U.S. Takes New Stance on Some Issues at UN

Cole Harvey

The Obama administration’s voting record this year at the First Committee of the UN General Assembly marked a departure from the Bush administration in several key ballots. In other votes, however, the new administration’s vote was the same as its predecessor’s.

The First Committee is responsible for drafting resolutions on arms control and international security issues.

One of the shifts was on a resolution on disarmament submitted annually by Japan. The United States co-sponsored the 2009 version of the resolution. Under the Bush administration, the United States voted against the resolution every year.

Entitled “Renewed Determination Towards the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons,” the resolution endorses several prominent disarmament and nonproliferation measures, such as entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the negotiation of a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), and further nuclear arms reductions by Russia and the United States. It calls on states to consider reducing the operational status of nuclear weapons and “stresses the necessity of a diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies to minimize the risk that these weapons will ever be used.”

The resolution also calls for the global application of International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, including the stronger verification measures established in the 1997 Model Additional Protocol, and for universal adherence to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

The resolution was approved by a vote of 161-2, with eight abstentions. The two dissenters were India, which objected to language in the resolution calling on all states to join the NPT, and North Korea. China, France, Israel, and Pakistan were among those that abstained.

In accordance with the Obama administration’s support for the CTBT, the United States co-sponsored an annual resolution endorsing the test ban. Only North Korea voted against the resolution, which was supported by 175 countries. India, Mauritius, and Syria abstained.

On two other resolutions on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation issues, the U.S. votes were in keeping with recent years.

The United States voted against a resolution entitled “Towards a Nuclear-Free World,” put forward by the New Agenda Coalition, comprised of Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, and Sweden. The U.S. delegation did not describe its reasons for voting against the resolution, saying only that, after “intense consultation” with the sponsors of the resolution, the two sides could not agree “on changes that would have made the resolution acceptable to the United States.”

Like the Japanese resolution, the New Agenda Coalition document is supportive of the CTBT, an FMCT, and U.S.-Russian arms control negotiations. The coalition language was generally stronger than Japan’s in referring to countries’ disarmament and nonproliferation commitments, in particular the commitments undertaken by the nuclear-weapon states at the 1995 and 2000 NPT review conferences. The New Agenda Coalition resolution places more emphasis on nuclear-weapon-free zones, which the Japanese resolution does not explicitly mention.

The First Committee approved the New Agenda Coalition resolution on a vote of 165-5, with four states abstaining. France, India, Israel, and North Korea joined the United States in voting against the resolution. Pakistan and the United Kingdom were among the abstainers.

A third resolution on general nuclear issues was submitted by the Nonaligned Movement (NAM), a large group of developing countries. The NAM resolution addresses nuclear disarmament in the strongest terms of the three documents, while putting less emphasis on nonproliferation, and drew significantly less support from the First Committee. The draft was approved on a vote of 112-43, with 21 abstentions. The no votes came primarily from Europe; among the other opponents were Australia, Canada, and the United States.

Outer Space

The United States abstained from voting on a resolution on preventing an arms race in outer space, instead of voting against the measure as it had in recent years. The resolution “emphasizes the necessity of further measures with appropriate and effective provisions for verification to prevent an arms race” in outer space and calls on states to contribute actively to that objective.

Although the United States did not issue a direct explanation for its decision to abstain, the Obama administration is currently conducting a review of U.S. policy toward arms control in outer space. During the thematic debate on outer space issues Oct. 19, U.S. representative Garold Larson said that the space policy review began from a “blank slate,” but noted that it will “reject any limitations on the fundamental right of the United States to operate in, and acquire data from, space.” Larson said that the United States favors voluntary “transparency and confidence-building measures” with China and Russia in order to help “reduce uncertainty over intentions and decrease the risk of misinterpretation or miscalculation.”

China and Russia are the primary advocates of a treaty to prevent the replacement of weapons in outer space and have submitted a draft agreement on the subject to the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament. (See ACT, March 2008.)

Arms Trade

In a significant shift, the United States voted in favor of a resolution endorsing the negotiation of an international arms trade treaty, after rejecting such proposals in the past. (See ACT, November 2009.) The resolution calls for the convening of a four-week UN conference in 2012 to negotiate an agreement regulating the transfer of conventional weapons. At the insistence of the United States, the resolution states that the conference will be “undertaken…on the basis of consensus.” Consensus “is a crucial concept for the United States, to ensure the high standards necessary in an effective outcome to our future deliberations,” U.S. representative Donald Mahley said during the debate on conventional arms issues. “It is not, nor should others hope it to be, an excuse for avoiding hard choices or real, deliberative controls.” The committee passed the measure Oct. 30 on a vote of 153-1, with 19 states abstaining. Zimbabwe was the sole dissenter.

The First Committee concluded its 2009 session Nov. 2.