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. The First Committee also adheres to the purview guidelines of the General Assembly as a whole.
Topic 1: Countering the threat posed by improvised explosive devices
Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) rose to public attention throughout the early 2000s during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but their usage has now been documented in all regions. Today, IEDs include a broad range of devices, from crude bombs made using commercially available products to highly specialized systems capable of defeating advanced military armor and countermeasures. Because of the grave threat IEDs pose to both civilians and humanitarian personnel, they are considered an issue of particular concern by the international community. Of the over 10,000 civilian casualties reported in Afghanistan in 2019, 42 percent were the result of IEDs, emphasizing their destructive nature. Further, IEDs have been used to undermine humanitarian efforts and remain a noted threat to civilian infrastructure. In 2019, the use of IEDs against aid workers was documented in at least twelve separate incidents. The usage of IEDs against humanitarian personnel serves to critically hamper humanitarian efforts. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the potential for the deployment of IEDs to undermine healthcare delivery and humanitarian work has been a renewed concern. The dual-use nature of many IED components, the complexity of regulating non-state actors and the vulnerability of civilians must be considered as the international community works to counter the IED threat.
The improvised and changeable nature of IEDs makes them harder to regulate than conventional explosive devices such as landmines. Oftentimes, improvised explosive devices are utilized by extremist or illegally-armed groups to disrupt society and sow discord. These devices appeal to such actors as they can be prepared using a variety of common goods and do not require sophisticated designs or know-how to develop. Access to common IED components is often facilitated by poor supervision or control of surplus ammunition and explosive components. However, many components used in IED construction are readily available commercial goods including herbicides, bleach, fertilizers and disinfectant agents. The ability to build IEDs out of both military and commercially available products leads to difficulties in tracing the origins of their construction and in limiting their availability. All IEDs have some explosive component to them, but while some rely on fragmentation or force trauma to cause damages, others are based around toxic or chemical elements designed to injure or kill, further complicating the potential identification of what an IED may be made of.
Over the past two decades, the international community has attempted to curb the usage of IEDs through multiple avenues. The issue of IEDs was first considered through the framework of the Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons which may be Deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to have Indiscriminate Effects (CCW) Amended Protocol II which addresses the regulation of mines, booby traps and other explosive devices. Other efforts have been centralized through national and international law enforcement agencies and other international organizations. For instance, the Project Watchmaker program, orchestrated by the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), coordinates information sharing on individuals and entities linked to the manufacture and use of IEDs. Relatedly, the Programme Global Shield administered by the World Customs Organization has identified 14 chemical components of the greatest risk that Member States can monitor to detect IED construction early on. The coordination of agencies across national governments is critical to regulating the production of IEDs.
The efforts by the United Nations to regulate the use and impact of IEDs over the years have been met with varying degrees of success. There is clear language in international law that places regulations on the use of landmines and more formalized explosives, but international law regarding IEDs remains unclear. There have been strides in international efforts to prevent large scale surplus munitions from being used to create IEDs as demonstrated by projects such as Programme Global Shield and Project Watchmaker. However, measuring the success of these programs is difficult as data is rarely standardized and information often goes undocumented. Further complicating counter-IED efforts, IEDs continue to be an evolving challenge as new IED technologies are developed. Changes in IED design and components means that strategies to counter IEDs must also evolve if they are to be successful.
There is general support for the reduction of IEDs among the international community; however, the main points of contention tend to come with regard to definitions and standards, how IEDs should be detected and disposed of, and who should hold actors responsible. Due to the growing threat of IEDs in conflict areas and the indiscriminate impacts of these weapons, the need for expanded action on this topic is critical yet presents unique challenges. Discussions around establishing international standards and a formal definition of IEDs have been ongoing but have not developed consensus. Without these standards and definitions, comprehensive monitoring by States is not possible. However, it has been suggested that the framework for building a comprehensive IED capacity plan can be found in the adjacent work performed by the General Assembly Fourth Committee on capacity development around mine action. Similarly, civil society work in the area of mine action is also of significance. Non-governmental organizations such as the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and the International Committee of the Red Cross have advocated for regulation of mine action. Moving forward, the First Committee will likely draw on the resources and knowledge of these institutions and initiatives while crafting approaches to the IED threat.
