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– Izumi Nakamitsu
UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs
June 2, 2022
Frustration Evident in UN First Committee

Benjamin Seel

Complaints about the stagnation in the United Nations’ disarmament forums were a prominent feature of debates in the UN General Assembly’s First Committee this year, with many countries expressing frustration that multilateral bodies tackling disarmament issues have been dysfunctional.

This displeasure was aimed primarily at the Conference on Disarmament (CD), which has failed to make progress on substantive negotiations for the past 15 years. The CD is intended to be the world’s sole multilateral negotiating body on disarmament and operates on a consensus basis. For the past several years, Pakistan has been the only country blocking consensus for agreement on a program of work.

During this year’s session, which lasted from Oct. 3 to Nov. 1, the First Committee considered several resolutions intended to place pressure on the CD’s 65 members to agree on a program of work and begin substantive negotiations next year. The failure of the CD to adopt a program of work has stymied movement on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), a key disarmament and nonproliferation goal.

A Canadian resolution addressed that issue directly, urging the CD to adopt and implement a comprehensive program of work that includes starting FMCT negotiations in early 2012. Under the Canadian proposal, the First Committee would “consider options” for negotiating an FMCT next year if the CD once more failed to reach consensus on a program of work. The resolution also encourages all member states to continue working to move negotiations forward by having meetings with scientific experts on the technical aspects of a proposed FMCT. Those meetings would take place inside and outside the CD.

The resolution initially called for the establishment of a group of governmental experts to consider options “including the necessary legal and procedural requirements” for an FMCT. That provision ultimately was removed due to opposition.

The resolution passed by a vote of 151-2, with 23 states abstaining. North Korea and Pakistan were the two “no” votes. Diplomatic sources said in November that the 19-member Arab Group abstained in response to Canada’s opposition to the Palestinian bid for membership in the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Pakistan said it opposed the measure on national security grounds, stating on Oct. 13 that such a treaty “would allow the major nuclear powers to continue producing nuclear weapons even if such a treaty were to be negotiated successfully” because major nuclear states could continue to draw from large existing nuclear stocks even after an FMCT entered into force.

Shared Concerns

Canada’s unhappiness with the lack of progress in the CD was echoed by other delegations in statements and resolutions. Speaking at the First Committee on Oct. 4, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance Rose Gottemoeller said the U.S. frustration with the CD and the lack of movement on an FMCT is “shared by many countries,” according to a transcript of the statement.

The United States has previously stated its growing weariness with the CD’s impasse and has indicated that its patience with the CD “is not unlimited,” said Gottemoeller.

The frustration with the “disarmament machinery,” as the various UN forums on that topic are collectively known, was especially evident in an Oct. 24 statement by Christian Strohal, the Austrian permanent representative to the UN office in Geneva, who introduced a resolution co-sponsored by Austria, Mexico, and Norway.

Strohal said that “since joining the CD in 1996, Austria has never seen one day of substantive negotiations.” The resolution, which was withdrawn without a vote, was intended to “stimulate a shift” from purely procedural matters to more substantive issues, according to Strohal.

The withdrawn resolution called for the CD to adopt and implement a program of work in 2012 “to enable the immediate commencement of negotiations” on disarmament matters. Should the CD fail to reach such an agreement, the First Committee, the UN body designated for disarmament and international security matters, would consider “alternative ways of taking forward multilateral disarmament negotiations” during next year’s session.

Alternate approaches would be led by open-ended working groups exploring issues of disarmament such as a fissile material ban, culminating with a report to the UN General Assembly in the 2013 session.

Many countries expressed concern that such a step would undermine the CD. In an Oct. 11 statement, Pakistani Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Raza Bashir Tarar blamed the body’s failure to commence with substantive disarmament work not on its “working methods” but on “the continued lack of political will” among member states. Indonesia, speaking on behalf of the Nonaligned Movement on Oct. 3, echoed Pakistan’s belief that the lack of political will is the “main difficulty of the disarmament machinery.”

In contrast, Austria’s resolution described the international political climate as “conducive to the promotion of multilateral disarmament.”

Resolution L.39, sponsored by the Netherlands, South Africa, and Switzerland, also expressed “grave concern about the current status of the disarmament machinery.” Adopted without a vote by the First Committee, it calls for states to “intensify efforts aimed at creating an environment conducive to multilateral disarmament negotiations.” The resolution also encouraged the CD to approve and begin a program of work early in its 2012 session.

A resolution sponsored by Cuba, “Report of the Conference on Disarmament,” passed without a vote. It too called for more-intense efforts and shared the goal of the CD adopting “a balanced and comprehensive” program of work early in its 2012 session.

