The humanitarian imperative

October 16, 2013

By Ray Acheson

This editorial was previously published on the First Committee Monitor | n° 2  a publication of  Reaching Critical Will

Perhaps marking a change in tone of First Committee’s typically repetitive and often grim outlook on the status of disarmament affairs, several delegations offered words of hope for progress during the first week of the general debate. The underlying motivation for progress seems to be the humanitarian and environmental consequences of weapons. Whether speaking about weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or conventional arms, delegations emphasized the need to prohibit their possession, restrict their availability, and/or prevent their use in order to achieve national, international, and human security.

In the case of WMD, countless delegations condemned the abhorrent and illegal use of chemical weapons in Syria. Many of these also noted that chemical weapons have been outlawed while nuclear weapons have not, and called for this situation to be rectified. Ambassador David Donoghue of Ireland argued that “as with chemical weapons, the days of nuclear weapons are also over.” He emphasized how unacceptable and unsustainable it is that more than 17,000 nuclear weapons still exist while governments remain “mired in discussions about the conditions which must prevail before these weapons can be consigned to history along with the other weapons of mass destruction which humanity has already prohibited.”

Not all states are ready for WMD to be “consigned to history,” however. While Russia and the United States have cooperated to establish an agreement for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, neither country has met the deadline for the destruction of their own chemical arsenals. Furthermore, these two countries have the biggest nuclear weapon stockpiles. Both countries have expressed “concern” with the emerging discourse about the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, with Russia’s representative even complaining that this discussion “turns a difficult issue into public diplomacy” and is not in line with “true needs and priorities”.

This argument, which matches the one heard previously by France, the United Kingdom, and the United States that the humanitarian discourse is a “distraction,” has been repeatedly countered by non-nuclear armed states. As the New Agenda Coalition pointed out, pursuing initiatives that “hold the promise of progress” is entirely consistent with all states’ obligation to advance nuclear disarmament. Furthermore, the idea that the public should not be involved in discussions about their survival and security is also unprincipled and unfounded. Chile’s Ambassador Errázuriz rightly noted, “now that we have witnessed the horrendous humanitarian impact of weapons of mass destruction in Syria, nuclear disarmament requires a forceful intellectual and democratic campaign to delegitimize the most devastating of such weapons—nuclear arms.”

The humanitarian discourse on nuclear weapons has changed the way governments and their publics address these weapons of terror. OPANAL, with its confidence that we will once again live in a world free of nuclear weapons, stated that “2013 has been a year when the colours of the rainbow began to mark the horizon of a world without nuclear weapons.”

But as Liechtenstein and others noted last week, nuclear and chemical weapons are not the only threats to human security. The renewed focus on WMD “must not overshadow the fact that conventional weapons … cause the vast majority of casualties in armed conflict, especially among civilians,” cautioned Mr. Barriga of Liechtenstein. And while more progress can be seen at the diplomatic level on conventional weapon issues, serious challenges still remain in terms of concrete effects. While the adoption of the Arms Trade Treatywas largely hailed as a remarkable achievement that will help reduce and prevent human suffering caused by conventional weapons, most delegations also described it as only a first step towards achieving this goal. Likewise, while reaffirming support for the UN Programme of Action on small arms and light weapons, many delegations expressed concern with its non-legally-binding nature and subsequent failures in implementation.

In moving forward this month, delegates at First Committee must keep humanitarian principles in mind when discussing all weapon systems. “The increased focus on the well-being and security of the individual within our societies, as well as the discernible emphasis on IHL and the importance of abiding by its terms,” is “good news,” said Ambassador Higgie of New Zealand. But she also cautioned that when we fail to move forward, “it is almost always our individual citizens who are the ones to pay the price.”



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    Ai Weiwei Artist and activist

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