The specific elements of IEDs are ever changing, and as such attention is often focused on the systemic and large-scale symptoms of the issue. Recent resolutions and other agreements have directed Member States to improve munitions stockpile management programmes and encourage destruction of surplus materials to avoid their misuse. The first step for many countries is to ascertain accurate records of the munitions in their countries as well as any chemical components. In addition to the directed efforts to prevent the construction of IEDs, the promotion of good governance, socioeconomic opportunities and proactive community building all are essential to mitigating scenarios for actors who would use IEDs to operate. Some individual countries have prioritized regulating sub-components of IEDs such as detonators, whereas others have put considerable effort into forensics or for counter-IED resources in peacekeeping missions. While this issue of IEDs becomes increasingly complicated, it is fortunate that many other disarmament programs already in operation can levy information and related resources vital to addressing this issue.
Questions to consider from your country’s perspective:
- What methods are best to mitigate the transfer of materials used in the creation of IEDs and how can they be improved upon?
- Given that IEDs pose a threat to civilians as well as combatants, what role can civilians play in countering the threat posed by these devices?
- How can the international community combat the wide availability of information and training resources on the manufacture and use of IEDs through social media and other nontraditional methods of instruction?
- Action on Armed Violence (30 December 2016). Counter-IED Actors: AOAV’s Global List.
- Agence France-Presse (9 November 2018). India Calls for ‘Dedicated’ Counter-IED Resources in UN Peacekeeping Missions, Cites History of Casualties.
- Canfarini, Federico, et al. (15 June 2022). Safety Concerns and Chemical Aspects of Improvised Explosive Devices and Homemade Explosives.
- International Committee of the Red Cross (26 September 2010). Views and Recommendations on Improvised Explosive Devices Falling Within Scope of Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention.
- INTERPOL. Project Watchmaker
- North Atlantic Treaty Organization (12 December 2018). Improvised Explosive Devices.
- Protocol on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Mines, Booby-Traps and Other Devices as Amended on 3 May 1996 (Protocol II to the 1980 Convention as Amended on 3 May 1996) (1996).
- Reuters (9 April 2022). Russian Forces Continue to Use IEDs to Inflict Casualties, Says UK Intelligence.
- United Nations. Sustainable Development Agenda.
- United Nations Development Programme (23 May 2022). Handbook for Capacity Development in Mine Action.
- United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (18 March 2022). Technical Guidelines to Facilitate the Implementation of Security Council Resolution 2370 (2017) and Related International Standards and Good Practices on Preventing Terrorists from Acquiring Weapons.
- United Nations Mine Action Service. Together for Mine Action; A Multilateral Success Story.
- United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs. Anti-Personnel Landmines Convention.
- United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs. The Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.
- United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs. Group of Experts of the High Contracting Parties to the Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the use of Certain Conventional Weapons which may be Deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to have Indiscriminate Effects (CCW) Amended Protocol II.
- United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs. Impact of IEDs.
- United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs. Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).
- United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs. Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDS) – CCW Amended Protocol II.
- United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. International Cooperation.
- United States Department of Homeland Security (March 2017). Counter-IED Resources Guide.
- Vanderheyden, Natasja, et al. (30 July 2020). Survival of Forensic Trace Evidence on Improvised Explosive Devices: Perspectives on Individualisation.
- van Rij, Armida, et al. (April 2018). Defining the Device: The Need for International Humanitarian Standards for Improvised Explosive Device Disposal.
- World Customs Organization. Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) Programme Global Shield.
United Nations Documents:
- United Nations, General Assembly (2020). Countering the threat posed by improvised explosive devices. A/RES/75/59.
- United Nations, General Assembly (2020). Countering the threat posed by improvised explosive devices: Report of the Secretary-General. A/75/175.
- United Nations, General Assembly (1997). The role of science and technology in the context of international security and disarmament. A/RES/52/33.
- United Nations, Security Council (2017). Maintenance of international peace and security: Mine action. S/RES/2365 (2017).
