MAG's Policy and Influence Director, Chris Loughran, reports back on last week's UN General Assembly ‘First Committee’ meeting.

Unless you are a diplomat or a certain breed of so-called ‘policy geek’ like me, you’d be forgiven for not having heard of the United Nations General Assembly’s committees. But the committees are where much of the detail of global policy is fought over and fought out, so they are important. And the engagement of NGOs and civil society coalitions is more important than ever, even when the outlook seems bleak.

The bit of the General Assembly you see in the media happened a month ago. The annual and loftily titled ‘High Level Segment’ sees world leaders whiz into the headquarters of the United Nations in New York. They make or renew commitments and – all too frequently – exchange threats. And then the motorcades whiz off the island and they go home again.

Every so often, an individual voice or issue captures the world’s attention and tugs on the strings of the public conscience. This time the voice came from outside of the security perimeter of the UN Plaza. It came from tens of thousands of climate change protestors forming part of a global movement. They had a strong and united message about the fundamental changes we all need to make to ensure the future of our common planet.

Many of the protestors were inspired by Grethe Thunberg, the Swedish youth environmental activist who has inspired millions of people of all ages across all continents. But there is no doubt that they were also inspired by each other and a common message demanding more than words, renewed commitments and occasional threats from world leaders.

The Irish Ambassador to the United Nations reading a statement, on behalf of 71 nations, in UN General Assembly (First Committee) on explosive weapons in populated areas

Back to the General Assembly’s ‘First Committee’ …

It meets after the high-level part to debate disarmament, global challenges and threats to peace. For those of us working on advancing arms control, disarmament and the human suffering caused by violence and conflict, it is a key moment in our year.

Different NGOs and disarmament campaigns come together under the banner of ‘humanitarian disarmament’ to discuss tactics and plans. Most importantly, campaigns support each other in lobbying states to pulling together behind progressive change and new norms on disarmament issues.

In the face of current global challenges, it is all-too easy to start believing comments like “don’t be an idealist, that’s never going to happen” or “you just have to be more pragmatic, the rules based system is unravelling.” It is also often tempting to forget that as civil society, we are not really part of the system. Even when we work with progressive states, our role is to hold it to account and to support each other in ensuring that disarmament saves lives.

But it is important to remember that by working together, pooling our experience and ideas and holding states to account, NGOs have led the charge for change and continue to do so. The results include bans on landmines, cluster munitions, nuclear weapons and agreements making it less likely that people’s lives will be unacceptably affected by violence, conflict and the arms trade.

The global spirit of solidarity behind the global environmental change movement resonates with those of us working on disarmament issues. “That’s not going to happen” is not an option and there is good reason to feel optimistic. This year, we saw 71 states come together behind Ireland in a common call to address the harm caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. States and civil society were also energised by the work of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots work to prevent Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems coming into existence. 

So even when it feels as though the world is going wrong, it is as important as ever to hold world leaders to account and demand positive and progressive change. By working together we can still achieve results. Whether it is disarmament or the environment, states and their leaders are responsible for making the right decisions for a sustainable future.

The role of NGOs in holding states to account, calling out inaction and driving change that will protect civilians is more important than ever. There still is plenty of room for optimism.