The Arms Control Agenda at the UN: Breaking New Ground or Breaking Old Habits?

By Johnson, Rebecca | Arms Control Today, January/February 1997 | Go to article overview

The Arms Control Agenda at the UN: Breaking New Ground or Breaking Old Habits?


Johnson, Rebecca, Arms Control Today


Every year the UN General Assembly adopts a host of resolutions on disarmament without really expecting that most of them will be acted on. Some, however, convey important signals. For many years, the General Assembly had overwhelmingly endorsed resolutions calling for an end to nuclear testing. When the resolution achieved consensus in December 1993, it meant that the nuclear-weapon states were finally ready to give a test ban a chance. The result was the long-awaited Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) that was opened for signature in September 1996.

In 1993, the General Assembly also unanimously agreed on a resolution calling for a global ban on the production of fissile materials for weapon and explosive purposes. But in 1995 and 1996, the General Assembly did not vote on any so-called "fissban" resolution, and this too sent a strong, but more somber, message. In this case, the main players at the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD) were so divided over what kind of fissile material cutoff regime they wanted that they would not risk putting a fissban resolution to a vote at the United Nations. Advocates of such a treaty were afraid that a split vote in the assembly would undermine the authority of the consensus endorsement achieved in 1993. At the same time, opponents of a cutoff regime rejoiced in the absence of a UN vote.

During the 51st session of the United Nations, a number of important debates and resolutions on disarmament issues were addressed by the UN First Committee on Disarmament and International Security, which met in New York in October and November 1996. All 46 draft resolutions and decisions adopted by the First Committee also obtained majority support in the General Assembly on December 10, 1996. However, although every UN member-state has an equal vote in the General Assembly, some votes are more equal than others.

There is inevitably a handsome majority for disarmament resolutions, especially nuclear disarmament. But to assess a resolution's significance, it is more important to look at which countries co-sponsored it; whether a resolution did better or worse in previous sessions; and the balance of power on the vote, particularly which states registered votes against. Consensus at the United Nations can be an indication of a significant breakthrough in support of a resolution, which could lead to negotiations and ultimately a new security-enhancing arms control treaty. Alternatively, a UN consensus may simply reflect widespread endorsement of diplomatic rhetoric on an issue that no one wants to be seen as being against, but which is not likely to move forward.

Among the many resolutions considered during the 51 st session, only a handful stand out as significant or with the potential to break new ground. Malaysia and its colleagues in the non-aligned movement (NAM) laid the first foundation stone for a nuclear weapons convention that would ban all such weapons, just as the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) are intended to ban other types of weapons of mass destruction. The United States, backed by 112 others countries, called for a complete ban on anti-personnel landmines, although it did not specify how or where this should be negotiated. The United States and Russia co-sponsored a resolution on bilateral arms control which not only underlined the high priority to be accorded to further bilateral reductions, but also urged Russia to ratify START II, a singling out that was unusually strong and significant. The United States and Israel were isolated in opposing a special session of all UN member-states, which the vast majority of countries-including the European Union-want to be convened in 1999 to discuss a disarmament and security agenda for the 21st century.

The United Nations strongly endorsed the CWC and exhorted both the United States and Russia to ratify it before it enters into force on April 29,1997. …

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