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Disarmament Diplomacy No. 89, Cover design by Calvert's Press, Photo by Rebecca JohnsonDisarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 89, Winter 2008

Between Irrelevance and a New Era:
Report on the 2008 UN First Committee

Michael Spies

See also: 2008 First Committee Resolutions: Summary and Explanations

The 63rd session of the United Nations General Assembly First Committee (Disarmament and International Security) concluded its work just days before the US election on November 4, 2008. As a consequence, the Committee's conduct was business-like but rather flat, with an air of anticipation as many waited to see who would become the next US president. Chaired by Ambassador Marco Antonio Suazo of Honduras, the Committee ran through its agenda in four weeks, approving 54 draft resolutions and four draft decisions. As shown in the table below, all but the resolution on an arms trade treaty were subsequently adopted by the General Assembly on 2 December.

Such productivity, however, did not generally translate into political consensus on the pressing disarmament and security questions of the day-the purpose for which the General Assembly and its First Committee were created. On many important issues the Committee faced the same quasi-permanent paralysis that has seized other parts of the UN-based disarmament machinery over the past decade. Illustrating some of the divisions, it was necessary for the First Committee to vote on more than half of its texts-31 out of 58.[1] Eleven of those were adopted despite significant opposition, with groups of more than twenty states voting against or abstaining. It was also notable that nineteen adopted texts were opposed by five states or fewer. In this telling sign of the Bush administration's record, the United States stood out once again, opposing 23 texts, in seven of which it cast the solitary vote against. The United States also stood alone or in dubious company on several votes taken separately on specific paragraphs or aspects of some of the resolutions.

Following a brief assessment of the challenges that will face the new US administration, this report provides an overview of the 2008 First Committee, including a review of the main discussion points organized according to the structure of this session. There follows the Acronym Institute's usual comprehensive appendix, giving a detailed breakdown of the resolutions, including information on key sponsors, opponents, position statements and voting figures.

Waiting for Obama

First Committee delegations are hoping that one of the first priorities of the Obama administration will be to repair the damage to multilateralism and arms control inflicted by eight years of President George W. Bush. During that time, the General Assembly was returned to the kind of polarized dynamics that had paralyzed multilateral action for most of the cold war, when breaking ranks with oft-anachronistic bloc politics to accomplish common and long-identified goals was a rare exception rather than the norm. It would be too simplistic to lay all blame for the troubles confronting multilateralism on the Bush administration. Using procedure as a weapon to frustrate consensus, a few other governments have also shown a short-sighted capacity for placing narrowly-perceived national interests ahead of the common good. US exceptionalism and obstructionism, however, achieved dizzying new heights in recent years, hitting its peak in 2006 when the United States lodged opposition votes against 27 majority-adopted resolutions in the First Committee, twelve times on its own.[2]

The casualties of these US policies have spanned the spectrum of disarmament issues, inside and outside the First Committee. They left an eviscerated disarmament machinery, with a list of broken commitments that included: preventing adoption of a protocol to strengthen the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) after six years of negotiations; leaving the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) for dead; abandoning consensus on the mandate to negotiate a fissile materials cut-off treaty (FMCT); and reneging on consensus decisions and agreements from past Review Conferences of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Since the UN General Assembly is meant to act as a consensus-building body, its First Committee is not burdened by a consensus rule. The international community learned that it could get on with some pressing tasks in spite of US opposition. However, the lack of US support, and more critically its leadership, has negatively impacted on numerous processes to various extents, including: review of the implementation of the 2001 Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW); studies on issues such as an arms trade treaty, the safety and security of excess ammunition stockpiles, and emerging threats to telecommunications and information technology. Beyond simply reversing the rejectionist proclivities of the Bush administration, renewed US leadership could reinvigorate the prospects for entry into force of the CTBT and negotiations on the FMCT; securing the global commons of outer space by negotiating a code of conduct and a treaty prohibiting the deployment and use of weapons in space; achieving an arms trade treaty; and reforming the UN disarmament machinery. In this regard, if the US lifts its opposition to convening a fourth special session of the General Assembly devoted to disarmament, for which there is overwhelming international support, it might now become possible to update the UN's disarmament agenda and machinery for the first time since the cold war so that it can better reflect and address the security challenges of the 21st century.

The incoming US administration has the benefit of being perceived as a beacon of hopeful change. This provides Washington with a rare window of opportunity when it may be perceived as having both moral credibility and political capital. What remains to be seen is how the new government will choose to spend that capital and whether they will work with other governments and civil society to develop a progressive, transformational agenda or show up with an agenda in hand that they seek to impose. Or will they miss the moment and end up fire-fighting to defend an out-dated status quo?

