General Assembly First Committee (Disarmament and International Security)
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: National legislation on transfer of arms, military equipment and dual-use goods and technology
The international arms trade, while playing an integral role in States’ rights to self-defense, represents a potential threat to international security. Unregulated transfers of arms can lead to the spread of lethal arms to unstable environments and into the hands of violent non-state actors, inflaming tensions and exacerbating suffering in regions of conflict. However, despite the size of the arms industry and the involved dangers of the international arms trade, before the adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty in 2014 there were few regulations on the trade; activists often remarked that bananas were more heavily regulated. International arms transfer has increased since the turn of the century, although it has yet to return to the high levels seen during the Cold War. The two sides of the arms trade—its lucrative nature for exporters and its utility for those States that import them—have made generating political will to expand regulations difficult, however it is necessary to mitigate the damages felt in conflict regions around the world.
International efforts to establish controls on the arms trade date back to the Brussels Conference Act of 1890, which attempted to limit arms exports into Africa as part of ending Western trade in enslaved Africans. After the Second World War, international concern on the arms trade largely centered around the use of arms transfers in the events of the Cold War by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Warsaw Pact countries to spread and establish influence. These arms transfers, often occurring alongside coups and civil wars backed by the Superpowers, wreaked havoc among non-aligned States. The Cold War context overshadowed most international work on regulating the arms trade. Despite progress made in restricting proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, general arms trade agreements were not successful; the modern control mechanisms were all established after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
During the Cold War, regulations on the arms trade began to develop due to the commencement of talks among States. The first of these arms control agreements was the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (COCOM) in 1949, in which Members of NATO put into place controls over the sale of strategic goods to communist bloc countries. In the late 1970s, the United States and Soviet Union conducted the Conventional Arms Transfer (CAT) talks. These talks ultimately failed to bring about an agreement due to rising tensions in the Middle East, and arms transfers continued throughout the end of the Cold War.
Beginning in the 1990s, the international community began designing new mechanisms to regulate the international arms trade. COCOM, made obsolete with the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, was replaced in 1996 with the Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies, the first example of modern export controls on the legal arms trade. Various conventional weapons and armaments were banned, most notably the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention and the 1997 Ottawa Mine-Ban Treaty. These were shortly followed by the United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects in 2001, which emphasized the responsibility of Member States to curtail the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. Regarding the international arms trade, however, no large international agreements arose, despite the horrific consequences of unregulated arms trade realized in Rwanda and Yugoslavia. In 1996, Nobel Peace Laureate Óscar Arias Sánchez presented an international code of conduct on arms sales at the State of the World Forum, setting guidelines to avoid exacerbating human rights abuses with legal arms sales to violators. Individually, the European Union in 1998 and the United States in 1999 both adopted codes of conduct, and the Organization of American States would follow in 2003. Beginning in 2006, the United Nations began working towards developing an arms trade treaty, deciding in 2009 to convene the United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty in 2012. As negotiations progressed, however, it became clear that the Conference, nor the Final Conference the following year, would not be able to reach the necessary consensus to adopt a treaty via conference. Instead, the Arms Trade Treaty was endorsed by the General Assembly in 2013 without consensus, and came into effect the following year.
Nevertheless, the Arms Trade Treaty remains one of the largest achievements in addressing the transfer of arms. The major components of the treaty included the establishment of international standards for the trade of conventional arms that must be incorporated into States’ control systems, enhancement of transparency and accountability of State actions, and the outright ban of arms shipments that would be used to commit the horrors of genocide, war crimes and attacks on civilians. Many of the world’s largest arms producers signed the treaty: the largest which, the United States, withdrew its signature in 2019 while the second largest, China, acceded in 2020.
There are still gaps in the application of proposed solutions and resolutions supporting the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) have failed to achieve consensus at the United Nations. New aspects of the issue have emerged, such as trade to non-state actors (NSA) and the development of new technologies that have the potential to exacerbate the effects of the arms trade, like 3D-printed weapons. Despite failing to reach consensus on specifics, the international community has shown unanimity in their recognition that something must be done, as recent resolutions have passed without any votes against and few abstentions. Concerns over national sovereignty and balancing the rights and desires of various factions have left this issue largely in the domain of national legislation. At the turn of the century, national legislation adopting codes of conduct precipitated international action and the Arms Trade Treaty. Perhaps a new push of national legislation regulating the gaps in the ATT will work again.
