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“The NPT is the Cornerstone of the Disarmament Agenda,” Or Learning UN Disarmament Speak in the General Assembly First Committee

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Pace University student Sydney Tisch ’20 at UN headquarters in New York City.

The following reflection is from Sydney Tisch ’20, a Pace University undergraduate who participated in the POL297L Global Politics of Disarmament and Arms Control class in Fall 2018. Students were given with service learning assignments with disarmament advocacy organizations working in and around the UN General Assembly First Committee (International Security and Disarmament). For more on the class, click here.

When I was placed with Reaching Critical Will (RCW) for my service learning assignment, I was thrilled. Not only are RCW part of the oldest women’s peace organization in the world – the Women’s International League of Freedom (WILPF), but I was already familiar with the organization as a resource for everything related to disarmament and the UN.

I had used their website and digital archive of statements made in First Committee for projects in previous courses and I was excited to be assisting in the continuance of this vital source of information for activists, NGOs, and member states alike.

However, despite my enthusiasm, little could have prepared me for the realities of the hard work and focus that was required of such intense monitoring and, in my case, note-taking.

My role with RCW was to take notes on everything happening during the UN General Assembly First Committee sessions I attended. It was hugely different from any other note-taking experience I had had before.

In most cases, note-taking requires careful listening, synthesizing, and jotting down only the most important information. However, since RCW’s aim is to record everything that happens in First Committee, it meant that every point a member state made was important information.

Therefore, my note-taking required a lot more typing on my laptop with less time than ever to synthesize what was being said before the speaker was moving on to a new point.

Yet, as I spent more time in the balcony of the UN’s Conference Room 4, I found my note-taking to get progressively easier. More than anything, I believe my progress was due to the way I was adjusting to a new dialect I am dubbing “UN Disarmament Speak.”

UN Disarmament Speak is a language that involves a constant repetition of the same key phrases to signal what your state’s actual policy stance is.

For example, if you are strongly against the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, you may instead find yourself stating that “we need a practical, step-by-step approach to disarmament” instead.

This becomes UN Disarmament Speak when most of the other states who agree with this position repeat this phrase in their speech to the point where a note-taker, such as myself, can practically fill-in-the-blanks if she starts hearing the first few words of a phrase.

But in all sincerity, I think this practice of states repeating one another constantly throughout their statements has its pros and cons.

On one hand, it is an easy way to, despite language barriers, signal to other states that you have common ground with one another and to make your position clear to others in the room. When trying to establish a movement for a new resolution or even treaty, it will be fairly easy to simply listen in for key words from other states and know instantly that one could probably find an ally in them.

Another point in its favor is that, due to the structure of the UN and international law in general, universal treaties need to be constantly re-affirmed in order for them to continue working. In a postmodern sense, systems of power such as treaties, will only have their power over states if states decide to constantly reaffirm that they are powerful and important.

Therefore, if we want to continue to follow through on international agreements, states need to state and re-state that these international agreements will be followed because they are important: if states were to stop saying they were important, the treaties would then become unimportant.

This is also how the creation of taboos of certain weapons works – states affirming to one another that this weapon is inhumane and should never be used again, even if no one has actually used it in years. Even though I now believe I will one day be 80 years old and still being able to repeat, word-for-word, that “the NPT is the cornerstone of the non-proliferation agenda,” I do see the significance of states continuing to signal to one another that “this treaty is good and important.”

However, I also think that UN Disarmament Speak has its drawbacks. This type of repetition of key phrases to signal one’s position rather than just stating it outright is somewhat of a gate-keeping device.

I believe that the average person should be able to watch, hear, or read what a state at the UN is saying and fully understand it, especially since one of those states is likely a person’s representative. However, without being privy to what some of these phrases actually mean, it can be very difficult to understand what was going on.

Furthermore, I think that the repetition allowed states to not listen as closely to one another and to remove themselves of some of the human reasons why these treaties and resolutions exist. Although states would state that the “NPT was the cornerstone…” they would then move on before explaining why it was. The humanity of people suffering under these weapons was easy to get lost when a state was so concerned about repeating all the right phrases to signal their position.

One of the only states that diverged from the style of UN Disarmament Speak in their general statement to First Committee was Zambia. When the delegate of Zambia began his statement, rather than jumping in to immediately reaffirm as many treaties and put forward his country’s stance, he chose to underline the ethical issues with weapons use.

In his statement, he made everyone actually fully listen to him by reminding the First Committee why they were actually meeting: to stop the human and state reliance on violence and war, to stop believing that having more weapons equates to more security, and to stop states from hurting human lives all across the globe.

Zambia’s statement is one that has stuck with me far past my initial service learning project, in a way that any of the statements utilizing UN Disarmament Speak have not.

The representative of Zambia used his limited time to remind the floor of the human consequences of what happened in that room, that, at least to me, felt far more emotionally and logically compelling than other states. Zambia’s statement made me really believe that, with that focus and understanding of the consequences of disarmament and weapons, states could “end war and turn weapons into plowshares.”

Although I don’t know if there is a simple solution to the question of language at the UN, what with the way it functions to reaffirm treaties and taboos, I do think that perhaps, if states could remember and remind one another of the humans suffering outside of the room, disarmament could be a lot more compassionate and humanitarian.

To read an earlier blog post by Sydney, reflecting on her experience studying nuclear testing as an undergraduate research fellow with the International Disarmament Institute, click here.

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