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Only the End of the World - United Nations General Assembly First Committee October 2010

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Only the End of the World - United Nations General Assembly First Committee October 2010

A perpetual grievance of mine is that every time every government on the planet gets together and passes a series of resolutions that are not only eminently sensible,  but that would if implemented ensure the continued survival of the human species, global media treats it as if it had simply never happened. Australian media in particular thinks that the sex- lives of its football heroes are ever so much more important than the governments of the world getting together to talk about nuclear disarmament. India has its own version of this parochialism. The UN obliges us with 72 page press-releases giving a blow by blow, vote by vote, account of every diplomatic move that is invaluable to wonks like me and ignored by everyone else.

This year, as I attended the first two weeks of UN First Committee, was no exception.

From the 3rd of October until the end of that month, First Committee met at the UN headquarters - the big blue building by the river- in New York as it does every year. First Committee is the oldest and largest and arguably the most important of six main committees of the General Assembly, all of which meet throughout October before UNGA gets together in plenary to pass all that has been recommended by the various committees in  November/December.

First Committee deals with international security and disarmament, and nuclear weapons form just under 50% of all its deliberations, the rest being warfare in space, in cyberspace, land-mines, small-arms, chemical and biological weapons, and conventional weapons.

First Committee has a well-defined sequence, starting with general statements by the delegates about disarmament generally, and then going on to more detailed 'cluster one' statements that deal with nuclear weapons, then statements dealing with other subjects, and finally 'action on resolutions' which effectively means voting.

As on every previous First Committee since 2006, Steve Starr and I organised a panel on the operational readiness of nuclear weapon systems. And again this time, we managed to get the governments of  New Zealand and Switzerland for our panel - sponsorship that enabled us to bring out from Moscow, Colonel Valery Yarynich, Russian expert on nuclear command and control who helped design Russia's 'doomsday machine', Perimitr, (sometimes known as the 'dead hand'), and who more recently part-authored the computer simulations of nuclear war ('100 nuclear wars'), on which the Foreign Affairs article entitled 'smaller and safer' is based.

'Smaller and Safer' while still based on deterrence and according to some, on 'city-busting', did show decisively that smaller nuclear arsenals at lower levels of alert, would be much more strategically stable than current high-alert arsenals, thereby knocking into a cocked hat the silly arguments that somehow, de-alerting would be 'de-stabilising',  that come from some (but not all) in the military establishment. We also had the foremost US commentator on nuclear weapons affairs in the US, Hans Kristensen, comment on the article, which he did with his usual expertise.

The panel itself was held in the same vast conference hall as the main proceedings before about 50 diplomats and NGOs. It was kind of odd being up there on the same podium that the chair of First Committee and the UN undersecretary for disarmament occupied, but it enabled us to use the excellent visual facilities. As I spoke of 'casualties of hundreds of millions to billions in a 40 minute time-frame' in my summing up, I noted that everyone's eyes swivelled to my right shoulder over which on the vast data projector screen, Steve's animated graphic of Washington being nuked was running, to make the same point.

Our resolution on operational readiness when it was finally adopted by First Committee about ten days after my return to Sydney, passed by 144 votes to 3 'noes', and 22 abstentions - compared with 134 last time, in 2008.

Notable new 'Yes' votes included China, Canada, Bulgaria, Luxembourg, Poland, and Slovenia.. This last vote may have had something to do with the fact that the Slovenian ambassador and I kept on bumping into each other and talking at the computers in the back, next to the cafĂ©.  The addition of nuclear weapons state (and very major player) China is clearly a big deal.  Most important of all, ours was probably the resolution in First Committee that attracted the most 'buzz' as NZ ambassador Dell Higgie put it. It was also virtually the ONLY disarmament resolution that increased its vote count.

India also sponsors a resolution on operating status of nuclear weapons systems, entitled 'Reducing nuclear Dangers' and has done so for longer than the 'operational readiness' resolution. Indeed it was the desire to make a resolution on lowering operating status more widely acceptable than 'Reducing Nuclear Dangers' has been, that motivated NGOs to push for the 'Operational Readiness' resolution, and motivated Doug Mattern and I to put together the appeal signed by 44 nobels in 2004 that led to the Operational Readiness resolution. 

