First Committee: Disarmament and International Security; between National Interest and Collective Security

By Talwar, Namrita | UN Chronicle, March-May 2004 | Go to article overview

First Committee: Disarmament and International Security; between National Interest and Collective Security


Talwar, Namrita, UN Chronicle


The First Committee is an arena subject to a tug of war between two major concerns: national security and collective security. Diplomats come armed with words--commitments--that have the power to weaken a range of dangers: from atomic weapons to small arms (which kill in statistically alarming numbers): and from securing transport of nuclear waste across the high seas to keeping outer space free from high-tech weapons (see box on page 18).

The push and pull between national interest and collective security was sometimes manifested in voting on resolutions. Continuing a voting pattern seen in past years, countries agreed to the non-proliferation and disarmament goals but differed on the ways to achieve them.

During the fifty-eighth session of the General Assembly, a majority of States were concerned that collective security was becoming "elusive" First Committee Chairman Jarmo Sareva of Finland said that some countries were adopting unilateral methods for self-defence. As the Committee readied for work in October 2003, he noted that there had been a "crisis of confidence" in multilateralism, echoing Secretary-General Kofi Annan's words that in the 58-year history of the United Nations, it had "come to a fork in the road".

The word "nuclear", covering aspects such as proliferation and reduction of non-strategic nuclear weapons elimination of nuclear weapons and an ending of nuclear arms race, figured in 14 of the 52 resolutions recommended by the First Committee. The officially declared and undeclared nuclear-weapon Powers, however, had not agreed on the basic non-proliferation regime for weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

An omnibus resolution, Towards a nuclear-weapon-free world: a new agenda, first tabled in 1998 by the New Agenda Coalition, consisting of Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Sweden and Brazil, received 133 votes in favour, to 6 against (France, India, Israel, Pakistan, United Kingdom, United States), with 38 abstentions. India and Israel also voted against a related text that asked countries outside the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) to accept both an international legal commitment not to acquire nuclear weapons, as well as one to agree to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards on all their nuclear activities. The NPT, adhered to by nearly 190 countries, is the most widely accepted non-proliferation treaty.

A similar pattern was noticed in a resolution A path to the total elimination of nuclear weapons. The Assembly called on all States to maintain the highest possible standards of security, safe custody, effective control and physical protection of all materials related to such weapons, so that they did not fall into the hands of terrorists. The text, which was orally amended by Japan, on the challenges to the NPT and the need for full compliance received 164 votes to 2 (India, United States), with 14 abstentions. Explaining his negative vote, the representative of India said that the main legal instrument purported to achieve that objective, namely the NPT, seemed to have been ineffective. India, therefore, would take a path that went beyond that discriminatory Treaty. The United States' representative said that the draft had stressed the importance of the "urgent" signature and ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. As his country did not support the Treaty, it would not become a party to it. Ambassador Sareva told the UN Chronicle that "the more support you negotiate and the closer you are in coming to a consensus, the higher the value is in setting a global norm in legal, political, moral and ethical terms. Fault-lines remain."

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Other delegations argued that the sluggish movement on nuclear disarmament had slowed down progress on issues besides WMD, Ambassador Vladimir Drobnjak of Croatia informed the Chronicle that flexibility and pragmatism were expected of all major players. …

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