By Alicia Sanders-Zakre
The UN General Assembly’s disarmament committee called on Secretary-General António Guterres to convene a conference next year for further talks on creating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East.
The discussions in the General Assembly First Committee also revealed deepening tensions between the United States and Russia on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, chemical weapons, and outer space security, as well as strains between nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states over how to make progress toward nuclear disarmament.
On the WMD-free-zone conference proposal, 103 countries supported the resolution introduced by the Arab League and 71 abstained. Only the United States, Israel, and Micronesia voted against.
If adopted by the General Assembly in December as anticipated, a first conference will last one week during 2019, and subsequent conferences will be held each year until an accord on a WMD-free zone in the Middle East is adopted. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and the Biological Weapons Convention Implementation Support Unit would prepare background documents for the conferences.
Canada, the United Kingdom (which abstained), and the United States criticized the resolution, stating in separate explanations that they believe it is not inclusive. The United States opposed it because of its “focus on isolating Israel,” Robert Wood, U.S. ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament (CD), tweeted on Oct. 18. Israel, which is widely thought to possess nuclear weapons, does not support the conference proposal. Wood stated that the United States would only support actions with consensus support among all states in the Middle East.
The United States and Israel also rejected a different resolution, introduced by Egypt, calling for progress on creation of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East. This resolution has been introduced at the United Nations every year since the 1980s and is usually adopted by consensus without being taken to a vote. In explaining its decision to vote against Egypt’s resolution this year, Israel blamed the Arab League for breaking consensus on the subject by proposing the new resolution calling for a conference in 2019.
The UN meeting also was marred by stark divisions between the United States and Russia on several critical issues. Russia tried to introduce an emergency resolution urging states to “preserve and strengthen” the INF Treaty after U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 1987 accord. The committee rejected Russia’s resolution because it was introduced after the deadline, although there was a heated exchange between the United States and Russia on it.
The United States was also at odds with Russia on weapons in outer space, voting against every resolution introduced on the subject, including one on preventing a space arms race and a ban on putting weapons in space first. The United States and Israel were the only countries to vote against the resolution on preventing a space arms race, and the United States was one of three to reject the resolution on “further practical measures” to prevent a space arms race.
A dozen countries opposed Russia’s resolution, which recommended negotiating a multilateral instrument banning putting weapons in space first, while 40 abstained. In a U.S.-UK-French explanation of the vote on Nov. 5, Cynthia Plath, U.S. deputy permanent representative to the CD, called the resolution hypocritical and not verifiable and said it did not address threats from anti-satellite weapons.
Instead, the three countries support non-legally binding transparency and confidence-building measures, according to the statement. Yet, this year, the United States opposed a resolution on transparency and confidence-building measures in space, which it had co-sponsored with China and Russia every year since 2012.
This year’s resolution differed from last year’s by inviting states to report on steps taken to implement the resolution and to convene a panel discussion on challenges to space security and sustainability. Plath said on Nov. 6 that the resolution makes an “unacceptable linkage” between proposals for “voluntary, pragmatic” transparency and confidence-building measures and the “commencement of futile negotiations” on “fundamentally flawed arms control proposals,” despite no mention of negotiations commencement in the resolution text.
On another matter, Russia voted against the annual resolution on the Chemical Weapons Convention, which condemns the use of chemical weapons and stresses the importance of implementing the convention, as it has since 2016. Andrea Thompson, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, condemned Russia for blocking accountability for the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons in an Oct. 10 statement.
Member states were split on two controversial resolutions on nuclear disarmament. Japan’s annually introduced resolution on disarmament, which last year was supported by the United States but criticized by a number of other states as undermining disarmament commitments, faced criticism from both camps this year. (See ACT, December 2017.)
Austria explained to the conference on Nov. 1 that it abstained on the resolution because it restates agreed disarmament language, misrepresents the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and undermines the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
For its part, the United States rejected language reinserted into the resolution about the importance of nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Article VI, which commits states-parties to pursue disarmament, and agreements reached at NPT review conferences in 1995, 2000, and 2010, a source told Kyodo News on Nov. 10. The United States was successful in eliminating an initial clause in the resolution that would have called on North Korea to sign and ratify the CTBT, according to the same source.
The first UN resolution to welcome the adoption of the prohibiton treaty and encourage all states to sign and ratify it passed the First Committee with 122 states voting in favor, 41 voting against, and 16 abstaining. All nuclear-armed states except for North Korea, which abstained, voted against the resolution.
UN Disarmament Resolutions
During its 2018 session, the UN General Assembly First Committee adopted several resolutions on nuclear disarmament. Below are some of those resolutions.
Convention on the Prohibition of the Use of Nuclear Weapons
Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty
Treaty Banning the Production of Fissile Material for Nuclear Weapons or Other Nuclear Explosive Devices
Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons
Ethical Imperatives for a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World
Reducing Nuclear Dangers