However the reality is that the texts of the two resolutions, while they approach the subject in somewhat different ways are eminently compatible (indeed complementary)  and ought to be mutually reinforcing - and the vast majority (around 2/3rds) of all governments vote for both resolutions.  'Operational Readiness' does attract a high proportion of NATO votes plus countries such as Japan, Canada and Australia, who don't vote for Reducing Nuclear Dangers for whatever reason - the main one seems to be a perception that Reducing Nuclear Dangers is somehow a 'NAM' resolution only,  and for whatever odd reason they don't wish to be perceived as part of that.

I believe this is unfortunate.

Even more unfortunate is that while operational readiness gathered ten extra votes, reducing nuclear dangers lost votes, going from 113 yes votes in 2009 to 103 in 2010 - though the number of noes also went down by two votes from 50 to 48, still too many for reasons nowhere near good enough.

It would be highly desirable if governments could (and some do) vote purely on the merits of a resolution, and if wider support could be achieved for BOTH these utterly vital resolutions.  Still more wonderful would it be if they could be translated into actual changes in the nuclear posture of the US and Russia, India and Pakistan.

It is worth noting this year that the Indian position and the various resolutions that India sponsored, were introduced by Mani Shankar Aiyar, who spoke to the Rajeev Gandhi Peace Plan of which he was the original principal architect (and about which he has an article in the Times of India).  I believe that Mani's simple presence in the UN this year was a good sign.

The Rajiv Gandhi Peace Plan of 1988 is another highly worthy initiative that really ought to achieve much greater support than it in fact does. Elements of it that are particularly important include its emphasis on the fact that the large-scale use of nuclear weapons was and is likely to be terminal for civilisation and possibly for humans, and its call for a non-violent world order. Important in the various latter-day iterations of it by India has been the emphasis on lowering operational readiness as an essential first step toward a nuclear weapons free world, and emphasis on a nuclear weapons convention, that would permanently ban nuclear weapons.

At the same time, I am leery of any suggestion that this or than plan is 'THE' one and only route to a nuclear weapons- free world. And the Rajiv Gandhi peace plan, in spite of its real merits, has not yet managed to ignite the enthusiasm that it perhaps should have ignited, outside the usual NAM circles (though 'NAM' DOES constitute some2/3 - 3/4 of the planet).  Still, to gain traction, such a resolution should aim at getting both NAM and non- NAM states to support it, and especially NATO states.

And the fact that India and Pakistan have gone ahead and developed nuclear weapons aimed primarily at each other clearly has not helped.

Immediately after Mani gave his speech I was able to walk over to him and congratulate him. He immediately invited me to a lunch the next day at a decidedly upmarket restraunt of the kind I would never ever afford, and where about a dozen highly distinguished people were gathered including the Indian ambassador and various offsiders. We all gave impromptu speeches on the way to get rid of nuclear weapons, some more overarching and global than others, and with a broad degree of consensus and overlap. When my turn came I said i didn't have 'THE' way and didn't think there was such a thing as 'THE' way, but rather that it was important that, whatever way we chose we actually moved in the right direction and maintained the political commitment to do so.  I made a couple of specific suggestions, namely that:

--India talk with the sponsors of the operational readiness resolution, with a view to ensuring that the two resolutions reinforce each other rather than being seen as in competition.
--That there be confidence building measures and a nuclear build-down instead of an arms race on the subcontinent.

Talking with Pakistan with a view to ending the nuclear arms race in the subcontinent is obviously vital to the very physical survival of both societies. As things now stand, both India's and Pakistan's military establishments are pressing ahead with 'improvements' in their nuclear capabilities. India is moving ahead with further tests of its long-range AGNI-III missile. Pakistan is augmenting its arsenal and (according to Hans Kristensen) has a slight edge over India in numbers of warheads and in medium-range delivery capability. It is also accumulating weapons - grade plutonium as well as the enriched uranium that has so far fuelled its nuclear weapons.  Both India and Pakistan are likely to move toward a more centralised, more computerised, more automated, nuclear command and control system than they now have, with a more rapid-response posture - a development that paradoxically makes a nuclear catastrophe all the more likely.