Questions to Consider:
- How can Member States work together to improve regulation on transfer of arms, military equipment, and dual-use goods and technology? How might they improve implementation of current measures?
- In what ways can new technologies such as 3D-printed weapons be addressed in the context of the arms trade?
- How should the dangers of arms transfer to non-state actors be balanced with States’ sovereignty and national security interests?
- How can the disastrous effects of the transfer of arms into conflict zones be mitigated? Why have past strategies not been successful in this regard?
- Abramson, Jeff, and Greg Webb (May 2019). S. to Quit Arms Trade Treaty.
- Amnesty International (23 August 2019). Facebook Twitter Killer Facts 2019: the Scale of the Global Arms Trade.
- Amnesty International (5 June 2013). The Long Journey Towards an Arms Trade Treaty.
- The Arms Trade Treaty (2013).
- Arias, Oscar (5 October 1996). International Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers.
- Blain, Harry (18 September 2017). What Happened to the Arms Trade Treaty?
- Brockmann, Kolja (1 August 2018). 3D-printable Guns and Why Export Controls on Technical Data Matter.
- Burke, Jason, and Patrick Wintour (11 March 2020). Suspected Military Supplies Pour into Libya as UN Flounders. The Guardian.
- Central African Republic: Security Council Appeals to Rebels to Lay Down Arms (19 December 2014). UN News.
- CGTN (9 July 2020). Chinese Envoy Deposits Instrument of Accession to Arms Trade Treaty to UN Chief.
- Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction (1992).
- Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction (1997).
- Corruption Hobbles Development, Generates Other Crimes – Senior UN Official (25 November 2013). UN News.
- Federation of American Scientists (2020). European Union Code of Conduct.
- Federation of American Scientists (2020). U.S. Arms Transfer Code of Conduct.
- Goose, Stephen (September 1994). Arming Genocide in Rwanda: the High Cost of Small Arms Transfers. Foreign Affairs.
- Knaus, Christopher, and Ben Doherty (2020). ‘Crime Against Humanity’: UN Expert Calls on Australia to Stop Selling Weapons to War-torn Mali. The Guardian.
- Kinzer, Stephen (6 September 1995). Nobel Peace Laureates Draft a Plan to Govern Arms Trade. The New York Times.
- Henshaw, John (May 1993). The Origins of COCOM: Lessons for Contemporary Proliferation Control Regimes.
- Olabuenaga, Pablo (8 May 2019). Why the Arms Trade Treaty Matters – and Why It Matters That the US Is Walking Away.
- Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (19 November 1990). Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe.
- Organization of American States (2006). Draft Model Regulations for the Control of Brokers of Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition.
- Patrick, Stewart, and Andrew Reddie (28 March 2013). The “Final” Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty.
- Small Arms Survey (2020). Weapons and Markets – Transfers.
- Small Arms Survey (2020). Armed Groups.
- Stohl, Rachel (15 November 2017). Understanding the Conventional Arms Trade.
- The Brussels Conference of 1890 (2 July 1890). Slave Trade and Importation Into Africa of Firearms, Ammunition, and Spirituous Liquors (General Act of Brussels).
- United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (2020). National Legislation on Transfer of Arms, Military Equipment and Dual-Use Goods and Technology.
- United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (2020). Statements at the UN Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty Statements on the Arms Trade Treaty.
- United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (2020). UN Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty.
- US Department of State (21 May 2019). Conventional Arms Transfer (CAT) Policy Implementation Plan Update.
- Wassenaar Arrangement (2020). What Is the Wassenaar Arrangement?
- Wezeman, Pieter, et al. (March 2019). Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2018.
- Zgaga, Blaz, and Matej Surc (2 December 2011). Yugoslavia and the Profits of Doom. euobserver.
United Nations Documents
- United Nations, Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (2001). Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects. A/CONF.192/15.
- United Nations, General Assembly (2019). Problems arising from the accumulation of conventional ammunition stockpiles in surplus. A/RES/74/65
- United Nations, General Assembly (2019). The illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects. A/RES/74/60.
- United Nations, General Assembly (2016). National legislation on transfer of arms, military equipment and dual-use goods and technology. A/RES/71/68.
- United Nations, General Assembly (2007). National legislation on transfer of arms, military equipment and dual-use goods and technology. A/RES/62/26.
- United Nations, General Assembly (2006). Towards an arms trade treaty: establishing common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms . A/RES/61/89 .