One consequence of the years of impasse and setbacks in international arms control and disarmament efforts, there has been an increasing tendency for interested states to circumvent paralysed diplomatic bodies and establish alternative venues for negotiations. Some hope that the new US administration will reinvigorate and reform UN machinery so that it works more effectively, which might obviate the necessity to go outside the UN and risk undermining its institutions. However, it would be naive to expect a new US government to solve all the problems or herald the start of an era of multilateral cooperation, since a multiplicity of complicating political factors is responsible for the present paralysis. Nevertheless, the renewed engagement of the United States, with a government that is less-hostile to both the multilateral pursuit of collective security and to the many specific issues that have been frozen, would make progress across a range of issues more possible once again.

Overview of the 63rd First Committee

The year 2008 was not one for major new initiatives to originate from the General Assembly, which appeared to be sitting in its own version of a lame duck session. In the First Committee, 26 texts featured no substantive changes at all from the resolutions submitted in previous years, while another 16 included only minor revisions. Delegations put forward only two resolutions that had not been submitted in previous years: these dealt with cluster munitions and combating illicit weapons brokering. Due to ongoing disagreements on how to deal with cluster munitions, the core group that spearheaded the Oslo Process tabled a strictly procedural text, noting the conclusion of negotiations and date for the Cluster Munitions Convention to be opened for signature. The other new resolution, on synthesizing efforts to combat illicit brokering of both conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction, appeared broad in scope but largely limited its calls for action to implementing existing initiatives-many of which are pursued outside the auspices of the UN.

In keeping with a recent trend, topics relating to conventional weapons generally garnered a greater proportion of new and forward moving processes, as well as the Committee's time and attention. Various actors continued to push through a variety of initiatives, moving forward efforts to: regulate the trade in conventional arms; deal with health, safety and security issues relating to excess ammunition stockpiles; and examine the potential harmful effects of the use of depleted uranium munitions. Notably, the First Committee also commissioned new studies on improving the UN Register of Conventional Arms and on implementation of the UN Programme of Action on small arms and light weapons.

On nuclear weapons issues there were no new initiatives and the First Committee did little other than approve stagnant, unchanging, symbolic, and hortatory texts. Opting to await the change of administration in Washington in the hope that it will unfreeze some of the current deadlocks, many delegations devoted less time to these static resolutions than to areas where progress has been possible in recent years. In its nuclear cluster, the First Committee voted on all but two of its 17 resolutions and decisions. Half these texts faced opposition or abstentions from blocs of 20 states or more. Apart from slight textual developments, there were no new or game-changing developments on most issues. Once again it was decided to withdraw the FMCT resolution rather than face a divisive vote, while the votes on other issues such as the CTBT, the operational status of nuclear weapons, legally-binding negative security assurances, non-first use of nuclear weapons, nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation merely reflected pre-election realities without giving much indication of the prospects for these issues if the new US administration chooses to prioritise some of them for action.

The First Committee also failed to make any significant progress on nuclear weapon free zone (NWFZ) issues, adopting a number of traditional and unchanged resolutions dealing with the Middle East, Central Asia, and the southern hemisphere. The sole exception involved the case of Mongolia's single-state NWFZ, in which the General Assembly's role is largely limited to endorsing the initiative. The only other resolution in the nuclear weapons cluster to be adopted without a vote was the customary lowest common denominator text on a Middle East NWFZ, unchanged for many years. Voting figures on a more specific resolution on the risk of proliferation in the Middle East demonstrated the continuing deep divisions on this issue.

On issues related to other weapons of mass destruction and outer space, the First Committee seemed to be on autopilot. It again adopted by consensus its two largely procedural, annual texts supporting the BWC and the Chemical Weapons Conventions (CWC), with the focus for both on congratulating states parties on the successful achievement of recent review conferences. The Committee remained unable to overcome differences on either of the two texts on outer space and on keeping the issue of new types of weapons of mass destruction under review. One exception to the continued forwarding of static and perfunctory resolutions, though falling outside the scope of the First Committee, but arising from the 2006 UN global strategy to combat terrorism, was that the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs continued its development of a Biological Incident Database.

Nuclear Weapons

Nuclear disarmament

The drafters of the three long omnibus resolutions dealing with nuclear disarmament chose not to attempt new initiatives this year, probably to keep their powder dry and assess the prospects for support depending on whether the US election would deliver a McCain or Obama government. As each of the three resolutions included only minor changes to last year's texts, their level of support remained virtually static.

Japan's annual resolution, "Renewed determination toward the total elimination of nuclear weapons", continued to focus on implementation of a select subset of disarmament steps agreed to at the 2000 NPT Review Conference, including entry into force of the CTBT and conclusion of a fissile materials treaty. New language addressed the troubled US-Russian relationship, calling for increased transparency and confidence-building from the two nuclear superpowers and for a legally-binding post-START arrangement. This year, Israel joined the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), India and the United States (which cited the resolution's support of the CTBT) in voting against the resolution. France and the United Kingdom voted in favour, while China again abstained. It was notable that for the first time in several years all the members of the New Agenda Coalition (see below) supported Japan's resolution in 2008. The GA vote was: 173 votes in favour, 4 against, with 6 abstentions.