We discussed on the panel exactly what that would involve. (Steve's website, (www.nucleardarkness.org) has an animated graphic of the nuking of Mumbai.) The 'bottom line' of it all is that after a VERY bad day, something between 50 million and 150-300 million people would have died, and in the ensuing 'year without a summer', akin to the year 1815 in which famine ensued after a major volcanic eruption, up to a further billion people might die. This does not factor in at all the catastrophic effects such a conflagration will have on the ozone layer, which will especially affect Australia. The use of the 'on alert' arsenals of the US and Russia would of course, still destroy civilisation and 95% of complex land-based life - forms including possibly humans.

These OUGHT to be the most powerful arguments possible for de-alerting the US and Russian arsenals - thereby taking the apocalypse off the agenda - and for confidence building and a nuclear build-down in South Asia.

You are of course, getting from me a completely one-sided view of what took place at First Committee. For a truly objective view you need to go to the Reaching Critical Will website (just google 'Reaching Critical Will).  There were a large number of very important nuclear disarmament resolutions that were adopted by First Committee, though I believe that it was ours that created most 'buzz'.

One would have to note at least:
--The 'L50' resolution on a nuclear weapons convention (Followup to the advisory decision of the International Court of Justice) . Not nearly enough countries voted for this one, though India certainly did. My own country, Australia, Alas! wimped out and abstained. It would be important for countries not normally considered part of the 'NAM' bloc (even though that is between 2/3 and 3/4 of the planet) - to vote in support of a nuclear weapons convention especially as this is now incorporated in the final declaration of the NPT Review Conference.  From memory, I believe that Sweden and NZ may have voted amongst the yesses.

The actual vote this time (121 yesses to 27 noes to 22 abstentions) is 5 yes votes down on 2009, but also two no votes down. One would have to say there is a need for more progress.

--The 'United Action toward Total Elimination' resolution on nuclear disarmament, co-sponsored by Australia and Japan and now by the US. This resolution gathered 154 votes including the nuclear weapons states.
However this is actually DOWN from 2009 (161 votes) also. There is one less 'no' vote, and 5 more abstentions. 
India did not vote for it for reasons that are understandable but entirely unhelpful.  However this resolution pointedly does NOT reference a nuclear weapons convention - mores the pity.

--The New Agenda resolution.(Towards a Nuclear Weapons-Free World - L25)  This is the original buzz-creating resolution, but the buzz seems to have gone out of it. At one stage the US actually voted for it but no more. The number of yes votes is again, down by 7 votes, from 165 in 2009 to 158 in 2010.

--The NAM resolution. This created barely a ripple. 'Yes' votes are down from 112 in 2009, to 107 in 2010.  Noes have risen from 43 to 44. While the actual text of NAM contains much that is good, the fact that Myanmar is the main sponsor and at the same time seems to be developing a nuclear program is clearly not helpful.  Yet the pattern of decreased support seems to be across the board, not limited to the NAM.

--Various resolutions on a nuclear weapons - free Middle East. Again these created barely a ripple and introduced nothing new.

--There was in addition what I would call the US-Russia Mutual admiration resolution, sponsored by the US and Russia, on the New -START treaty. This resolution is new.

The high level of support for this resolution should not obscure the fact that the rather underwhelming  reductions in warhead levels envisaged by New START still leave the US and Russia with ample capacity to make the planet uninhabitable in 40 minutes several times over, no changes to nuclear posture are contemplated, and it seems less and less likely that the US congress will in fact actually ratify the treaty.

Failure to ratify New START (and I judge the probability of ratification at less than 50%), would expose the world - at least potentially - to a new US-Russia nuclear arms race.

On the other hand, it could be argued that this UN resolution is desirable as it helps to 'lock in' the US and Russia to reductions that inadequate as they are, are obviously better than no reductions at all and a nuclear free-for-all. Who knows? Maybe as a last expiring gasp, the 'Lame duck' Congress will manage to ratify New START.

Finally there was and NGO presentation to a plenary session of First Committee at which Steve managed not only to get onto the podium (in front of around 3-400 delegates this time), but actually managed to get all of them to watch his terrifying animated graphics. And maybe that too had something to do with the numbers for Operational Readiness. I'd like to think so. We also managed to call for the UN to sponsor research on the climatic consequences of large-scale nuclear weapons use.

After all - it is only about the end of the world.

John Hallam
PND Nuclear Flashpoints Project
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Last Updated on Sunday, 08 February 2015 22:15