- United Nations, General Assembly (2002). National legislation on transfer of arms, military equipment and dual-use goods and technology. A/RES/57/66.
- United Nations, Security Council (2019). Cooperation between the United Nations and regional and subregional organizations in maintaining international peace and security – Silencing the guns in Africa. S/RES/2457
Topic 2: Prevention of an arms race in outer space
The use of space is critical to global society. Modern militaries rely heavily on man-made satellites in orbit around the earth, which are used for communication, targeting and global positioning systems. Satellites are also critical to civilian operations such as telecommunications and scientific research. All countries rely upon space-based technology in some way, even if they are not space-faring themselves. Due to the global vantage point provided simply by being in space and the unique and global dangers space weapons pose, a debate has emerged over the past few decades on whether militaries should be permitted to station weapons in orbit. The fledgling commercial space industry, eager to develop near-earth orbit and mine the asteroid belt for resources, also has a vested interest in keeping space peaceful and developing clear international law governing military use of space.
The weaponization of space has long been a concern of the United Nations. In 1963, the General Assembly adopted a resolution calling on all Member States to refrain from placing nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or from installing such weapons on celestial bodies. The General Assembly also noted that the principles of the United Nations Charter, particularly those prohibiting the use or threat of use of force, apply in space as well.
In 1967, the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (commonly known as the “Outer Space Treaty”) entered into force. This treaty is the main instrument of international law governing the use of outer space and tracks the language of the 1963 resolution by banning the stationing of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on any celestial body. It does not ban the stationing of conventional weapons in space or prohibit the use of conventional weapons launched from the surface of the Earth to destroy objects in space. The Outer Space Treaty currently has 104 States Parties, including all Member States with significant space-faring capability. Another 24 Member States have signed but not ratified the treaty.
Subsequent efforts to develop and enforce multilateral treaties regarding this topic have not met with success. In 1979, Member States proposed the adoption of the Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (commonly known as the “Moon Treaty”). The treaty never gained significant traction, in part because it would have required Member States to share space-derived resources and the means for extracting such resources. It has been ratified by only 14 Member States, none of which have space-launch capability.
In 1985, the Conference on Disarmament, where this topic has also been debated at length, established the Ad Hoc Committee on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space. The Ad Hoc Committee disbanded in 1994 after failing to generate any formal agreements. Discussion on this topic in the First Committee has continued through the end of the Cold War to the present day. In recent resolutions related to this topic, the First Committee encouraged the adoption of verifiable measures to prevent an arms race in space, including the creation and implementation of better transparency and confidence-building measures among space-faring States.
The first way that an arms race in space could erupt is by deploying existing nuclear weapons such as inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in orbit. The nuclear deterrence that has prevented the use of nuclear weapons in combat since the detonations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki is based on each side’s ability to destroy the other should any nuclear attack take place. Because space-based nuclear weapons would have a much faster response time than even ICBMs, one side’s implementation of such weapons would threaten the balance of power and could potentially lead to an arms race of ever-faster and more responsive nuclear satellites.
However, space weapons could also be something as simple as a satellite that drops rods of concrete rebar. When dropped from 60+ miles up, virtually any object that can survive the heat stress of atmospheric reentry can become a deadly missile. The extent to which conventional weapons in space should be banned is therefore a key part of the global debate on this issue. The destruction of one satellite, whether it is from a space-based weapon or a surface-to-space missile, could create a chain reaction of explosions, filling low-earth orbit with debris and rendering it unusable for any satellites or human and robotic exploration missions. This situation, known as Kessler Syndrome, would have a catastrophic effect on global society. While some global positioning and other highly specialized satellites orbit high enough to be out of reach of such a disaster, the vast majority of currently operating satellites are in low-earth orbit, including most scientific and weather satellites, constellations of communications satellites such as the Iridium satellite telephone system, and the International Space Station. Losing all of these capabilities in short succession would have far-reaching effects such as cutting communications from remote regions of the Earth and a decreased ability to predict natural disasters. Low-earth orbit is also by far the cheapest orbit to launch a satellite in and has a number of advantages, such as a short orbital period to cover more of the Earth with one satellite. The economic cost to shift satellite development and launch to higher orbits would be enormous.
