First Committee Foreshadows Disarmament Fights At 2020 NPT Review Conference


For the last month, the First Committee of the United Nations has met to discuss, debate and vote on resolutions related to disarmament issues. While nuclear-weapon states have attempted to obstruct progress or backtrack on previous commitments, the majority of states continued to push forward a nuclear disarmament agenda. At the upcoming 2020 NPT Review Conference, this majority will need to resist the efforts of a small few and hold firm to strong language on disarmament and the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons.

Support for the TPNW

Around 50 countries expressed support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) in remarks to the committee. Nearly two dozen states and ASEAN and the Non-Aligned Movement asserted that the TPNW complements the existing legal architecture, including the NPT and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Many further noted how it complements other treaties and urged their fellow states to join the TPNW. Twelve states – Guatemala, Algeria, Mongolia, Jamaica, Fiji, Ghana, Ireland, Timor-Leste, Nepal, Tanzania, Myanmar and Brazil – reported on their own progress towards ratification of the TPNW.

“If you think that nuclear weapons do not affect your country, you should think again,” Ms Maria Eugenia Villareal stated on behalf of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons to the gathering. “The 14,000 nuclear weapons that exist in the world today pose an acute existential threat to all of us. No nation is immune to the radioactive fallout that would transcend national borders if these weapons were ever used again. No nation is immune to the climate disruption, agricultural and economic collapse, mass human displacement and famine that would inevitably follow even a limited nuclear war.”

The Committee again approved a resolution in support of the TPNW. The nuclear-weapon states – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States – issued a joint statement reiterating their opposition to the 2017 treaty, saying it risks undermining the NPT and ignores security issues.

NPT and Nuclear Disarmament

What really undermined the NPT at the First Committee was the repeated attempts by nuclear-armed states to walk back commitments on disarmament and even on consensus past NPT Review Conference outcome documents.  Under Article VI of the NPT, all states parties are “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

But in a resolution titled “Nuclear Disarmament,” France, the United Kingdom, and the United States voted against language highlighting the commitments of nuclear-weapon states contained within the NPT. Indeed, the United States seems to want to back away from language previously agreed upon in NPT Review Conferences and was the only nation to vote against language welcoming the UN Secretary-General’s Disarmament Agenda and Implementation Plan. Russia and China, for their part, voted against language in support of disarmament verification and education and language that calls upon the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to return under the auspices of the NPT.

Further undermining disarmament was a resolution introduced by Japan entitled “Joint courses of action and future-oriented dialogue towards a world without nuclear weapons.” The title is a watered-down version of a comparable resolution from the year before: “United action with renewed determination towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons.” The body of the resolution also contains much weaker language on disarmament when compared to last year. Specifically, it removes the previous language about a “commitment” to a nuclear-weapon-free world, one of the two resolutions before the Committee to do so (the resolution “Nuclear Disarmament” is the other). It also shifts from a place of “deep concern” about the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons to merely “recognizing” these impacts. New Zealand, a steady supporter of nuclear disarmament and the TPNW, voiced the concerns of many when it stated that it “regrets the low level of ambition which is reflected, in general, in this resolution with respect to the advancement of nuclear disarmament.” In attempting to placate both nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states by including weak references to disarmament and the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, Japan-only succeeded in alienating both. The lesson is clear: watering down this key language is not a winning strategy.

There were a couple of other items of note from the committee’s actions. A majority of the committee approved a resolution, practically unchanged from one the year before, opposing nuclear weapons use due to their devastating humanitarian consequences. In a resolution entitled, “Towards a nuclear-weapon-free world: accelerating the implementation of nuclear disarmament commitments,” the sponsors added new language this year to stress the urgency around stopping the new nuclear arms race.

Looking Ahead

Looking ahead to the 2020 NPT Review Conference starting in April, it is reasonable to expect similar fault lines in the debates about how to move disarmament forward. As nuclear-weapon states move away from their own commitments under Article VI, other countries must call out and condemn such backsliding. Attempts to find “middle ground” that backtrack from previously agreed commitments allow nuclear-weapon states to keep pushing the end goal further into the distance. Instead, previous commitments must be recognized, emphasized, and used as the basis for any future discussions.

At the same time, it is encouraging to see the high level of support in statements for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and the recognition of the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons. As the TPNW draws ever closer towards entry into force, the will of the majority cannot be trumped by a stubborn few.

First Committee resolutions will go forward for a final vote by the UN General Assembly in December.