The UN Disarmament Commission (UNDC) received limited mention, but was specifically addressed in an Iraqi resolution. Resolution L.20 “reaffirmed the mandate” of the UNDC as the “specialized, deliberative body within the United Nations…that allows for in-depth deliberations on specific disarmament issues.” Iraq highlighted the importance of increased dialogue and cooperation among the First Committee, the UNDC, and the CD.

The resolution also establishes a three-week period, April 2-20, during which the UNDC is to meet and produce a “substantive report” to the UN General Assembly in the First Committee’s 2012 session.

The measure was adopted without a vote or comments.

Nuclear Disarmament

Although states were largely focused on overcoming the stagnation of the UN disarmament machinery, many also emphasized the need to make progress on the action steps agreed to during last year’s nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference. (See ACT, June 2010.)

The New Agenda Coalition (Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, and Sweden) sponsored a resolution on nuclear disarmament with slight changes from previous years, including a statement of deep disappointment with the “absence of progress” in the CD. The 2011 resolution goes further toward emphasizing the “binding” nature of the NPT and calls on all states to “comply fully” with all commitments made at the review conferences.

As in previous years, the measure split members between the nuclear haves and have-nots. It passed with a vote of 160-6, with four abstentions. France, India, Israel, North Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States voted against the measure, while China, Pakistan, and Russia abstained. Those nine countries are known to have nuclear weapons programs. Micronesia also abstained.

In another reprise from past sessions, Iran presented a disarmament resolution that urged NPT states to “follow up” on obligations highlighted at the NPT review conferences in 1995, 2000, and 2010. The resolution specifically cited unilateral initiatives to reduce nonstrategic nuclear weapons, “increased transparency by the nuclear-weapon States,” and a “diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies.” It passed 105-52, with 10 countries abstaining. Iran’s proposal drew opposition from Western members unhappy that Iran, a state they claim is in violation of its NPT obligations, is calling for others to take further action on NPT obligations. The United States, which voted against the measure, explained its vote by saying that “Iran should demonstrate its own commitment to the NPT, in word and deed.”

Japan, along with more than 60 co-sponsors, presented a resolution entitled “United action towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons.” Japan expressed concern with the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences” of the use of nuclear weapons and the growing dangers presented by nuclear proliferation.

The resolution commended Russia and the United States for their implementation of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which came into force in February, and France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States for releasing information on their nuclear stockpile statistics.

Japan also called for North Korea to halt its nuclear program, including the construction of a light-water reactor.

The measure passed by a vote of 156-1, with 15 abstentions. North Korea was the only country to vote against it. China, India, and Israel were among the 15 delegations that abstained.

Other Issues

Egypt’s resolution on a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East was adopted without a vote. The resolution follows the Oct. 14 announcement that Finland will host the planned 2012 conference on the establishment of a Middle Eastern zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. (See ACT, November 2011.)

Using language similar to the NPT’s, the resolution affirmed the “inalienable right of all States to acquire and develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.” It also emphasized the need for measures to prohibit military strikes on civilian nuclear facilities.

The resolution highlights the importance of mutually verifiable regional security agreements and emphasizes that the United Nations will play a large role in the establishment of the Middle Eastern zone.

Although Israel voted for the measure, it did so with “substantive reservations” about the resolution. In a statement to explain its vote, Israel expressed concern with the “widely acknowledged” cases of “gross non-compliance” present in the Middle East and suggested that any measures toward a nuclear-weapon-free zone should begin with modest, regional confidence-building measures.

Egypt’s second proposal called for confidence-building measures and “practical and urgent steps” to be taken toward implementation of the Middle Eastern zone. The proposal emphasized the importance of Israel becoming a signatory to the NPT and subsequently drew harsh criticism from Israel, which said that the measure was “unbalanced” and unfairly targeted it. The United States sided with Israel and pointed to “the lack of any reference to Iran’s violations” of International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.

More than 60 states co-sponsored a resolution on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which was adopted by the First Committee 170-1, with India, Mauritius, and Syria abstaining.

North Korea cast the lone vote against the resolution, which asks the UN secretary-general, in consultation with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, to prepare a report on the efforts of states that have ratified the treaty to move toward universal ratification and on “possibilities for providing assistance on ratification procedures to States that so request it.” That report is to be submitted to the General Assembly during its 2012 session.

The resolution also recalled UN Security Council resolutions 1718 and 1874, which condemned North Korean nuclear testing and offered support for the six-party talks, which involve China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States.

North Korea conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.