The New Agenda Coalition (Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and Sweden) revised their annual resolution, "Towards a nuclear-weapon-free world: accelerating the implementation of nuclear disarmament commitments", to focus on the 2010 NPT Review Conference and recent public initiatives for nuclear abolition. The resolution calls on the 2009 NPT Preparatory Committee to identify where urgent progress is required to achieve a nuclear weapon free world, building on the outcomes of previous NPT conferences. The resolution, adopted by the GA with 166 votes in favour, picked up support from several states that abstained in 2007, including Australia and NATO allies Greece, Hungary, and Poland. The five states that voted against the New Agenda resolution in 2007 also opposed in 2008: the DPRK, France, India, Israel and the United States (which criticized the resolution for not reflecting all elements of the NPT, including non-proliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear energy).

The annual resolution introduced by Myanmar (Burma), entitled "Nuclear disarmament", remained a compendium of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) positions. Its only revision this year added a few words urging quicker action. This static, out-dated text continued to lose ground, even among NAM states, garnering only 105 votes in favour in the First Committee, though the number rose to 117 in the GA, attributable to NAM delegations that do not typically participate in the work of the First Committee. Notably, this resolution failed to gain the full backing of the sponsors of the other two omnibus nuclear disarmament resolutions, as Japan and the two European members of the New Agenda Coalition, Ireland and Sweden, abstained.

The text of three other annual resolutions that deal with nuclear disarmament-related issues remained unchanged, as did their levels of support. These were: Malaysia's resolution following up on the 1996 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons and two hangovers from the cold war and Indian-Pakistani rivalry that repeat standardized calls for legally-binding negative security assurances and a convention on the prohibition of the use of nuclear weapons.

Fissile Materials

For the second year in a row, the Canadian delegation announced at the outset of the First Committee session that it would not table a draft text on negotiating an FMCT.[3] In his statement to the general debate, Ambassador Marius Grinius blamed a "small handful of countries that wish to retain the capacity to produce fissile material in the future" for indefinitely blocking forward movement on the treaty.[4]

Pakistan is believed to be the principal state blocking consensus on the commencement of FMCT negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament (CD). In his general statement, Pakistan's Ambassador Zamir Akram rejected as "not factually correct" the argument that a fissile materials treaty is more "ripe" than any of the other priority issues in the CD, which include negative security assurances, prevention of an arms race in outer space, and nuclear disarmament. He also said his country would endorse any programme of work in the CD that treats the four core issues "in a balanced manner", suggesting Pakistan would allow negotiations to proceed on a fissile materials treaty if the CD also agrees to negotiating mandates on its three other core issues[5] -an idea not supported by many states. Later, in the thematic debate, by contrast, Akram affirmed that Pakistan supports "negotiation of a verifiable treaty on fissile material in the Conference on Disarmament", but reiterated his country's longstanding position that the treaty must also include past, present, and future production to avoid, inter alia, "freezing regional asymmetries".[6]

In their general and thematic statements, only a dozen or so delegations took time to reiterate their desire to see negotiations commence. These included China and the 30 countries attaching to the European Union statement, while Australia, Switzerland and the Rio Group specified that negotiations should commence without preconditions. The United States, which in 2006 tabled a draft text in the CD for an FMCT without verification, only made reference to this draft in its general statement, declining to repeat past calls for states to use it as a basis for negotiations. While many delegations had reluctantly indicated a willingness to consider the US text, it had also been widely criticized for omitting verification provisions, a position consistent with the Bush administration's scepticism about multilateral verification, seen also in its opposition to the verification protocol that had been negotiated for the BWC.

Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

Mexico introduced a virtually unchanged text of the annual resolution calling for early entry into force of the CTBT. Entry into force is held up because nine states out of the 44 named in Annex 2 of the Treaty have still not ratified. Of these nine, six voted in favour of the resolution, including Pakistan which (together with India and the DPRK) has not yet signed. In keeping with Bush administration policy, the United States cast the lone vote against the resolution. Three other delegations including India abstained. The DPRK, which joined the United States in opposing this resolution in 2006, chose to be 'absent' from the vote this time.

The Operational Readiness of Nuclear Weapons

On behalf of the six sponsors of the resolution on "Decreasing the operational readiness of nuclear weapons" (UNGA res. 62/36), introduced for the first time in 2007, Switzerland submitted an unchanged text this year. With just one operative paragraph (OP) calling "for the taking of further practical steps to decrease the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems, with a view to ensuring that all nuclear weapons are removed from high alert status", the resolution garnered a comparable vote to last year, receiving 141 votes in favour, including seven members of NATO. France, the United Kingdom and United States comprised the 3 votes against, and there were 34 abstentions, mostly NATO. Co-sponsored by Chile, New Zealand, Nigeria, Sweden, and Switzerland, this initiative was regarded as one of the most controversial in 2007, sparking a debate on what constitutes "high alert" and the implications of such postures. Though the resolution drew less controversy this year, its sponsors (now joined by Malaysia) described the discussion as more substantive than the previous year, though it has not necessarily moved collective understanding of the issue in a useful direction.

