Disarmament: Two steps forward, one step back

If we take only a short-term view of history, I think that we have only taken one step forward and one step back with the adoption last month of the Arms Trade Treaty by the United Nations. By this, I mean that we should not expect any real control of the arms trade to be possible as long as the world (and the UN) is run by nation-states. As I have shown elsewhere in detail, military power has become essential to nation-states, and they consider that to give it up is to commit suicide. Once again this week, this was stated explicitly by the British government when it warned that if it were to lose its nuclear force in Scotland it would lose its power on the world stage.

Even the limited disarmament successes, including the present treaty as well as those on anti-personnel land mines and cluster bombs, have been achieved through sustained efforts by the civil society, and against opposition by the nation-states.

Meanwhile armaments continue to proliferate, whether nuclear arms or small arms, despite the treaties. Hence, in the short-term, we may say there is one step back that cancels the one step forward.

If we take a long-term view of history, we can see that the Arms Trade Treaty provides a second step forward. The Treaty joins other declarations by the United Nations, including the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the Declaration and Programme of Action on a Culture of Peace, as documents that can someday be the basis of a universal culture of peace. This will be possible if and when the United Nations (or its successor) is no longer dominated by nation-states, but by the peoples of the world through another form of representation such as leagues of cities and regions.

With a long-term view, we can see how the efforts of the civil society, working in the context of the United Nations, flawed as it may seem, are laying the basis for a new world. The documents are only the visible portion of the much greater “iceberg” of consciousness of the people of the world that, in the words of the World Social Forum, “a better world is possible.”

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