Recently, this debate has become more urgent due to signs that some States are gearing up to wage space-based warfare or to develop the capacity to destroy another State’s assets in space. The United States military has earmarked $2 billion for developing space weapons in 2016, citing concerns that its military has become so dependent on satellites that they are an “Achilles’ heel” that must be better protected. In 2007, the People’s Republic of China destroyed one of their own satellites with a surface-to-space missile, 530 miles above the Earth’s surface. The United States has also destroyed one of its own satellites in similar fashion, and Russia has successfully tested its own anti-satellite missile.
In 2017, the General Assembly voted for stronger laws to hold violators of the Outer Space Treaty accountable. The General Assembly identified the possibility of a larger arms race that could occur in Outer Space, particularly given the rising availability of dual-use technologies in space, such as high-energy lasers. Numerous countries had reservations against the Chinese-Russian draft treaty on the placement of weapons in outer space, especially given the lack of a clear definition of an outer space weapon and no clear path forward on anti-satellite weapons
The future of Outer Space is still uncertain, with some states calling for greater international regulation. The Space Preservation Treaty, which would ban all weapons in space, including conventional weapons, was proposed to the General Assembly in the mid-2000s; to date it has not been signed by any Member State. In 2008 and again in 2014, at the Conference for Disarmament, Member States proposed the adoption of a “draft treaty on the prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space and of the threat or use of force against outer space objects.” This treaty has yet to come before the General Assembly. Given the lack of a definition of what constitutes an “outer space weapon”, the continued efforts to prevent the militarization of outer space may find it difficult to enforce any resolutions made within the General Assembly First Committee. The relationship between space-faring nations and non-space-faring nations may also be strained if enforcement of previous treaties fails.
Questions to Consider:
- What constitutes a “weapon” in space? How can an instrument limiting the use of weapons in space carve out room for civilian, scientific and other benign operations to continue to operate?
- How successful have the current treaties regarding arms in outer space? What can be done to make up for their shortcomings?
- Are new multilateral agreements necessary or advisable to incorporate into the framework of agreements banning or otherwise limiting space weaponization? How can the United Nations improve the implementation and integration of existing agreements that deal with space weapons?
- What lessons can be learned from the failure of the Moon Treaty to gain any significant traction?
- Adams, Eric (1 June 2004). Rods from God: Space-launched Darts That Strike Like Meteors. Popular Science.
- Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (1979).
- Air Force Association (28 May 2020). What’s a Space Weapon? the Answer Can Be Complicated. Air Force Magazine.
- Corbett, Judy (14 June 2016). Micrometeoroids and Orbital Debris (MMOD).
- Gohd, Chelsea (16 April 2020). Russia Tests anti-satellite Missile and the US Space Force Is Not Happy. Space.com.
- Howell, Elizabeth (27 October 2017). What Is a Satellite? Space.com.
- Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (1967).
- United Nations, Fourth Committee (2005). Delegates Express Concern Over Ever-expanding Military Use, Weaponization of Outer Space as Fourth Committee Continues General Debate.18 October.
- United Nations, General Assembly (2017). Stronger Rules Must Guarantee Outer Space Remains Conflict-Free, First Committee Delegates Stress, Calling for New Laws to Hold Perpetrators Accountable. 17 October .
- United Nations, General Assembly (2017). Amid Commemoration of Landmark Treaty’s Fiftieth Anniversary, Joint Meeting of First, Fourth Committees Discusses Keeping Weapons Away from Outer Space. 12 October.
- United Nations, General Assembly (2007). United States Says Discussing Merits of Treaties to Prevent ‘weaponization’ of Outer Space ‘pointless’, as First Committee Continues Thematic Debates.
United Nations Documents
- United Nations (2015). Divergent Paths Emerge in First Committee on Ways to Achieve Outer Space Security, Safety, Sustainability, through Legally or Non-Legally Binding Pacts. 23 October. GA/ DIS/3532.
- United Nations, General Assembly (2019). Group of Governmental Experts on further practical measures for the prevention of an arms race in outer space. A/74/77.
- United Nations, General Assembly (1963). Question of general and complete disarmament. 17 October. A/RES/18/1884.
- United Nations, General Assembly (2018). Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 24 December 2017. A/RES/72/250.
- United Nations, General Assembly (2016). Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 5 December 2016. A/RES/71/31.
- United Nations, General Assembly (2016). Prevention of an arms race in outer space. A/71/448.
- United Nations, General Assembly (2013). Report of the Group of Governmental Experts on Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures in Outer Space Activities. 29 July. A/68/189.
- United Nations, General Assembly (2010). Transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space activities. 8 December. A/ RES/65/68.