A number of abstaining delegations, including China, Russia, and many members of NATO, offered a new rationale for their reservations, pointing to the language on the operational status of nuclear weapons used in Japan's annual nuclear disarmament resolution. OP 8 of Japan's resolution relied on language agreed by consensus in the final document of the 2000 NPT Review Conference, and so "Calls for the nuclear-weapon States to further reduce the operational status of nuclear weapons systems in ways that promote international stability and security" [emphasis added]. Several of the abstainers criticized the operational status resolution for not incorporating this language on international stability.

Considering that the language on stability had been demanded by Russia in 2000, NATO members were far from consistent in their approach. Belgium, Germany and Italy, NATO delegations that co-sponsored Japan's resolution and also voted in favour of the operational status resolution clearly did not regard the texts as mutually exclusive. Canada, by contrast, another NATO country that has long been a co-sponsor of Japan's resolution, cited the omission of language on strategic stability as a primary reason for its abstention on the operational status resolution. Other NATO states that abstained from the operational status resolution voted in favour of Japan's resolution, with the exception of the United States, which opposed both.

Beyond the strategic stability rationale, some abstaining delegations offered alternative reasons for their positions. China expressed the desire to pursue de-alerting only as an intermediary measure in the context of the disarmament process and reiterated its call for no-first use declarations. Russia claimed the initiative was not feasible for technical reasons, but did not elaborate on what these might be. Lithuania and Canada emphasized the importance of deterrence to NATO.

The General Assembly adopted a third resolution that deals with the operational status of nuclear weapons-India's annual resolution, "Reducing nuclear danger". First introduced in 1998, soon after India had conducted a series of nuclear weapon test explosions, this resolution continues to attract open opposition from NATO-affiliated and western European states due more to its dubious provenance than any controversial language. The General Assembly adopted the text, unchanged from past years, by a vote of 117-45-19.[7]

Nuclear Proliferation

In the general and thematic debates, the Committee's discussion on nuclear proliferation issues focused largely on Iran and the DPRK. On Iran, a number of delegations, exclusively from Western states, continued to emphasize the need for compliance with relevant International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and UN Security Council resolutions. Others reiterated calls for political and negotiated solutions. On the DPRK, most statements reflected recent setbacks and developments following the February 2007 denuclearization agreement. With the exception of Japan, the other participants in the six party talks either chose not to comment on the DPRK or limited themselves to anodyne remarks. US Ambassador Christina Rocca acknowledged only that the process had experienced "up and downs." Of the representatives of the six-party participants, only Ambassador Kim Bong-hyun of the Republic of Korea made reference to the DPRK taking action to restart its plutonium production reactor at Yongbyon, describing these setbacks as "highly regrettable" and urging the DPRK to resume disablement. Australia and the EU also raised concerns about reports of clandestine nuclear work in Syria.

Though non-proliferation was referenced in many resolutions that dealt with nuclear weapons, the First Committee took action on only two resolutions that addressed nuclear proliferation directly. The US-drafted, triennial resolution, "Compliance with non-proliferation, arms limitation and disarmament agreements and commitments", was adopted by the General Assembly by a vote of 158-0-18, as similar margin as in 2005 when the US delegation had hardened its tone to reflect the views of the Bush administration. The current resolution, which included only minor textual changes, picked up about a half-dozen more abstentions than in 2005, all from Arab states, reflecting continuing dissatisfaction with the text, which retained all the controversial changes included in resolution 60/55. Abstaining delegations, which included Russia, Iran, Pakistan, Venezuela and most Arab states, generally repeated their criticism of the 2005 text, broadly maintaining that its balance had been skewed to favour non-proliferation over disarmament and that it seemed to endorse unilateral compliance assessment and enforcement.

The General Assembly adopted a second resolution in this section, with the title "The risk of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East." This annual resolution, introduced by Egypt on behalf of the Arab Group, specifically calls upon Israel to accede to the NPT, not to develop, test or acquire nuclear weapons, to renounce the possession of nuclear weapons, and to place all its nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards as a confidence-building measure. Adopted by the General Assembly by 169-5-6, the negative votes were cast by Israel, the United States and a handful of US Pacific dependencies. For many, the main reason for supporting the resolution is to demonstrate their support for universalizing the NPT. However, in recent years, some Western states have expressed greater reservations about this text on grounds that it does not address the full scope of proliferation issues in the region. In this case, as made explicit by Australia and France, on behalf of the European Union, they mean that the resolution omitted mention of the nuclear controversies involving Syria and Iran. While the European Union had taken a collective decision to vote in favour of the resolution, Australia and Canada joined the abstainers.

