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General Assembly First Committee (Disarmament and International Security)

Purview Purview

The General Assembly First Committee addresses the disarmament of conventional weapons, weapons of mass destruction and related international security questions. The First Committee makes recommendations on the regulation of these weapons as they relate to international peace and security. The First Committee does not consider legal issues surrounding weapons possession nor does it address complex peace and security issues addressed by the Security Council. For more information concerning the purview of the United Nations General Assembly as a whole, see the introduction to the General Assembly Plenary.

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Convention on the prohibition of the development, production and stockpiling of bacteriological (biological) and toxin weapons and on their destruction Convention on the prohibition of the development, production and stockpiling of bacteriological (biological) and toxin weapons and on their destruction

A biological weapon is a biological agent, such as a micro-organism or a biologically produced toxin, that is used to cause death or disease in a target population. The potential number of victims of biological weapons is enormous due to the possibility of human-to-human transmission, which could easily cross international borders. The fact that biological weapons can affect areas or resurge after their initial deployment compounds the potential problems both for national governments and for the international community. Biological weapons have been used for centuries and, with rapid advances in research and technology, the ease of acquiring biological weapons has increased significantly. Over the past three decades, there have been reports of various uses of biological weapons by terrorist groups in plots against civilian populations. Experts warn that terror groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Boko Haram may be able to harness biological weapons via poorly-secured biological research facilities, potentially leading to a vast increase in biological weapons use without the international community’s control or ability to sanction.

In 1975, the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), a multilateral treaty aimed at banning the development, production and stockpiling of biological weapons, came into force. The Convention aims for the complete disarmament of biological weapons by preventing States Parties from developing and stockpiling biological weapons and their precursors, by developing and enforcing confidence building measures and by promoting and improving peaceful biological activities. In 1986, the Second Review Conference of the Convention attempted to increase compliance by passing a number of confidence-building measures (CBM). But doubts and suspicions persisted among States Parties and many pointed at ambiguities in the language of the Convention and what those may mean for actual destruction of biological weapons, namely in what constitutes acceptable uses of potentially fatal illnesses, what research can be done and how to transfer information and resources safely. Unwilling to disarm when others would not, many States Parties continued to move only slowly toward disarmament.

The Third Review Conference was held in 1991 and created a group of governmental experts to research potential scientific methods the international community could use when verifying that States Parties were destroying biological weapons stockpiles. The Third Review Conference led to an expansion of confidence-building measures in 1991, which required new public declarations regarding facilities and past offenses. These measures meant to increase compliance, but self-reporting, lack of verification and overall reluctance to dismantle weapons programs persisted. A Special Conference in 1994 created an Ad Hoc Group of States to negotiate and develop a legally-binding verification system in which States Parties could be held accountable for stockpile destruction. In order to address concerns that these measures might stifle scientific growth and economic potential, the First Committee and States Parties to the agreement reaffirmed their commitment to technological research and economic growth. This was accompanied by commitments to prevent proliferation of biological weapons at all research levels. Reporting procedures remained complex, causing difficulties when monitoring compliance. As a result, the Sixth Review in 2006 adopted by consensus a detailed plan for promoting universal adherence and agreed to update and streamline procedures for submission and distribution of CBM.

The early 2000s was marked by both terrorist threats and the threat of multiple widespread epidemics. These crises underscored the desire among Member States to reduce access to biological weapons and the technology that can create them. In response to these growing fears, Member States approved an Implementation Support Unit (ISU) in 2006, which would provide assistance to Member States to adhere to the BWC. The ISU will be in place until the Ninth Review Conference in 2021. In order to achieve its mission, the ISU provides assistance and support, including technical and administrative support, to States Parties moving into compliance with the BWC. However, attempts to strengthen the ISU and fully equip it to the recommendations of the Review Conference chairman and secretariat were fundamentally unsuccessful due to, in part, reluctance to further increase the ISU’s capability, and unrealistic monetary and capacity expectations. States Parties left the 2016 Conference with almost universal frustration and met again in a intersessional meeting called for as a direct result of the upset at the 2016 conference.

In its most recent meeting, the General Assembly again stressed that Member States should move toward full compliance with the BWC. Reluctance to fully comply and the financial and technical capacity limitations facing many Member States have persisted. To reestablish cooperation in the face of 2016’s fraught meeting, the General Assembly especially stressed the importance of continued meetings and information exchange on the topic and reiterated the importance of confidence-building measures, calling for more frequent reports from Member States on the peaceful use of biology and technology and the continued pursuance by Member States to ensure that biological agents are not “in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes” and turned into “weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict.”

In December 2017, the States Parties to the BWC met for the annual intersessional and agreed to a three-year work program leading to the 2021 review conference. In support of this goal, the States Parties agreed to set up separate groups of experts to discuss measures for strengthening cooperation and assistance; reviewing developments in science and technology; strengthening national implementation; improving assistance, response, and preparedness; and institutional strengthening of the Convention. Regardless, there is still no mechanism within the BWC that allows for monitoring or enforcement of the BWC and ISU limitations prevent it from fulfilling some of that role. Information is self-reported by Member States and this leaves open the possibility that whaMember States may conceal details about their biological weapons possessions.

Many problems still face the First Committee. Despite the almost universal rhetorical commitment to the BWC, Member States still resist creating an implementation arm for the BWC and are still unable to agree on ways to strengthen the ISU. Much work has yet to be done on border and resource maintenance, particularly in areas where Member States lack the funds to secure transportation of their biological weapons resources. In addition, there is still reluctance to surrender weapons stock while other Member States still maintain weapons, and methods of destroying stockpiles are time consuming and expensive.

