Disarmament Insight


Friday, 16 November 2007

Reflecting on First Committee: What was achieved?

Since Tuesday, the commotion surrounding the CCW and cluster munitions has died down, leaving in its wake a deep sense of puzzlement over what actually was agreed (see our last three postings for more details). But more on that later. The December Vienna Conference on Cluster Munitions, which forms part of the Oslo Process, will give us a chance to reflect on the outcome with a bit more distance, both geographical and temporal.

In the meantime, I would like to return to a theme I took up in a previous posting on the First Committee of the UN General Assembly, the one that deals with disarmament and international security. This annual month-long maelstrom of debate, lobbying, arm twisting and resolution drafting ended on November 2. What, then, does the First Committee have to show for its considerable exertion?

On the face of it, it was very productive indeed. Three hundred and fifteen official statements were delivered and 52 draft resolutions adopted on issues ranging from the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons to preventing an arms race in outer space. Add to this the numerous lunchtime seminars, informal consultations, power breakfasts and receptions that took place, and there can be little doubt that this year's First Committee kept representatives of governments, NGOs and international organisations very busy indeed.

Scratch the surface, however, and the picture changes. As Ray Acheson, editor of the excellent First Committee Monitor, puts it:

"If productivity can be measured by volume of paper circulated, then First Committee was extremely successful. If, however, we turn to [the] question of whether or not First Committee 'advanced the cause of disarmament and international security,' the 2007 session could best be characterized as underwhelming."
Why is this? Well, first of all, many of the draft resolutions that were adopted are repeats that re-appear every year or two, sometimes without any textual updating at all. These keep issues on the UN's agenda but do not contribute any new ideas to the debate.

Also, this year's First Committee underlined the continued isolation of the United States on many important issues. The US cast the sole 'no' vote on no less than 11 draft resolutions, pitting itself, unsupported, against an average of 161 other States who votes 'yes' on these resolutions. More than half of the time, the United States' sole negative vote went against 'yes' votes from all other permanent members of the Security Council - China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom. The issues on which the US took a defiant stance include preventing an arms race in outer space; nuclear weapons-related matters (including the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), negative security assurances, and a nuclear weapon-free zone in Southeast Asia); the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons; and the relationship between disarmament and development, among others.

It was not all re-runs of old resolutions and defiant stances by the US however. This year's First Committee did break some new ground. New Zealand led the charge on a new draft resolution on "Decreasing the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems," which was opposed only by France, the UK and the US. The Non-Aligned Movement succeed in passing a draft resolution on the "Effects of the use of armaments and ammunitions containing depleted uranium" that split the vote of the NATO bloc. Some new UN studies were also initiated, including a Group of Governmental Experts to review the operation and further development of the Standardized Instrument for Reporting Military Expenditures, which China recently rejoined.

These seem like isolated innovations, however; more like flashes in the pan than indications that First Committee might be trying to reach beyond its traditional approach of 'more of the same.' This brings into question the function that First Committee serves in the overall disarmament machinery, as well as the continued relevance of the machinery itself.

One of the issues that the United States opposed on its own was the convening of a fourth special session on disarmament (SSOD IV) of the UN General Assembly that would re-think, and possibly re-make, a disarmament machinery suitable for the 21st century. As Patricia Lewis, Director of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), asked delegates during one panel discussion, if SSOD IV is not the appropriate venue to review the disarmament machinery with a view to overhauling it, then what is? It's a good question.

Patrick Mc Carthy

Photo Credit: C.M. on flickr