The First Committee of the General Assembly: Insiders View
By Catherine Doolan
While interning at the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations, as part of the School of Diplomacy’s Saint John Paul II Fellowship Program, I attended meetings of the First Committee of the General Assembly from September 28 to November 2.
The First Committee addresses issues relating to disarmament and international security. For this year’s session, the First Committee welcomed debate on crucial disarmament topics, such as the role of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in the current international disarmament regime. This year the committee also addressed the recent July 2017 adoption of the Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons.
Debate on nuclear disarmament took on particular urgency during this session in light of North Korea’s controversial nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
The Committee also heard debate on hot button security issues that often dominate international news, such as allegations that the Syrian government violated its international commitments and resorted to chemical attacks in combating political rebellion and terrorism. Many delegations reflected on U.S. President Donald Trump’s de-certification of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action governing Iran’s nuclear program.
During the First Committee debate, I particularly enjoyed watching the Holy See deliver statements promoting Pope Francis’ major diplomatic tenet of international peace for the sake of humanity. The Holy See condemned both the licit and illicit arms trade, and the increasing production of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction, as all of these weapons threaten any prospect for a more peaceful and secure world.
The Holy See reminded the international community that progress in nuclear disarmament is lost when nuclear powers modernize their nuclear arsenals, which also undermines international disarmament agreements. Calling upon states possessing nuclear weapons to take action, the Holy See expressed dismay over the lack of synergy between international obligations and the absence of true, concrete action in the area of arms control and disarmament.
Many nations that do not possess nuclear weapons praised the recent adoption of the Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons. These countries stated that not only is it the first international agreement to legally prohibit nuclear weapons, but it is also the first mechanism to provide nuclear-equipped states the means to disarm in an irreversible manner.
Major Powers that do possess nuclear weapons, such as the United Kingdom, Russia and the U.S., stated that the Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons did not take into account current security realities and undermined obligations from preexisting disarmament treaties—complicating the entire international disarmament regime. All nations voiced strong support of the development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Delegations condemned North Korea’s nuclear program, citing its threat to international peace and security for all, ability to destabilize its region, and flagrant violation of various UN Security Council resolutions.
As an undergraduate Diplomacy student, the heated debate exchanged between the U.S. and Russia was of particular interest. At times, the debate reminded me of post-World War II international relations, as the United States often had the support of the United Kingdom, France and its other NATO allies.
Russia criticized the aggressive actions of these nations and controversially defended the Syrian government from allegations that it used chemical weapons against its own civilians. Many former Soviet republics, such as Ukraine and Georgia, strongly condemned what they considered military aggression and unjustified intervention in their domestic affairs.
Hostilities between Middle Eastern states were often very apparent. Many nations called for the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East, similar to the nuclear-weapon-free zones existing in Latin America and the Caribbean under the Treaty of Tlateloco and in Southeast Asia under the Treaty of Bangkok.
Middle Eastern countries condemned Israel’s nuclear activities and its refusal to submit its arsenal under international safeguards, which they stated threatened the security and stability of their region. Some states even accused Israel of supporting terrorism.
In response, Israel stated its need to defend itself in an insecure and threatening regional situation. Israel described how oppressive regimes, terrorist groups and state sponsors of terrorism support the illicit trade in arms, which all have devastating consequences for civilians.
Israel then accused Iran of using proxy organizations to promote its extremist ideology and destabilize the region. Iran denied all accusations of sponsoring terrorism and touted its compliance with international safeguards as part of the Iran Nuclear Deal.
Overall, participating in First Committee debate and writing the Holy See’s Final Report covering the meetings increased my knowledge and understanding of security issues. Working with disarmament experts as part of the Holy See’s First Committee team was also very enlightening.
These experts were incredibly kind and resourceful, and provided me with their opinions on internship and career advice. Thanks to the School of Diplomacy’s Saint John Paul II Fellowship Program, I was able to witness diplomacy firsthand in the First Committee.