The Conference on Disarmament was established to serve as the premier international negotiating body for solving hard questions of arms and security. … It is only natural that [the Conference] should be at the forefront of the strategic dialogue our world needs to secure our common future.
The COVID-19 pandemic severely affected the functioning of the multilateral disarmament machinery in 2020. Shortly after the United Nations Headquarters was temporarily closed in March, the General Assembly postponed the annual session of the United Nations Disarmament Commission, which had been scheduled for April. Although the Headquarters in New York was reopened to a limited number of delegates and staff over the following months, substantial restrictions on in-person participation remained in place, including a full suspension of access by stakeholders from civil society and the public. Similar restrictions at the United Nations Office at Geneva prompted the Conference on Disarmament to suspend and subsequently limit its work.
Despite the difficulties caused by the pandemic, the First Committee of the General Assembly fulfilled its mandate by approving 71 draft resolutions and decisions that, inter alia, ensured the continuity of its work and established new mandates on outer space and information and communications technologies. The body held its seventy-fifth session in an abridged format, having revised its programme of work and timetable to expand the general debate of its substantive session without holding a thematic debate. In place of its usual thematic debate, the Committee held informal virtual meetings for interactive thematic discussions. It also allowed Member States to submit, in writing, statements for the general debate and the thematic discussions, as well as statements to exercise their right of reply and explain their votes. In total, the Committee held 15 formal, in-person meetings from 8 October to 10 November.
However, the Committee carried out its work in the shadow of a worsening global security environment. As in past years, its deliberations were marked by heightened tensions among major powers, in particular concerning nuclear weapons, the investigation of alleged chemical-weapon use, and processes for addressing issues on outer space and information and communications technologies.
In the Committee’s deliberations on nuclear weapons, geopolitical rivalries surfaced during intense exchanges on, inter alia, the following: calls by the United States and its allies for China to participate in future arms control discussions; the inclusion of non-strategic nuclear weapons in such discussions; and a proposal by the Russian Federation for a moratorium on the deployment of intermediate- range missiles in Europe. In addition, deep divisions on the issue of nuclear disarmament persisted between nuclear-armed States and non-nuclear-weapon States, with the latter expressing grave concern both about the lack of progress and nuclear modernization programmes that were tantamount to a qualitative arms race between States possessing nuclear weapons. Discussions on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons also remained contentious; as States possessing nuclear weapons and many of their allies reiterated their strong opposition to the Treaty, others welcomed the conditions for its entry into force being met during the Committee’s 2020 session.
As in recent years, the Committee witnessed bitter exchanges on the possession and use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic. Despite the universal expression of serious concern about the current challenge to the global norm against chemical weapons, Member States continued to present divergent views on how to investigate and attribute responsibility for the use of such weapons. Furthermore, condemnations of the use of the chemical agent Novichok in the attempted assassination of Alexei Navalny, a citizen of the Russian Federation, further intensified the Committee’s rancorous deliberations in that area.
Despite heightened concerns about biosafety and bioterrorism against the backdrop of the pandemic, the First Committee did not approve a draft resolution submitted by the Russian Federation calling for an update of the Secretary- General’s Mechanism for Investigation of Alleged Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons. In that connection, many States expressed concern about the proposal to transfer responsibility for relevant investigations to the Security Council, suggesting that that would undermine the right of any State to bring an allegation to the attention of the Secretary-General.The pandemic also affected the deliberations of the First Committee on issues related to conventional weapons. In two important procedural decisions on the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons, the Committee postponed the seventh Biennial Meeting of States to Consider the Implementation of the Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons and rolled over, to 2021, the mandate of the Group of Governmental Experts on Problems Arising from the Accumulation of Conventional Ammunition Stockpiles in Surplus. The pandemic also prompted many Member States to reflect on the world’s surging military spending—estimated at almost $2 trillion in 2020—and call for its reduction and diversion towards socioeconomic development, including effective responses to COVID-19. The Committee also heard growing expressions of support for the Arms Trade Treaty, with States welcoming progress made in its implementation, despite the pandemic.
On outer space issues, the First Committee’s deliberations reflected an increased sense of urgency in pursuing new measures considering technological developments and the rapidly expanding use of outer space. That urgency continued to be affected by persistent divisions among major powers, including on the initiation of negotiations on a legal instrument with a focus on the placement of weapons in outer space. In light of those dynamics, the Committee voted on all five draft resolutions on outer space, including a new, draft resolution sponsored by the United Kingdom entitled “Reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours”.
Regarding information and communications technologies, First Committee delegates expressed concern about an increase in malicious activity with the onset of the pandemic. The Committee also responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with the adoption, by consensus, of two procedural decisions to postpone the meetings of the two relevant ongoing processes: the Group of Governmental Experts on Advancing Responsible State Behaviour in Cyberspace in the Context of International Security; and the Open-ended Working Group on Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security. In addition, based on a proposal by the Russian Federation, the Committee adopted a draft resolution to establish a new open-ended working group for five years starting in 2021.
Meanwhile, the Conference on Disarmament overcame a significant disruption by the pandemic, convening 25 formal meetings and 4 informal plenary meetings in 2020. However, the Conference again could not reach a consensus on a programme of work, despite concerted efforts and intense consultations led by the six presidents of its 2020 session, Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bangladesh and Belarus.
Separately, the United Nations Disarmament Commission held two informal meetings in February to prepare for its substantive sessions. Unable to reach an agreement on several organizational matters, the Commission decided to postpone its organizational meeting to a date on or before 6 April, when its substantive session was expected to begin. Shortly after the pandemic was declared, however, the General Assembly decided to postpone the Commission’s upcoming substantive session to 2021.
The Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters held two sessions in 2020, as scheduled, beginning a two-year programme of work to reflect on alternative approaches and a potential new vision for nuclear disarmament and arms control. Meeting in Geneva in January and virtually in June, the Board discussed possible new approaches to revitalizing and modernizing the disarmament architecture and machinery, particularly in the context of an international security landscape characterized by growing political and technological complexity.