- United Nations, Security Council (2017). Threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts – Preventing terrorists from acquiring weapons. S/RES/2370 (2017).
- United Nations, Security Council (2015). Threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts. S/RES/2255 (2015).
- United Nations, Security Council (2014). Threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts. S/RES/2161 (2014).
Topic II: Role of science and technology in the context of international security and disarmament
In 2019, global expenditures for research and development totaled an estimated $2.2 trillion, representing a tripling in global investment in the advancement of science and technology over the previous two decades. Recent advances in science and technology have contributed to superior information and communication technologies and the development of more sophisticated artificial intelligence and robotics. The General Assembly First Committee considers such advances, and more broadly the role of science and technology, in the context of international security and disarmament. Furthermore, the First Committee works towards ensuring that such advancements do not destabilize international security or negatively impact progress made towards disarmament. While such advances in science and technology have many peaceful applications, they are frequently developed or utilized for the purpose of war and terror which both threaten international security and hinder disarmament efforts. Currently, conflict is experiencing a growing trend of remote warfare in which drone swarms, autonomous vehicles and advanced artificial intelligence are becoming more prominent, highlighting the ability of science and technology to threaten international security.
The role of science and technology in this context of international security and disarmament was first considered by the First Committee in 1988. The First Committee called for the Secretary-General to follow the advancements in science and technology, determine their impact on international security and compile a report on the relationship between science and technology and international security. In the subsequent report, areas of advancement in need of consideration were determined to include nuclear, space, materials, information and biological technologies. Two years later, the General Assembly adopted two resolutions in which Member States agreed that the United Nations needed to monitor advances in science and technology due to their potential influence on international security and disarmament measures. In 1992, the General Assembly advised that Member States be aware of the importance of allowing peaceful use of technology while still being cautious of the potential harm emerging technologies could have on international stability. Further, it encouraged Member States to consider how advances in technology and science could aid in disarmament efforts.
In the following years, the General Assembly addressed with regularity the concern of restricting access to scientific and technological advances in the name of international security. In 1996, the General Assembly passed a resolution emphasizing the importance of ensuring that peaceful applications of science and technology were not stifled in attempts to ensure international security. The following year, the Committee acknowledged the potential issue of some Member States being restricted in their access to dual-use scientific and technological advancements—those considered to have both peaceful and militaristic applications. Dual-use technologies illustrate the tension that can arise when Member States are forced to balance the value of scientific advancement with its potential to threaten international security. Through these resolutions, Member States acknowledged the importance of international security while maintaining a desire to promote the ongoing development of science and technology.
In 2018, the Secretary-General emphasized again the importance of cooperation amongst Member States and various United Nations organizations specialized in different aspects of technological and scientific impacts on weaponry such as the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs and the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research. This reminder was presented amidst an outline of some of the most pressing modern threats to international security within their report “Securing Our Common Future: An Agenda for Disarmament.” This report presented modern complications for international security, including the potential for non-state actors to more easily access or develop biological weapons and lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS). Due to rapid advances in science and technology, LAWS have the potential to become readily accessible by non-state actors. In 2019, the High Contracting Parties of the Convention of Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) convened a Group of Government Experts to discuss lethal autonomous weapons systems. This meeting resulted in a set of guidelines for United Nations Member States to follow in regards to LAWS illustrating the complexity inherently involved in balancing the potential threats of scientific and technological advancement to international security.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society are currently pushing for greater regulations to be placed on the development of science and technology for destructive purposes. For example, the Stop Killer Robots campaign was founded in response to rapidly developing autonomous weapon systems. This campaign is composed of over 180 NGOs and academic partners, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and seeks to mobilize resources to create a framework in which autonomous systems are not given the ability to make decisions resulting in human deaths. Through such campaigns, NGOs are arguing the importance of maintaining human oversight and control over the use of force.
