Combative Politics and Hostile Discourse Mark UN Disarmament Initiatives

By Jaya Ramachandran

Photo: Wide view of the General Assembly Hall. UN Photo/Manuel Elias

NEW YORK (IDN) – "If one had to pick a single word to describe this year's First Committee, contentious would be a reasonable contender. The increased volume – in all senses of the word – of accusations and denials has descended as close to name calling as diplomatic forums get," says Ray Acheson, the Director of Reaching Critical Will in an editorial in November 5 issue of The First Committee Monitor 2018. [P 13JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF  

She is referring to the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and International Security which met from October 8 to November 9, 2018 in several sessions.

Acheson's view is confirmed by a close look at the non-official record published by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) for information media. Also UNFOLD ZERO, a platform for UN focused "initiatives and actions for the achievement of a nuclear weapons free world," affirms deep divisions manifested in the UNGA debates.

"Disarmament and international security are in your hands and your actions as Member States result in consequences which we must all face," said Chair of the First Committee, Ambassador Ion Jinga, Permanent Representative of Romania to the UN, in his closing remarks. "The manner in which you approach the Committee is the way in which it can help us all reach our common goals,” he added.

Explaining the four-week long session's achievements, Jinga said the First Committee sent a total of 68 draft resolutions and decisions to the General Assembly, many approved by recorded votes. Of these, 26 were approved without a vote, accounting for a lower percentage compared with the 48 per cent approved by consensus during the Committee's 72nd session.

Some delegates elaborated on this trend in explaining the positions of their delegations after casting their votes, pointing out that many drafts that have traditionally been approved by consensus had faced voting during the current session. Indeed, some representatives regretted that recorded votes were requested for the two similar draft resolutions aimed at shaping norm-setting guidelines for States to ensure responsible conduct in cyberspace.

Taking action on one of them, the Committee approved, by a vote of 109 in favour to 45 against, with 16 abstentions, the draft resolution 'Developments in the field of information and telecommunications in the context of international security' (document A/C.1/73/L.27.Rev.1), tabled by Russia. Accordingly, the General Assembly would decide to convene in 2019 an open-ended working group acting on a consensus basis to further develop the rules, norms and principles of responsible behaviour of States.

Also by a recorded vote, members approved the draft resolution 'Advancing Responsible State Behaviour in Cyberspace in the Context of International Security' (document A/C.1/73/L.37), tabled by the United States, with 139 in favour to 11 against, with 18 abstentions. By this text, the General Assembly would request the Secretary-General, with the assistance of a group of governmental experts to be established in 2019, to continue to study possible cooperative measures to address existing and potential threats in the sphere of information security, including norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviour of States.

Several delegates pointed out that language in the Russian resolution departed from previous year's versions and included excerpts from the Group of Governmental Experts reports in a manner that distorted their meaning and transformed the draft resolution. Other delegates said that the U.S. resolution called for the establishment of a new group of governmental experts, with the same mandate as the previous ones and the same selectivity in terms of its composition.

As discussions continued, the representative of the Russian Federation said the U.S. was blocking access to the United Nations of some representatives of delegations whose views do not agree with those of the host country. It is up to Member States to select who represents their countries at this intergovernmental forum and they should be given unfettered access, the Russian delegate said.

The Russian criticism referred to the fact that a director in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation responsible for the work of the First Committee had not been issued a visa by the U.S., the host country. This is a surprising state of affairs.

UNFOLD ZERO noted that during the UN Disarmament Week (October 24-October 30), which kicked off with the anniversary of the founding of the United Nations "a divided UN General Assembly" voted on nuclear disarmament resolutions.

"The deliberations and votes took place in an environment of increasing tensions between nuclear armed States, and also an increasing divide between non-nuclear countries and those countries which rely on nuclear weapons for their security," UNFOLD ZERO said.

A resolution Reducing nuclear danger submitted by India received 127 votes in favour (mostly non-aligned countries). It failed to get support of nuclear-armed or European countries, primarily because it only calls for nuclear risk reduction measures by China, France, Russia, UK and USA – leaving out the other nuclear armed States – India, Pakistan, DPRK and Israel.

A resolution Decreasing the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems submitted by a group of non-nuclear countries, was much more successful receiving 173 votes in favour, including from most of the NATO countries and from four nuclear armed States (China, DPRK, India, Pakistan).

A resolution on the Treaty on the Prohibition Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was supported by 122 countries in July 2017. This is more than the number who have signed the Treaty: while 68 have signed, only 19 of these countries have ratified. The vote indicates that more signatures are likely.

However, the resolution was not supported by any of the nuclear-armed countries, nor any of the countries under nuclear deterrence relationships, i.e. NATO, Australia, Japan, South Korea. The opposition of nuclear-armed and allied States to the resolution is another indication that they do not intend to join the new treaty.

In general, this means that they will not be bound by the treaty's obligations. However, the customary law against the use of nuclear weapons which is re-affirmed by the treaty will apply to all States regardless of whether or not they join.

A resolution on the prohibition of the use of nuclear weapons submitted by India received 120 votes in favour, including from themselves and another three nuclear-armed States (China, DPRK and Pakistan).

Some non-nuclear States have historically opposed the resolution in response to India testing nuclear weapons and becoming a nuclear-armed State in 1998. India has requested these countries to reconsider their opposition, especially in light of the international conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons in which India participated and which highlighted the importance of preventing any use of nuclear weapons.

UNFOLD ZERO further refers to a resolution affirming a previous decision to hold a UN High-Level Conference (Summit) on Nuclear Disarmament, which was supported by 143 countries. The resolution, entitled Follow-up to the 2013 high-level meeting of the General Assembly on nuclear disarmament, also promotes negotiations on a Nuclear Weapons Convention – a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons that includes nuclear-armed States (unlike the TPNW which does not include them).

Despite getting a strong vote in favour, including from some nuclear armed states, the proposed conference does not yet appear to have enough political traction to be held. The resolution did not set a date for the conference.

The UNGA furthermore adopted a Decision to convene a conference no later than 2019 on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

Despite the objective of a Middle East Zone being supported by most UN members in a separate resolution (supported by 174 countries), the decision to convene a conference in 2019 to 'elaborate a legally binding treaty' was supported by only 103 countries.

The hesitation among many countries to support the resolution was due to the fact that they believe that concrete preparations and negotiations for a Middle East Zone Treaty would require the participation of all countries in the region, and currently there is at least one country (Israel) that is not ready to work on such a regional treaty. [IDN-InDepthNews – 11 November 2018]

Photo: Wide view of the General Assembly Hall. UN Photo/Manuel Elias

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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