Matthew Bolton | Pace University
This panel, chaired by Maritza Chan, Minister Counselor at the Permanent Mission of Costa Rica, and co-hosted by Pace University and SCRAP, aimed to provide background and perspective on the concept of “general and complete disarmament” (GCD) found in article VI of the NPT. The side event was well-timed, following a discussion in Main Committee I in which nuclear-armed states had misused the concept, seeing it as a precondition of nuclear disarmament.
All the panelists refuted this notion, arguing that GCD is an important concept and provided vision for thinking strategically about the disarmament process, but should not be seen as a prerequisite for progress on prohibiting and eliminating nuclear weapons.
Maritza Chan opened the discussion by critiquing the claim “that a course of action that could make the world a less violent, insecure, and unjust place is ‘unrealistic’,” saying that it “is often a claim about the limits of imagination and courage.” She pointed to the example of Costa Rica’s unilateral disarmament and demilitarization in 1948: “Since then, Costa Rica has been at the forefront of efforts to promote international disarmament and peaceful resolution of conflicts.”
She stated that the concept of GCD “is often dismissed outright as an unrealistic idea or it is used as an empty phrase to suggest a well-meaning though perhaps insincere commitment to eventual world peace. Lately, we have seen it used as a diversionary tool by those who claim progress on nuclear disarmament will only come in some far distant future of global stability.”
Dr. Matthew Bolton of Pace University in New York City then provided a history of the development of the idea of GCD from its roots in Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace, the League of Nations covenant, and early Cold War disarmament negotiations. He asserted that the humanitarian initiative—putting the human at the centre of disarmament efforts—offered the most promise for progress on nuclear disarmament and offered a vision of an approach to proceed on conventional weapons disarmament too.
Following this background, Dr. John Burroughs of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, provided a legal analysis of article VI, demonstrating that the NPT obliges states to progress on nuclear disarmament as a key element of a broader goal of fulfilling GCD. Nuclear disarmament cannot and should not be held hostage by the misuse of the term.”
The practice of states parties and the agreements reached in the Final Documents adopted by NPT Review Conferences demonstrate that the third component of Article VI cannot be interpreted as requiring that nuclear disarmament is to be implemented through one Treaty covering other weapons and armed forces generally,” he said. “Rather, a nuclear disarmament convention (or similar instrument or instruments), like the conventions on biological and chemical weapons, would be a contribution to the objective of general and complete disarmament.”
Dr. Emily Welty of the World Council of Churches Commission on International Affairs challenged participants to root disarmament work in a broader vision of just peace. She dismissed claims that discussions should be solely “pragmatic” or “realistic”, noting that for people of faith, disarmament requires engaging in acts of “prophetic imagination”.
Christopher King of the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) called on states to develop a “modern version of GCD” that acknowledges that disarmament and arms control must take place in the context of broader peacebuilding. He challenged participants to think about how to “bring these disparate partial measures together” into a cohesive “strategy” and “narrative.” He stated that “civil society and academia’s creative and innovative solutions” could help lead the way.
Paul Meyer of the Simons Foundation and Simon Fraser University rejected the “hard linkage” of nuclear disarmament and GCD, but called attention to the “soft linkages” between a security system rooted in “nuclear weapons” and “a world awash with weapons” of the conventional kind. He pointed to the progress in Europe toward the end of the Cold War on seeking both conventional and nuclear disarmament, such as the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty and Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Meyer introduced the SCRAP “Basic Elements” proposal, developed at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, which aimed to show the possibility of moving forward on GCD. He said that it is “exactly in these times” of insecurity” that we must “consider what is possible”.
Click here to listen to the panel discussion: Audio file