The UN Security Council (UNSC) is at a precipice. The Trump administration’s recent announcement that the US would no longer abide by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the multilateral agreement to restrict Iran’s ability to acquire and develop nuclear weapons – breaks both a UNSC agreement and UNSC procedure. Breaking the JCPOA has the potential to undermine the UNSC’s legitimacy and the important functions it serves; the value the permanent five members of the UNSC (P5) place on the UNSC as a deliberative, policy-producing body in international politics is unlikely to persist amidst repeated, major violations of UNSC agreements and procedures by the P5, with downstream consequences for a broad swathe of international peace and security outcomes.
On 7 July, 122 states voted to adopt a new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. It articulates the world’s collective revulsion at the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons, under any circumstances. The foreseeable effects of use in the indeterminate future make the possession of bombs today morally unacceptable to the international community. The treaty’s primary intent is to stigmatise nuclear weapons through a legally binding prohibition instrument in order to induce movement towards nuclear disarmament by the bomb-possessing countries.
The top down UN GGE process appears dead in the water. International norms and laws for responding to cyber attacks must now be built from the bottom up.
Rules must be binding, violations must be punished, and words must mean something. The UN GGE failed on all three accounts.
In 2004, the United Nations established a Group of Governmental Experts with the aim of strengthening the security of global information and telecommunications systems (UN GGE). To date the UN GGE has held five sessions, which are widely credited for successfully outlining the global cybersecurity agenda and introducing the applicability of international law to state behaviour in cyberspace.
However, during the UN GGE’s fifth session in June 2017, fundamental disagreements emerged between the Group’s 25 members, particularly on the right to self-defence and the applicability of international humanitarian law to cyber conflicts. In the end, the fifth and possibly last session concluded without the release of a consensus report. With no plans to pick up the pieces, the question now is, where do we go from here?
The United Nations General Assembly has approved $6.8 billion in peacekeeping expenditures for the 2017/18 budget year. This total will increase, possibly to as much as $7.3 billion, since states only agreed on the first six months of funding for two ongoing operations. Yet even that total would still be some $600 million less than the amount requested by UN Secretary-General António Guterres and $500 million less than the approved resources for the previous year.
United States Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has celebrated this reduction: “Just five months into our time here, we’ve already been able to cut over half a billion dollars from the U.N. peacekeeping budget and we’re only getting started.” The UN’s Africa Group has warned, however, that excessive budget cuts would “endanger the implementation of [mission] mandates.”
In late 2016, the United Nations decided to launch discussions on the establishment of a treaty banning all nuclear weapons, and on May 22, 2017 the Chair of the conference dealing with this issue presented a first draft of the proposed treaty. The proposed draft is of a treaty negotiated among states, not taking into account the existence of non-state entities that could be holding a trump card in the case of universal nuclear disarmament. Moreover, in many respects, the draft falls into the same troubling trap of previous treaties. It is a detailed treaty but with a number of loopholes that come to placate the diverse opinions and approaches of the states to the issue. Thus while striving toward nuclear disarmament is a noble goal, one must be realistic and not really expect the proposed treaty to achieve it.
A short time after nuclear weapons were used in World War II, a movement to eliminate these weapons, the most horrific weapons of mass destruction (WMD), began with what is known as the Baruch Plan. Although many governments and hundreds of non-governmental organizations supported and still support nuclear disarmament, their achievements(including the disarmament of South Africa, reductions of stocks, and a moratorium on testing that was not universally upheld) have been partial.