The DPRK's nuclear programme came up in a number of other annual resolutions, including the nuclear disarmament resolutions of Japan and the New Agenda Coalition, which called for the DPRK to comply with relevant UN Security Council resolutions and return to the NPT.


The General Assembly took action on two competing approaches to missiles: the proliferation and export control-focused Hague Code of Conduct (HCoC) Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation backed by the European Union and Iran's resolution for a comprehensive multilateral approach to missiles in all their aspects under UN auspices.

Iran's brief resolution, entitled "Missiles" was co-sponsored by Egypt and Indonesia, welcomes the third report of the Group of Government Experts (GGE) on Missiles, which was sent to the Secretary-General in July 2008. Following the basic approach of Iran's past few resolutions on this subject, the text calls for a comprehensive, balanced, and non-discriminatory approach to missiles. Seizing on the report's conclusion that the UN should provide a more structured and effective mechanism to continue deliberations and build consensus on the increasingly complex issue, the resolution directs the Secretary-General to seek the views of states and to submit them to the 65th (2010) session of the General Assembly.

The General Assembly adopted the resolution by a vote of 120-10-50, following the voting pattern of previous years. Despite participating in the work of the third GGE panel and agreeing by consensus to its report, members of NATO and the EU continue to oppose or abstain from this resolution. For many this is because of its provenance, but there is also the view that deep divisions between GGE panellists mean that the process is going nowhere.

The preferred approach of NATO and the EU was reflected in resolution 63/64 on the "Hague Conduct of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation". Introduced by France on behalf of the EU, the text was unchanged from resolution 60/62 of 2005. The resolution, which focuses on preventing the proliferation of ballistic missiles capable of carrying weapons of mass destruction, invites all states to subscribe to the HCoC and encourages exploration of other ways and means of dealing with ballistic missile proliferation.

The General Assembly adopted the HCoC resolution by a vote of 159-1-18, with Iran (as in past years) casting the sole vote in opposition. The other two sponsors of "Missiles", Egypt and Indonesia, both abstained from the HCoC resolution, expressing the view that the UN should take the lead on the issue. Egypt criticized the HCoC as a discriminatory export control regime developed outside the UN and Indonesia called again for a multilateral and non-discriminatory international instrument on missiles.

Nuclear Weapon Free Zones

Middle East

The General Assembly again adopted without a vote its traditional resolution calling for states in the Middle East to consider steps to implement a nuclear weapon free zone in the region. As in past years, Israel joined consensus on the resolution, entitled "Establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the region of the Middle East", and reiterated its familiar position that peace and confidence-building must precede progress on nuclear issues.

Central Asia

The five Central Asian states, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, were unable to find any new support for their biennial resolution, "Establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Central Asia". Virtually unchanged from 2006, this resolution supported the 2006 Semipalatinsk Treaty establishing a nuclear weapon free zone in the region. The five states signed the treaty despite concerns expressed by France, the United Kingdom, and the United States that it gives precedence to cold war-era nuclear agreements between the five states and Russia. In light of the fact that the parties have not resumed consultations to deal with these differences over the text, NATO continued to abstain from the resolution, which the General Assembly adopted by a vote of 141-3-36. As in 2006, the three Western nuclear powers voted against and a group of eight industrialized states friendly to NATO voted in favour.

The General Assembly adopted without a vote an unchanged draft of Mongolia's biennial resolution, "Mongolia's international security and nuclear-weapon-free status", co-sponsored again by France and the United States. Mongolia, a self-declared, single-state nuclear weapon free zone, reported that it had made progress in consolidating its nuclear weapon free status. Landlocked between nuclear powers China and Russia, Mongolia also reported that it had prepared a draft trilateral treaty for China and Russia in 2007, with regard to maintaining its sovereignty and nuclear weapon free status.

Southern Hemisphere

The General Assembly adopted the annual resolution headed by Brazil and New Zealand on "Nuclear-weapon-free southern hemisphere and adjacent areas", by a vote of 171-3-7. As in previous years, France, the United Kingdom and the United States remained adamantly opposed, despite language in the resolution asserting the primacy of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The three Western nuclear weapon states apparently fear that the initiative, which calls for the ratification of nuclear weapon free zone treaties, would build a norm against the presence and marine deployment of nuclear weapons in the entire southern hemisphere, which potentially would have significant impact on their practice of carrying nuclear weapons on vessels through or on the high seas.

