms, the future of our national and personal security, or how the moral positioning of our countries on the international stage affects our identity.

Take for example, the UK abstention and the US “No” vote on the recent resolution Towards a nuclear-weapons free world: accelerating the implementation of nuclear disarmament commitments. Both states are recognized under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as nuclear weapons states obliged to work towards global disarmament; does their voting record indicate a lack of serious commitment? In light of this year’s renewal of the UK-US Mutual Defence Agreement – strengthening the two countries’ nuclear ties – it seems so. As Paul Ingram wrote earlier last week about the MDA Agreement: Britain and other governments face a choice. In an age of climate change, resource scarcity and other global interdependencies, the chances of successful adaptation of human societies to these stresses depends upon governments cooperating more effectively within multilateral frameworks.

Another issue that states discussed and voted on this year was the operational readiness of nuclear weapon systems. This resolution suggested that maintaining nuclear weapons on high alert was a legacy of cold war posturing and that in today’s times, in order to achieve transparency and confidence among states, the operational readiness of these weapons must be decreased. Unsurprisingly though, four out of five of the NPT nuclear weapon states – France, Russia, United States and United Kingdom – voted “No” on this resolution. Did these countries get the memo that it is now 2014? What were they worried about? This resolution recognized also that having nuclear weapons on high alert – ready to be launched within minutes – could lead to unintentional accidents… and unimaginable outcomes. Deterrence isn’t failsafe and accidents can happen. If a nuclear weapon is used would it be the first instinct of a government to retaliate or to ensure the safety of its people on the ground? If we must have nuclear weapons we would be safer if they were kept off of high alert.

In any case, building public awareness and broader understanding of the work being done on disarmament on the multilateral level will help hold our countries and leaders more accountable. Ensuring our leaders better understand what we’re really concerned about and how their decisions on the international stage affect us will improve the chances of progress. To quote India’s statement in the First Committee, “Given the complex current international situation, the need for building global trust has become all the more imperative”. To uphold this statement and attitude, states must move forward together in order to achieve the common goal of disarmament.

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