Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 17 October 2007

The First Committee Carnival Begins

Last week, the UN General Assembly's First Committee, which deals with disarmament and international security, began its annual 4-week marathon of arm-twisting and horse trading that will result, at the end of the month, in a crop of draft resolutions on almost every conceivable aspect of disarmament, arms control and international security. From guns, mines and missiles; through chemical, biological and nuclear weapons; to preventing an arms race in outer space; all this, and much more, will be discussed, debated and voted on in New York over these four weeks.

It's difficult, to say the least, for a casual observer to get an overview of what goes on at First Committee (not to mention understanding it all). We can be very grateful, therefore, for the excellent reporting provided by the First Committee Monitor produced by the Reaching Critical Will project. Even so, there's a lot of information to keep abreast of. 192 States (yes, all UN Member States are also members of the First Committee) barter and persuade, offer and demand concessions, in order to push through "their" draft resolutions, preferably without a vote (which implies consensus agreement) or with the highest number of votes possible.

In the first 2007 edition of the First Committee Monitor, Ray Acheson of Reaching Critical Will described the First Committee as being "generally redundant." While many may agree - and I would certainly agree that it could be approaching its work in a more effective manner - there is, nevertheless, something to be said for this annual orgy of disarmament debate.

First of all, voting happens. Unlike other arms control fora where the consensus rule or practice essentially hands every State a veto over every decision - e.g. the Conference on Disarmament, the Biological Weapons Convention, the Inhumane Weapons Convention, etc. - States have to publicly display their colours at the First Committee. They must vote either yes or no, or abstain, on every draft resolution. At First Committee, there is nowhere to hide. This is a huge bonus for civil society, since it tells them exactly where every State stands on every issue presented, allowing them to fine-tune their advocacy work as a result.

Even the permanent members of the Security Council, accustomed as they are to their Security Council veto, must sink or swim in the First Committee's flat organisational structure where the concept of sovereign equality reigns. This sometimes allows the First Committee to be instrumental in initiating important new arms control initiatives. At last year's meeting, for example, a resolution calling for a new treaty to control the trade in all conventional weapons (a so-called Arms Trade Treaty) was passed with 153 votes in favour and one against, the lone vote cast by the United States. This process is now underway and the United States is deciding whether to join an expert group that will conduct an initial feasibility study.

Some interesting new initiatives are already beginning to emerge at this year's meeting. For example, Chile, New Zealand, Nigeria, Sweden and Switzerland are reportedly manoeuvring to introduce a draft resolution calling on the nuclear weapons States to de-alert their nukes (i.e. to remove them from "launch on warning" status).

I'll be attending First Committee next week and hope to get an up-close view of what's going on. I'll provide my analysis in a later posting. In the meantime, I encourage you to tune in to the First Committee Monitor to find out where your country stands on these important issues.

Patrick Mc Carthy


Photo credit: Joe Kaehny on Flickr.


Susi Snyder said...

In addition to the votes that you see at the First Committee, the Reaching Critical Will project of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom also provides a look at how governments view these issues by compiling peace and security index based on statements made during the general debate of the general assembly. This is a snapshot look at how states view issues like terrorism, nuclear weapons, small arms and more. The index by topic can be found here: http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/political/1com/1com07/disarmindextopic.html

The index by country is here: http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/political/1com/1com07/disarmindex.html

Also, for those of you following discussions on gender, WILPF's PeaceWomen project has compiled a gender index, here: http://www.peacewomen.org/un/genass/GA62/Women_62GA.html