Other Weapons of Mass Destruction

Biological Weapons

The General Assembly adopted resolution 63/88 on the BWC without a vote. As many delegations continued to focus on implementing the outcome of the Sixth BWC Review Conference, a wide cross-section commended the progress of the intersessional programme of work, including the August meeting of experts, which focused on biosafety and biosecurity measures and on development of a code of conduct to prevent misuse of bioscience and biotechnology. NAM states generally repeated their calls for a binding verification protocol and for universalization of the Convention.

Chemical Weapons

The drafters revised the annual resolution on the CWC to reflect the consensus outcome of its Second Review Conference. Adopted as usual without a vote, UN resolution 63/48 on the CWC continues to carry forward a variety of national positions and priorities relating to implementation of the treaty. This includes emphasis on a number of the Convention's provisions, including, inter alia, timely destruction of stocks and protections against use of chemical weapons. Reflecting the interests of the NAM states, the resolution this year places greater emphasis on safeguarding the technological and economic development of members.

Other Issues

For the second consecutive time, the United States cast the only vote against a customary triennial resolution requesting the CD to keep under review the matter of the possible emergence of new types of weapons of mass destruction. A short biennial NAM resolution calling for states to withdraw their reservations from the 1925 Geneva Protocol was likewise prevented from gaining consensus by abstentions from the United States, Israel, the Marshall Islands and Palau. The General Assembly then adopted without a vote India's annual resolution on measures to prevent terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, which called on states to join existing initiatives-most of which are non-UN based-and strengthen national measures related to this issue. The resolution's implied emphasis on the continued primacy of the Security Council and various national and plurilateral initiatives was viewed critically by at least one delegation (Pakistan), which considered the Indian initiative to represent an under-utilization of the General Assembly in developing a consensus-based approach to the issue.

Outer Space Security

In light of continuing policy disputes, principally between Russia and China at one end and the United States at the other, the General Assembly again failed to find consensus on either of the two resolutions under the cluster heading of "prevention of an arms race in outer space" (PAROS). Amid the ongoing disagreements, stimulated in large part by US plans to develop and deploy missile defences, which could include space-based weapons, the European Union announced it was working toward drafting a non-binding code of conduct on space activities intended to "promote the security of space activities [through] voluntary confidence-building and transparency measures".[8] Diplomats familiar with recent work on this code, one of the key policies initiated under the French presidency of the EU, think that the EU will be in a position to release more information about this early in 2009.

The United States continued to stand alone in its opposition to the annual PAROS resolution, from which Israel cast the sole abstention. Introduced this year by Egypt, the text of resolution 63/40 has remained unchanged for many years. Its key provisions call for states to take action to prevent an arms race in space and for the CD to reconvene an ad hoc committee on the issue. There were useful formal and informal discussions on this issue during the First Committee, but apart from the EU initiative, little was new. As with many other matters in which the principal political division lies between the United States and virtually everyone else, the proponents of the PAROS resolutions have opted to wait to see how a new government in Washington approaches this issue before attempting to move forward their presently frozen initiatives.

While there is consensus in the General Assembly on the desirability of transparency and confidence-building for space activities, the United States continued to cast the only vote against the Russian-drafted resolution first introduced in 2005, which asks for states to submit concrete proposals for such measures. The US delegation continues to object to the resolution's linkage of the issue to PAROS. Israel cast the sole abstention. In the present text, Russia included a reference to the draft treaty on the prevention of the placement of weapons in space (PPWT), introduced to the CD in February 2008 by China and Russia, which the United States also opposes.

Conventional Weapons

Cluster Munitions

Like the campaign to ban landmines that came before it, the initiative to prohibit cluster munitions has provided another challenge to the realist maxim regarding the futility of pushing for restrictions on weapons that continue to be highly valued by major military forces. The present debate in the First Committee mirrored the earlier arguments over the Ottawa Convention and pitted advocates of advanced weaponry as the preferred option to deal with security concerns against the humanitarian reality of those weapons, which few were willing openly to deny.

The core group of the Oslo Process submitted a first-time, procedural resolution, noting that the Cluster Munitions Convention (CMC) would be opened for signature in December 2008, and directing the UN Secretary-General to discharge his responsibilities as depositary for the treaty. Despite the resolution's lack of fanfare, during the Committee's general and thematic debates many spoke in favour of the CMC. Canada, Finland, Lebanon, Malaysia, Qatar and the Philippines highlighted their support for the CMC's humanitarian aims, while Australia, New Zealand and Uruguay went further and announced the intention of their governments to sign the treaty.

Due its strictly procedural nature, resolution 63/71 on cluster munitions was able to be adopted by the General Assembly without a vote, despite the vocal reservations and opposition by some states, who stated their preference for dealing with the issue in upcoming negotiations among states parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). Israel, for example, asserted that only the CCW is the appropriate forum for achieving the "necessary balance between military and humanitarian considerations".[9] Resisting attempts to give primacy to the CCW over the CMC, a number of delegations expressed the view that the approaches taken by the CMC and CCW could be complementary and that any text adopted by the CCW should be compatible with the CMC, rather than compete with it.

