The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) held its general debate from 25 September–1 October. The theme for this year’s debate, set by UNGA President Vuk Jeremić of Serbia, was “adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations by peaceful means”. In his open remarks he specified, “A solution to an international problem can be legitimately achieved only upon renunciation of unilateralism; it can become truly sustainable only when its provisions are willingly accepted and fulfilled in good faith.”
With the ongoing violence in Syria, threats of bombing Iran over its uranium enrichment programme, several protracted regional disputes, and the ongoing retention and modernization of nuclear weapons, this theme was particularly timely. Most delegations addressed the theme in their statements, many of which related it to issues of militarism, disarmament, or arms control.
By the numbers
How many countries referred to...
- 2008: 19 countries
- 2009: 80 countries
- 2010: 71 countries
- 2011: 44 countries
- 2012: 52 countries
- 2008: 17 countries
- 2009: 73 countries
- 2010: 72 countries
- 2011: 36 countries
- 2012: 66 countries
- 2008: 21 countries
- 2009: 31 countries
- 2010: 41 countries
- 2011: 50 countries
- 2012: 52 countries
- 2008: 23 countries
- 2009: 21 countries
- 2010: 14 countries
- 2011: 25 countries
- 2012: 23 countries
References to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation increased this year, following a steady decline after 2009, when elite rhetoric in favour of a nuclear weapon free world was at its height. Most of those discussing nuclear weapon issues focused on Iran’s programme, the anticipated Helsinki Conference regarding a zone free of weapons mass destruction in the Middle East, or the continued failure to achieve nuclear disarmament.
Rhetoric against Iran reached its height during Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech, during which he drew a red line on a cartoon bomb indicating the point at which Iran should be attacked in order to stop its programme. While several countries voiced concern about Iran’s continued enrichment, many others stressed Iran’s sovereign right to develop nuclear technology for non-military purposes. The vast majority of countries appeared keen to avoid armed conflict and urged a diplomatic solution. Iceland’s Foreign Minister Össur Skarphéðinsson very clearly stated, “I listened to Mr. Netanyahu’s speech on Thursday, and I have a comment to make on behalf of the Icelandic people: Don’t bomb Iran. Don’t start another war in the Middle East. At the same time I say to President Ahmadinejad and the Iranian leadership: Don’t build a bomb. Let diplomacy work, not rabblerousing or fearmongering. Let’s work for peace together.”
As for the nuclear weapons that actually exist, several governments criticized the lack of progress on disarmament. The Central African Republic’s Foreign Minister Antoine Gambi noted, “The essential objectives of disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation continue to be held hostage by political double standards, and by the discriminatory practices taken by some nuclear powers.” He and many others called for concerted efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons along with all other weapons of mass destruction.
Addressing the problem with nuclear weapons more broadly, Austria’s Vice-Chancellor Michael Spindelegger emphasized the importance of moving “beyond a strictly military security approach that originates from the cold war period.” He argued, “It is time we change the discourse on nuclear weapons. Any use of nuclear weapons would be devastating for the whole world in its humanitarian and environmental effects. In the 21st century, such an existential threat to humankind can no longer be handled exclusively by a few states as a national security matter.”
The number of countries referencing conventional weapon issues remained similar to last year. Many of these references critiqued the recently failed arms trade treaty negotiations. Maxine McClean, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade of Barbados, expressed her country’s “profound disappointment” at the conference’s failure, while Frederick A. Mitchell, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Bahamas, asked, “What do we say to thousands of innocent victims and their families who are suffering as a result of the irresponsible and unregulated international transfer of conventional arms?” Mitchell argued, “A re-assessment of human life and dignity versus profit, and, commitment are critical if we are to prevail in our fight against the scourge of armed violence and terror plaguing our societies.”
Sierra Leone’s delegation likewise lamented the failure of negotiations and urged the international community to regroup in order to achieve a robust treaty soon. Foreign Minister Joseph Dauda cautioned, “If we continue to delay in this respect, we face the risk of their continuous use in committing grave violations of national and international law, which has the potential to destabilize peace and security. We therefore urge member states to consider our moral obligation to humanity as our key guiding principle, and sincerely commit ourselves to, contributing to the establishment of mechanisms to prevent the diversion of such weapons into the illicit market.”
Military spending and militarism
As usual, a number of countries expressed critical views on global military spending. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon lamented that governments waste “vast and precious funds on deadly weapons—while reducing investments in people.” Likewise, Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff noted, “The world clamors for food instead of weapons, for the billion men, women, and children who suffer from the cruelest punishment inflicted on humanity: hunger.” Cuba’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla questioned how global military spending of US$1.74 can be justified in the face of poverty, while President Teodoro Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea argued it is time for humanity to stop “wasting resources on extermination plans”.
A small number of countries also critiqued militarism in general, particularly as a solution to issues of international peace and security or as a tool to gain or retain power. Lesotho’s Prime Minister Thomas Motsoahae Thabane noted, “Despite the lessons of history, there are countries that still believe they can solve the political problems of our time through war and coercion. It does not matter to them that history has shown that the goal of domination through the use of force is not only illusive and dangerous but is unsustainable.”
While a few countries used the revolution in Syria to caution against military intervention, most countries referring to the pitfalls of militarism topic spoke more broadly about the inferiority of violent to peaceful solutions, particularly in the context of the principles and purposes of the United Nations. In this vein, Ralph Gonsalves, Prime Minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines urged governments to overcome the drive for unilateralism and hegemony, arguing that the international community has bound itself together “in the solemn goal of promoting peace, not fostering wars; of self-determination, not unilateral intervention; of the economic and social advancement of all peoples, not the callous disregard for the wellbeing of our fellow man. To depart from these principles—explicitly or by implication—would be to abandon the better angels of our nature, and to succumb to the forces that made this institution necessary in the first place.”
Reaching Critical Will, with the assistance of WILPF’s PeaceWomen programme, tracked all references to disarmament and arms control at this year’s UNGA general debate. The Disarmament Index is available at www.reachingcriticalwill.org. PeaceWomen maintains an index on gender and women, available at www.peacewomen.org.