Established in 1945, at the end stages of World War II, the United Nations General Assembly serves as the world body's principal policy-making and deliberative organ, providing a forum for multilateral discussion of the full spectrum of international issues covered by the UN Charter.
The Assembly makes a big splash every year in late September when world leaders come to UN Headquarters in New York City to present their views about pressing world issues over a number of days, in what is known as the General Debate.
However, the issues and themes under discussion by the General Assembly lend themselves to more effective discussion in smaller settings covering different topics. So, once the Debate is over, the General Assembly’s six Main Committees select their officers and get down to dealing with the items on the Assembly’s agenda – in 2012, the Assembly had nearly 170 items on it, most of which were carried over from previous years.
All Member States take part in each of the Committees’ discussions and the agenda is divided up thematically. The issues are debated, corresponding resolutions are voted on and then forwarded to all UN Member States – in the so-called General Assembly
Plenary – for a final decision.
Here, in the first of a series providing a snapshot of the Main Committees, the UN News Centre takes a look at the First Committee.
The General Assembly’s First Committee begins discussing disarmament and international security-related items on the Assembly’s 67th session agenda. (October 2012) UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
“Our interconnected world will make significant progress if the security, peace and stability exist for all peoples in all regions. We must intensify our efforts, as no obstacle is insurmountable.” With these words the Ambassador Desra Percaya of Indonesia, opened this year's debate at the General Assembly’s First Committee, which he chairs and which focuses on the issues of disarmament and international security.
The Committee’s 2012 work on disarmament delivered mixed results. Even as Amb. Percaya welcomed the encouraging results of the first session of the 2015 Preparatory Committee for the Review Conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Review Conference of the Programme of Action to combat illicit trafficking in small arms and light weapons, he deplored the failure of countries to achieve a global arms trade treaty and the deadlocked consultations at the Conference on Disarmament (CD), held earlier this year.
Acting on the recommendation of its First Committee, the General Assembly adopted 58 texts related to disarmament, requiring 39 separate recorded votes in all. (December 2012) UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras
The NPT’s objective is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament. Meanwhile, the CD, established in 1979 and with a current membership of 65 countries, primarily focuses on cessation of the nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament, prevention of nuclear war, and prevention of an arms race in outer space, among other issues. It has been plagued in recent years by an inability to overcome differences among its members and start its substantive work towards advancing disarmament goals.
Despite renewed calls for multilateralism from Member States, several of the 53 draft resolutions and six draft decisions forwarded this fall to the Assembly reflected the ongoing disagreement between a small group of countries with nuclear arsenals which insist on non-proliferation and the vast majority of States that do not possess nuclear weapons and expect concrete new progress in nuclear disarmament.
Given the deadlock, an international conference on setting up a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East, which was initially planned for December in Helsinki, Finland, was postponed at the request of the United States, Russia and United Kingdom – the three depositary States of the NPT – which felt that conditions were not being met for such a conference.
US President Barack Obama converses with Mohamed ElBaradei, the then Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, prior to a summit on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. (September 2009) UN Photo/Mark Garten
Meanwhile, the General Assembly followed the First Committee’s recommendation and adopted, without a vote, a resolution on the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East. The resolution calls on all nations in the Middle East to take urgent measures to promote the creation of nuclear-weapon-free zone and, in the meantime, to report their nuclear activities to the UN’s nuclear watch-dog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). While it has joined the consensus on a vision for “a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction,” Israel has said that such a question should be dealt with at the regional level because, according to its representative, “only direct dialogue between the parties in the region can help build a regional security framework.”
During the vote on that resolution, Iran and Syria lamented the delay, which they blamed on Israel. Adopted by a vote of 174 in favour to six against, and with six abstentions, the resolution calls for Israel to involve the IAEA in its nuclear activities in order to help build confidence among all States in the region.
Costa Rica's President Óscar Arias Sánchez (left), converses with Ted Turner, founder of CNN and philanthropist, at a summit on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. (September 2009) UN Photo/Mark Garten
Just like in past years, the Assembly also adopted – without a vote – the traditional resolution submitted by the States Parties to the Pelindaba Treaty, which established a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Africa. Two other resolutions, on the creation of such zones in Central Asia and the southern hemisphere, were adopted by vote because of reservations expressed by some nuclear and non-nuclear States. Votes were also held in the General Assembly on several resolutions calling for new disarmament initiatives, which, in some cases, only confirmed the persistent differences between Member States.
Tabled by the New Agenda Coalition – which is made up of Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and Sweden – a resolution entitled ‘Towards a world free of nuclear weapons: accelerating the implementation of commitments on nuclear disarmament,’ stresses the importance of verification and compliance with earlier commitments and related implementation measures adopted pursuant to the NPT Review Conferences of 1995, 2000 and 2010.
It received 175 votes in favour, while the United States, France, UK, Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Israel abstained or voted against the resolution.
India's Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon addresses a First Committee meeting to consider the priority to be given to the items on its agenda. (17 October 1961) UN Photo/MB
There were also measures aiming to eliminate the ongoing deadlock in the Geneva-based CD that has hampered progress on four main issues – nuclear disarmament, regulation of the production of fissile materials, supervision of negative security assurances, and the prevention of a space arms race. This schism between nuclear and non-nuclear States was particularly intense when the resolution on nuclear disarmament came up for a vote. According to this text – adopted by 124 votes in favour, 44 against and 18 abstentions – nuclear-weapon States are to undertake further reductions of non-strategic nuclear arsenals.
In addition, the Assembly called for the immediate resumption of negotiations at the Conference on Disarmament toward a treaty banning the production of fissile materials for military purposes. It also demanded that international legal instruments be put in place to guarantee the security of non- nuclear States.
A resolution on the use of weapons and ammunition containing depleted uranium also brought forth disagreements between Member States, with 155 of them voting in favour of the text, four voting against, and 27 abstaining. That resolution invited Member States using depleted-uranium weapons and ammunition to provide the affected countries with information on the location of areas where the weapons were used.