While increasing scientific and technological advancements such as LAWS have the ability to threaten international security, the United Nations continues to promote technological advances capable of aiding in disarmament practices and monitoring international security. For instance, it has been demonstrated that technology can be utilized to remotely support the verification of ceasefires, aid in missile verification and monitor compliance with weapons of mass destruction treaties. Such applications of technology enable more effective disarmament practices and thus assist in maintaining international security. The progression of science and technology has the potential to both benefit and harm international security efforts. As such, there is no simple answer to the question of how science and technology should be viewed in the context of international security and disarmament.
The First Committee seeks to reconcile the seemingly conflicting ideas inherent in the need to both support scientific and technological advancement and the need to maintain international security. As more sophisticated science and technology grow in accessibility to governments and non-state actors alike, the potential for their abuse by hostile parties becomes more likely. However, when designing regulations for these advances, care should be taken to ensure peaceful and non-militaristic science and technologies are not hindered unnecessarily.
Questions to consider from your country’s perspective:
- How can the United Nations and Member States leverage existing technology to aid in the disarmament process and maintain international security?
- What measures can be taken to ensure non-military scientific and technological developments are not detrimentally impacted by efforts to maintain international security?
- How can Member States work together to share information about scientific and technological advancements while keeping dangerous information out of the hands of violent non-state actors?
- Amnesty International. Autonomous Weapons Systems.
- Åstot, Crister et al. (12 November 2020). Science and Technology for WMD Compliance Monitoring and Investigations.
- Bode, Ingvild, and Hendrik Huelss (16 February 2021). Artificial Intelligence, Weapons Systems and Human Control.
- Grand-Clémant, Sarah (15 June 2022). Exploring the Use of Technology for Remote Ceasefire Monitoring and Verification.
- Human Rights Watch (10 August 2020). Stopping Killer Robots: Country Positions on Banning Fully Autonomous Weapons and Retaining Human Control.
- Kallenborn, Zachary (10 December 2021). Swarm Talk: Understanding Drone Typology.
- Maneshi, Beatrice, and Jonathan Forman (21 September 2015). The Intersection of Science and Chemical Disarmament.
- Maxwell, Paul (20 April 2020). Artificial Intelligence Is the Future of Warfare (Just Not in the Way You Think).
- Pavel, Podvig et al. (15 March 2022). Exploring Options for Missile Verification.
- Sambuli, Nanjira (November 2018). New Technologies and the Global Goals. UN Chronicle.
- Sargent, John F., Jr. (27 September 2021). Global Research and Development Expenditures: Fact Sheet. Congressional Research Service.
- United Nations. Secretary-General’s Strategy on New Technologies.
- United Nations, General Assembly. Disarmament and International Security (First Committee).
- United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research. For a More Stable and Secure World.
- United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs. About Us.
- United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs. Background on LAWS in the CCW.
- United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (2018). Securing Our Common Future: an Agenda for Disarmament.
- United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs. The Role of Science and Technology in the Context of International Security and Disarmament.
United Nations Documents
- United Nations, General Assembly (2021). Current developments in science and technology and their potential impact on international security and disarmament efforts. A/76/182.
- United Nations, General Assembly (2021). Role of science and technology in the context of international security and disarmament. A/RES/76/24.
- United Nations, General Assembly (2020). Role of science and technology in the context of international security and disarmament. A/RES/75/38.
- United Nations, General Assembly (2017). Role of science and technology in the context of international security and disarmament. A/RES/72/28.
- United Nations, General Assembly (1997). The role of science and technology in the context of international security and disarmament. A/RES/52/33.
- United Nations, General Assembly (1995). Verification in all its aspects, including the role of the United Nations in the field of verification. A/RES/50/62.
- United Nations, General Assembly (1992). The role of science and technology in the context of international security, disarmament, and other related fields. A/RES/47/44.
- United Nations, General Assembly (1990). Scientific and Technological Developments and their Impact on International Security: Report of the Secretary-General. A/45/568.
- United Nations, General Assembly (1990). Scientific and technological developments and their impacts on international security. A/RES/45/60.
- United Nations, General Assembly (1990). Science and technology for disarmament. A/RES/45/61.
- United Nations, First Committee (1988). Scientific and technological developments and their impacts on national security. A/RES/43/77.