Arms Trade Treaty

Although many NGOs and delegations remain enthusiastic and optimistic about the prospects for a quick and positive outcome to the arms trade treaty process, the troubles this initiative experienced in the 2008 First Committee may presage difficulties that lie ahead. Following on the report of the recently concluded Group of Government Experts on this issue, which was convened at the request of the General Assembly in 2006,[10] the core proponents of an arms trade treaty put forward an updated resolution that attempt to push the process forward. In response, other delegations reached for the procedural brakes.

The key provision in resolution 63/240, co-sponsored by 114 delegations and approved in the General Assembly with 133 votes in favour, convenes an open-ended working group in 2009 to explore areas of consensus in a prospective treaty. Nineteen delegations abstained in the General Assembly, down from the 24 abstainers in 2006. The key abstainers continued to be Arab states, though not as a unified bloc, as well as China, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, and Russia. The United States was joined by the unlikeliest of allies in opposing this resolution in the First Committee, Zimbabwe, which ultimately switched to vote in favour in the General Assembly, leaving the United States once again isolated in its opposition. The US delegation also called for separate votes on each of the resolution's paragraphs dealing with the working group to further emphasize its opposition.

Opposing and abstaining delegations voiced a number of concerns. They charged that the drafters of the resolution selectively emphasized certain provisions of the GGE report; that the resolution predetermines the outcome of the process to be a treaty, departing from earlier consensus implying a so-called step-by-step process; and that the current approach risks leaving out key arms producing states, thus undermining the efficacy of any treaty. The US delegation directly questioned the feasibility of an arms trade treaty. Singling out Israel, a bloc of Arab states expressed concern that the current approach would have the effect of freezing the existing military advantages of arms producing states.

Such arguments, expressed as they were by an important, if not numerous minority, have begun to cause even ardent proponents of an arms trade treaty to admit to a degree of pessimism. Privately, some delegations are concerned that the all-inclusive process for going forward could result in an acrimonious process beset by procedural tactics, such as those wielded in recent years to block progress on other arms control initiatives that receive widespread but less than universal support. One seasoned diplomat with an interest in the process expressed fear that if this happened, the process might end up with a lowest-common-denominator outcome that contributes less than is needed to enhance international security.

Small Arms and Light Weapons

The General Assembly made slow progress on issues relating to small arms, overcoming Iran obstructionism and US rejectionism. Introduced by Japan and entitled "The illicit trade in small arms and lights weapons in all its aspects", the detailed omnibus resolution 63/72 set out an agreed agenda through 2012 for the 2001 UN Programme of Action. In its key provisions, the resolution endorsed the outcome of the third biennial meeting of states (BMS), which took place in July 2008, and assigned the same agenda for the 2010 BMS, requiring also the convening of a one-week, open-ended meeting of government experts in 2011, to address key implementation challenges, and a two-week Review Conference in 2012. As in past years, the United States cast the lone vote against the resolution, once again taking a stand against the convening of additional meetings related to the Programme of Action.

As another example of how governments can wield procedure toward unrelated political ends, during the First Committee session the Iranian delegation on numerous occasions reiterated its procedural complaints regarding the outcome and consultation process of the third BMS and opposed references to it. After the vote on draft resolution L.36, these repeated criticisms prompted the Lithuanian representative who had chaired the third BMS to exercise his right of reply. In graphic, compelling and impassioned terms, Ambassador Dalius Cekuolis described the global humanitarian impact of small arms violence and defended the process leading up to the third BMS as open and transparent. He further suggested that delegations had gone out of their way to accommodate Iranian positions and that Iran had been consulted more than any other delegation.

UN Arms Register

After a one-year gap, the Netherlands once again submitted its resolution on "Transparency in armaments", which supports the UN Register of Conventional Arms. The resolution does little more than provide technical updates to resolution 61/77 of 2006, in which the General Assembly endorsed the report of the 2006 GGE on transparency in armaments. Following from that report, the Assembly made some minor technical adjustments to the Register's definitions and, mostly importantly, established small arms and light weapons as an unofficial eighth category. The current resolution also forwards the 2006 request to convene a GGE in 2009 to review the operation and to continue developing the Register. The GA voting pattern duplicated that of recent years, with 160 votes in favour, none opposed, and with the Arab states abstaining as a bloc along with a few others.

Following the practice of more than a decade, the Arab states, joined as in past years by Iran and Myanmar (Burma), continued to call for and abstain on separate votes on each of the paragraphs in the resolution dealing with the operation of the Register and then abstain on the resolution as a whole. Making the customary statement on behalf of the Arab Group, Lebanon affirmed their commitment to the Register and to transparency in arms but described the Register as not sufficient for their security needs. Saying that the Register did not take into account the situation in the Middle East, the Arab Group repeated past calls to expand its scope to cover nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.

