The following reflection is from Karina Roca ’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.
My reservations toward the United Nations prior to my service learning assignment as a notetaker with an international disarmament NGO derived from ignorance and a mistrust I carried from taking classes on genocide, systemic racism and Western dominance of the global political scene. My observations of First Committee confirmed the volume of the West’s voice in this arena, but not its dominance.
Watching the conversation, I saw that regardless of their sterile packaging, international diplomacy is connected to a very messy reality. I learned first-hand of the formal process of the UN (speaker rotations, time management of sessions, etc.) and the not-so-very-formal requirements (and lack thereof) of delegates to listen while others spoke.
This attitude was alarming when the conversation was centered on human rights, nuclear weapons, and accountability. To be learning about devastating impacts of nuclear weapons in class, while also simultaneous to occupying this space at UN and seeing the apathetic attitudes of delegates during the sessions felt alarming and frustrating.
Working with a disarmament campaign really opened my eyes to the illicit trading of SALW (small arms and light weapons). I saw how the arms trade was linked to other problems, with many states that are complicit in it also delaying nuclear disarmament.
I felt that there was over-emphasis on arms races in outer space and other seemingly far-out issues, at the detriment of more immediate threats like nuclear weapons and SALW. This irked me because I felt that the amount of time used to call out Western powers for their childish plans to fight on Venus brought away attention from much more pressing issues. I feel that these conversations—giving attention to outer space arms races—only actually legitimize the absurdity that wealthy nations even have the privilege of entertaining.
With the grounds pass around my neck, listening in the section for “civil society”, I felt a spectrum of emotions, ranging from power to shame. I found it sad to think about how I even got in the room. It was solely through the avenues of private university—a privilege many young people do not have access to—that I occupied that space as witness and recorder to the statements of the delegates.
I look around and see little inclusion of younger people, older people, indigenous people, affected people and interested citizens. The irony was that for all of the missing voices in that listening section, those most affected by these issues are one in the same.
This made me wonder about how actually inclusive the UN is to “civil society” and why that language is still used when there is a colonial undertone to it in my perspective. In an arena where the main conversation is human rights, I felt that international politics are almost created around exclusion and the “model human.” The foundations of what the United Nations were built on shines through in moments like this, and the hesitation I felt toward it in the beginning resurfaces.
However, I took inspiration from how small states still had agency in First Committee. Small states spoke to the pressing issues like gender-based violence and called out the culture of impunity. They were unapologetic and moving.
For example, Trinidad and Tobago’s delegate spoke explicitly on the importance of the inclusion of women into the disarmament conversation, decision-making for non-proliferation, and arms control. She called for attention to narratives of women beyond those of ‘victim’ and sought the inclusion of women in all aspects of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) efforts. This was one woman, speaking with one voice, but the influence of her words was magnified by CARICOM. I hope it can create waves of a nuanced gender consciousness, sparking ideas for policies raising women up and creating space for their valuable input.
This is when I think back to my classroom, where I have learned how to understand the complexities of disarmament and nuclear weapons. I have received encouragement for what I can contribute. I am reminded that I belong, and I deserve to occupy the space that I hold.