New scientific and technological developments have led to a desire to develop a code of conduct for areas of research with the potential for accidental or intentional infections of populations with novel pathogens, but further regulating biological research is controversial and many Member States worry about the financial impact of doing so. Considerable differences exist among Member States in how these five issues are best addressed, but there is general agreement that all are important, especially in the context of rapid advances in biological research and the instability in many regions of the world.

Questions to Consider Questions to Consider

  • What is an appropriate enforcement mechanism for the Biological Weapons Convention? How could such a mechanism be effective while respecting state sovereignty? What measures should be taken to deter development or production of biological weapons?
  • What resources are lacking for Member States seeking to destroy their biological weapons? What responsibility does the international community have to assist them in doing so?
  • How should the international community respond to the possible use of biotechnology to produce a novel biological weapon? What measures could prevent such an occurrence without unduly restricting biological research for peaceful purposes?

Bibliography Bibliography

United Nations Documents

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Consolidation of peace through practical disarmament measures Consolidation of peace through practical disarmament measures

Practical disarmament measures attempt to control the use of small arms, particularly those illicitly traded across borders and those used in conflict areas. Unregulated arms pose many threats and are often used in organized crimes, but light munitions, firearms and single-user weaponry have been used in terrorist attacks worldwide, which adds a layer of complexity to the problem. A notable spike in small arms use occurred in 2016 in Southeast Asia, marking the spread of small arms and an increased use in terrorism. Because small arms are easy to access and hard to trace, their regulation is key to minimizing their destructive potential.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the First Committee laid the groundwork for its current debate and efforts on the issue of disarmament. Early debate surrounded defining the issue at large, including what constitutes small arms and how unregulated small arms trade and smuggling threatens international peace and security. In 1988, the Committee debated the structural issues that lead to illicit arms trade, including border security and transitioning former combatants back into society. In 1995, the First Committee explicitly stated the link between illicit arms trade and violence, stating, “arms obtained through the illicit arms trade are most likely to be used for violent purposes and that even small arms when so obtained… can pose a danger to regional and international security.“ In 1996, the General Assembly established the Group of Interested States in Practical Disarmament Measures. This group, led by Germany, conducts research and discussions regarding best practices in post-conflict disarmament, with a special focus on small arms and light weapons. Its deliberations were frequently cited in First Committee debate.

In November 2000, the First Committee called for the Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects, which would build upon the foundational work the First Committee and the international community had built. The Conference resulted in the Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (PoA), which lays out various goals at the national, regional and global levels to reduce arms trading. In 2005, the General Assembly adopted standards for marking and tracking small arms laid out in the International Tracing Instrument (ITI). Under the ITI, Member States are obligated to mark and track small arms within their borders. The ITI was not without flaws; many Member States were, and remain, functionally unable to live up to the ITI’s obligations. Monetary requirements, regional and domestic stability and the prevalence of crime and terrorist organizations make implementing tracking standards difficult. Without consistently implemented tracking standards, the First Committee may never meet the goals laid out in the PoA.

In the past 15 years, the focus of practical disarmament efforts has been in volatile post-conflict areas, in which the presence of small arms increases the likelihood of renewed hostilities or violent crime. Post-conflict disarmament has been closely linked to demobilization and reintegration, aiding former members of armed groups on their reentry into civilian life. In the early 2010s, the First Committee focused on promoting regional approaches to conflict resolution. Regional approaches also encourage development as a way to subvert demand for small arms, reducing conflict and crime and, therefore, illicit small arms trading. The General Assembly stressed the importance of tracking small arms by a cooperative effort between Member States. Its 2014 work noted that, in cases where there are existing peacekeeping operations, Member States may be able to leverage peacekeepers’ presence in post-conflict zone disarmament efforts.

In 2016, the Secretary-General commissioned a report on all aspects of illicit small arms trade, including post-conflict practical disarmament. This report stressed the importance of reducing surplus arms stockpiles, defined as “the weapons and ammunition that do not constitute an operational need.” This report also called attention to managing stockpiles in countries neighboring conflict zones, which can be vulnerable to diversion. In particular, countries neighboring conflict zones often are sources of additional small arms, and arms regulation and tracking among these Member States can be key to small arms reduction later on during post-conflict reconciliations.

Despite the recent progress in addressing the issue of practical disarmament, many challenges remain. First, the changing nature of conflict in recent years has necessitated disarmament efforts where high levels of organized violence persist, whether conducted by States, explicitly political non-state actors or criminal organizations. This means that the disarmament efforts must be protected, often by peacekeepers or the forces of the Member State. It also means that many tracking efforts are limited and suffer from a lack of resources. Second, disarmament efforts have recently begun to encompass non-state actors like terrorist groups and rebel militias that may not have an interest in a lasting peace or an obligation under international law. The presence and influence of non-state actors increases the demand for small arms and, subsequently, creates a need for situational intelligence and possibilities for corruption or co-optation of disarmament processes. Finally, disarmament efforts have become increasingly linked to development, such as to better address the root causes of the conflict in question and prevent future conflict; simply put, if a region is stable, there is significantly reduced illicit arms trade. The success of future efforts is likely dependent on the ability of the United Nations to address these challenges and opportunities.

Questions to consider Questions to consider

  • What are the primary difficulties in your region when implementing the ITI? How can your region overcome these difficulties and what resources are needed to do so?
  • How much effort should be made toward removal of small arms from active conflict zones? In such circumstances, how should the disarmament mission be protected?
  • What incentives should be provided to armed groups to decommission their arms and ammunition? How can such groups be prevented from purchasing new weapons with the incentives provided for decommissioning existing stockpiles?

Bibliography Bibliography

United Nations Documents

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