For most people the UN is the venue of an annual kabuki theatre where world leaders come to make sonorous speeches and snipe at each other to score points with populations back home. While these theatrics, played out every September from the UN General Assembly (UNGA), make for high entertainment, they do very little to either advance national interests or multilateral goals.
However, just weeks after the curtains come down on the UNGA drama, diplomats from all member-states gather in the less glamorous bowels of the UN to deliberate on disarmament and international security, promote national interests, and, if possible, do some global good. The deliberations of the First Committee have tended to be business-like and the envoys have sought to bridge differences and seek common ground, if possible. Until now.
According to Reaching Critical Will, a non-governmental organization that closely monitors disarmament developments, the First Committee has been “particularly fractious this year, influenced by events in the conference room but also by events in other conference rooms, and of course, in the real world”. These events include tensions over North Korea between the US and China, differences over the Iran nuclear deal, and the Russian veto in the UN Security Council blocking the extension of the Joint Investigative Mechanism mandated to probe alleged chemical weapons use in Syria. Perhaps, the biggest factor behind this year’s undiplomatic dust-up is the recently concluded Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).
Adopted in July, the TPNW commits state parties not to “develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices” and forbids them to “use or threaten to use nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices”. This single treaty has exacerbated rifts not only between the nuclear-armed states and the non-nuclear armed states but also members of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), and in some cases, between nuclear-armed states and their allies, which are protected by these weapons.
At the crux of this bitter contest are two competing pathways towards a world free of nuclear weapons. The first, led by the NPT nuclear weapon states and their allies, prefer a “step-by-step” approach under the aegis of the NPT regime. This group also seeks to break the “deadlock of two decades in the Conference of Disarmament”, which has rendered the forum comatose. They see the TPNW as a danger to this traditional (but ineffectual) approach and refuse to recognize it. Second, the proponents of TPNW—all NPT states neither possessing nor protected by nuclear weapons—frustrated with the lack of progress, seek a more “comprehensive, inclusive, interactive and constructive” road to multilateral nuclear disarmament. They argue that while the NPT and the Conference on Disarmament are crucial, they are not sufficient and that the new treaty “is an essential contribution towards nuclear disarmament”.
This acrimonious war over disarmament is being fought through the votes for various resolutions in the First Committee. For instance, the resolution on taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations proposed by as many as 40 of TPNW’s staunchest champions and supported by another 77 countries was opposed by 39 states—eight nuclear armed states (North Korea abstained) and 31 states living under the nuclear umbrella provided by the US. This despite the fact that the TPNW resolution sought to accommodate the concerns of the opposition by making pointed references to the step-by-step approach and the NPT.
Perhaps the clearest sign of disunity in the proceedings was evident, ironically, in the voting on the resolution on united action with renewed determination towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons. Proposed by Japan, the resolution was supported by 45 countries, including the US and the UK. This resolution made no reference to the TPNW and, worse, was perceived to be promoting nuclear deterrence over nuclear disarmament. The resolution also appears to have watered down many of the commitments made during previous NPT review conferences. Unsurprisingly then, the resolution invited an unprecedented number of votes on individual paragraphs and explanation of votes by nearly 30 countries. While the resolution was comfortably adopted by a vote of 144 for and four against (including China and Russia), the large number of abstentions—27, including India, Israel and Pakistan—highlighted the growing divisions.
While both camps may well leave the First Committee claiming victory, it is clear that the cause of disarmament has not been served and might even have been impaired. Indeed, this stalemate has the potential to derail the NPT before the crucial 2020 review conference as well as lead to the collapse of the Conference on Disarmament. Worse, this showdown has created a paralysis that prevents countries from discussing the crucial implications of exponential advances in science and technology on international security.
Against this backdrop, India’s pithy resolution on the role of science and technology in the context of international security and disarmament, which was adopted by consensus not only highlights India’s rule-shaping efforts but might also contribute to building a much-needed bonhomie among the disarmament community. This is a critical step to curb the war over disarmament.
W.P.S. Sidhu is professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and associate fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.