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Difficult year for disarmament talk

Difficult year for disarmament talk

By Marian Hobbs

This last year has been a particularly difficult time for multilateral disarmament. Many of the most sensitive international issues - Iraq, the Middle East, North Korea, and India/Pakistan - have had as a common element the possession and possible use of weapons of mass destruction. But perversely there seems to be little public clamour for governments to dispose of their weapons of mass destruction.

Indeed, it seems that as international terrorist incidents have made people feel less secure within their own borders, governments are clutching their weapons as a shield. This is both illogical and potentially dangerous, since weapons of mass destruction are designed for use against states and not against individuals. And we now have talk of developing 'battlefield nukes' or 'tiny nukes', as though nuclear weapons could somehow become militarily useful and publicly acceptable.

New Zealand's major objective in disarmament and international security is to achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons. We regard the existence of these weapons as a threat to the potential survival of humanity, and have always worked for their eventual elimination and, in the interim, the closest possible control of any further spread ('proliferation' in disarmament jargon) of nuclear weapons.

We work towards our objective in company with other like-minded countries - the 'New Agenda Coalition' of New Zealand, Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, Sweden and South Africa. In 1998 their foreign ministers released a joint declaration calling for a new agenda to achieve a nuclear-weapon-free world. It has since gained considerable international support.

In 2002 the New Agenda ran two resolutions - an omnibus one setting out the 'new agenda' with specific steps for nuclear disarmament, and the other expressing particular concerns about proliferation of tactical nuclear weapons or so-called 'battlefield nukes'. Considerable majorities, showing international community support for nuclear disarmament, passed both.

We also pursued the nuclear disarmament objective by running, with Mexico and Australia, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty resolution calling on all countries to ratify it. The vote in the United Nations First Committee attracted 164 in favour and only the United States against. With Brazil we promoted the resolution calling for a Southern Hemisphere free of nuclear weapons. It also attracted overwhelming support.

These nuclear disarmament resolutions are the ones on which New Zealand is a 'core sponsor', meaning that we take an active part in negotiating on the texts and seeking support for them.

We also 'co-sponsor' other resolutions, which means that we attach New Zealand's name to the text to show that we completely support all provisions of the resolution and consider its subject particularly important.

This work is carried out in September/October each year when the UN First Committee convenes in New York. For about a month representatives of each member state - currently 191 - discuss issues of disarmament and international security. Countries make national statements about their own views, and then get down to negotiating the text of resolutions. The First Committee usually considers around 50 resolutions on various aspects of disarmament and international security.

The resolutions are not legally binding, but they have moral force. Most First Committee resolutions are passed 'by consensus', that is, every member has agreed to them. This usually means that the text is a compromise that doesn't completely please anyone, but it does represent a solid bottom line, to which the entire international community has agreed. This consensus language is then often used as a basis for further negotiations on the particular topic during the year.

Some resolutions cover topics on which views are so divided that it is just not possible to come to an agreement on a meaningful text. In that case, the resolution is voted on. Again, even those resolutions passed by a hefty majority are not legally binding. But they do have moral force, and most countries would be reluctant to renege on them. Sometimes, a vote highlights the fact that only a few countries are standing out against international consensus, such as the United States sole voice against the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty while 164 voted in favour.

New Zealand usually has a delegation of two covering the First Committee. This means that it is simply not possible to take an active part in negotiating all of the resolutions that are potentially of interest to us: we have to choose our objectives carefully.

At this year's First Committee, for instance, New Zealand co-sponsored resolutions on disarmament and non-proliferation education, on the UN disarmament information programme, on the need to control the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons, on the implementation of the Ottawa Convention on Landmines, on the need for transparency in armaments transfers by governments, on the need for a treaty banning the production of fissile material, on the convention on certain inhumane conventional weapons, and on the follow-up to the International Court of Justice's opinion that to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons is generally illegal.

New Zealand will never find the existence - let alone use - of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction acceptable. With other like-minded countries, in the First Committee and other forums, we will continue to work towards the elimination of weapons of mass destruction.

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