Other Issues

The Republic of Korea introduced a first-time resolution, "Preventing and combating illicit brokering activities", which was adopted without a vote despite its mixed reception in the First Committee. The resolution addresses illicit brokering related to both conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction and calls on states to implement existing instruments and adopt national legislation, consistent with international law. A wide cross-regional group of states apparently bristled at the breadth of the resolution, and in particular its sweeping provisions on restrictions on transfers of dual-use technologies, though the drafters included language to assuage these concerns. Some also expressed the preference to keep conventional and unconventional weapons proliferation issues separate.

The NAM built upon last year's first-time resolution drafted by Cuba on the potential harmful effects of munitions containing depleted uranium. Resolution 63/54, adopted in the General Assembly with 141 votes in favour, requests states to submit their views on the subject and ask relevant international organizations to complete their studies on the issue. NATO remained split on the initiative, with six members voting in favour, three against, and the rest abstaining. Notably, the Netherlands switched it vote to 'yes' this year after its government reportedly encountered domestic pressure from concerned groups.

Following on the July 2008 report of the GGE convened by the General Assembly pursuant to the 2006 resolution on "Problems arising from the accumulation of conventional ammunition stockpiles in surplus", Germany and France sought to push forward their initiative to address a range of issues related to ammunition stockpiles. Though resolution 63/61 was adopted in the General Assembly without a vote it was not without controversy. Encouraging states to contribute voluntarily to developments within the UN of technical guidelines for stockpile management, the resolution is viewed as going outside the UN Disarmament Commission (UNDC), thereby underscoring the sad reality that the UNDC has been unable to produce any tangible outcome in almost a decade and has been reduced to little more than a talking shop.

This report was written by Michael Spies. The report and its appendix were compiled with the invaluable assistance of Ray Acheson, project associate for the Reaching Critical Will (RCW) project of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and also draws heavily on the First Committee Monitor, edited by Ms Acheson, particularly the reports prepared by Ildikó Bors (Middle Powers Initiative), Mark Marge (International Action Network on Small Arms), Kavitha Suthanthiraraj (Global Action to Prevent War), and Jim Wurst (Middle Powers Initiative). Rebecca Johnson provided valuable analysis.


[1] This tally excludes the inadvertent vote taken on draft resolution L.35 in the First Committee, which was adopted in the General Assembly without a vote. It includes resolution 63/62, on which a recorded vote was intentionally requested, though no delegation cast any opposing or abstaining votes.

[2] In some recent votes on resolutions-in part or in whole-the United States has been joined in its otherwise solitary opposition by such unlikely partners as the DPRK, Iran, and Zimbabwe, in addition to its usual, reliable list of nay-saying allies and dependents: Israel, the Marshall Island, Micronesia, and Palau.

[3] The General Assembly first adopted a resolution on an FMCT in 1993, by consensus. The last time the General Assembly expressed support for an FMCT, however, was in 2004, when it adopted resolution 59/81 by a vote, with 179 states in favour, the United States and Palau against, and with Israel and the United Kingdom abstaining. In 2006, the Canadian delegation withdrew its draft resolution after it became clear it would not gain consensus. In 2007, the Canadian delegation found in preliminary consultations that it could not even find consensus on a procedural decision to put the issue on the agenda for the current session of the Assembly.

[4] Ambassador Marius Grinius, Permanent Representative of Canada to the CD, Statement to the General Debate, 7 October 2008. According to the International Panel on Fissile Materials, only India, Israel, and Pakistan are believed to be currently producing fissile material for use in weapons. Both India and Pakistan are presently constructing new weapons-related fissile material production facilities. Pakistan may feel additional pressure to build-up its fissile material stocks to offset India's production potential resulting from the US-brokered lifting of nuclear trade restrictions. Indian Ambassador Hamid Ali Rao reiterated in his general statement to the Committee, however, that India supports negotiation in the CD of a universal, non-discriminatory, and verifiable FMCT.

[5] Ambassador Zamir Akram, Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the UN in Geneva, Statement to the General Debate, 7 October 2008.

[6] Zamir Akram, Statement to the Thematic Debate on Nuclear Weapons, 15 October 2008.

[7] Voting figures are given as for:against:abstentions.

[8] Ambassador Eric Dannon, Permanent Representative of France to the CD, European Union statement on "Other Weapons of Mass Destruction", 17 October 2008.

[9] Dr Rodica Radian Gordon, Director of Arms Control Department, Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, "Explanation of Vote on Convention of Cluster Munitions (L.56)", 30 October 2008. Another CMC holdout, the Republic of Korea, reported that it had recently taken steps to mitigate potential humanitarian issues related to the use of cluster munitions.

[10] Resolution 61/89-The United States was the only delegation willing to vote against this resolution.

See also: 2008 First Committee Resolutions: Summary and Explanations

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