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Editorial: #UNGA71 First Committee on Disarmament

11 October 2016

The UN General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and International Security is underway in New York, and today is the final day of the general debate. Thematic debates start on Thursday 13 October and are scheduled to continue until 2 November.

This year marks a significant move forward in the discussion on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. WILPF’s disarmament programme, Reaching Critical Will, is covering the discussions with weekly reports in their ‘First Committee Monitor‘.

To stay up to date with First Committee, subscribe to the ‘First Committee Monitor’ here.

Autumn at UN Headquarters. Photo: Flickr/UN Photo/Rick Bajornas.

“It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before. This character of startling unexpectedness is inherent in all beginnings and in all origins… The new always happens against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability, which for all practical, everyday purposes amounts to certainty; the new therefore always appears in the guise of a miracle.” – Hannah Arendt

In October in New York, you can feel the seasons changing. Outside of the UN building, the leaves are changing colour, the air is getting cooler, and there is a fresh briskness in the wind.

This year, we’ll also be able to feel changes inside the conference room. But rather than being based on the tilt of the Earth’s axis of rotation relative to its orbital plane, these changes are coming from a revolution in the international community’s approach to nuclear weapons.

71 years after the creation of the most destructive weapon ever and 46 years after the entry into force of the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s obligations for nuclear disarmament, the majority of states are finally throwing off the shackles of nuclear injustice and violence. After decades of demanding, pleading, and cajoling the self-described “nuclear powers” to abide by their legal obligations to eliminate their arsenals, committed states are now poised to take action.

It has been less than two ears since Austria introduced the Humanitarian Pledge, which 127 states have endorsed, committing themselves to efforts to stigmatise, prohibit, and eliminate nuclear weapons. For the majority of these states, “filling the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons” means commencing negotiations in 2017 for a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons.

This is a sea change. It is transformative. It is long-fought and hard-won and it is certainly not over. It is a piece of the path of a long road of activism, sacrifice, and courage from people the world over for decades. It is an important piece, a critical node, and it will require more courage – from governments as much as from activists – to carry forward successfully.

This rejection of injustice, and of a shocking capacity and willingness of massive violence, should set the tone for all First Committee and our work beyond these corridors.

As we gather to meet in New York, Yemenis and Syrians continue to die from airstrikes in populated areas, with bombs hitting hospitals and homes. Corporations in the United Kingdom and the United States, amongst others, continue to rake in profits from the bombing of Yemen, with the UK government even being bumped up to the position of second largest arms dealer in the world. The gathering of Arms Trade Treaty states parties in August proved totally inadequate to address these challenges.

Protest at Alice Springs, Australia as part of #ClosePineGap 2016.
Protest at Alice Springs, Australia, as part of #ClosePineGap 2016.

But this is not the end of the story. In addition to the overwhelming support for the start of negotiations to prohibit nuclear weapons, other positive developments are underway. Civil society and parliamentarians are challenging arms transfers from the UK and the US to Saudi Arabia. States are coming together to talk about how to end the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. There is mounting opposition to US military bases from Okinawa to Alice Springs to Diego Garcia. Colombia and the FARC reached a peace and disarmament agreement.

These are movements forward we must embrace. Peace and justice will grow from the ashes of violence if we continue to oppose militarism, patriarchy, racism, and economic injustice and develop alternatives that put people first. First Committee, in bringing together states, international organisations, and civil society to talk about a fairly comprehensive range of disarmament and international security issues, is an opportunity to discuss and advance those alternatives.

Last month, the antinuclear movement lost one of its great champions. Dr. Bill Williams, Chair of ICAN in Australia, passed away in his sleep one night, leaving a loving family and a legacy of activism, love, and passion. He once wrote, “After the energetically anti-nuke eighties and the end of the Cold War, nuclear holocaust – always unthinkable – became almost unmentionable. A mass self-censorship, a mental no-fly zone, a cone of silence descended. Little wonder: no sane person wants to contaminate their dreams with this ultimate horror. But to finish this journey of survival – to abolition – we need to penetrate the fog of fear and denial, informing ourselves and our neighbours without inducing psychological paralysis.”

In a tribute to Bill in the Australian parliament, Senator Scott Ludlam proclaimed that this – the overcoming of fear and denial – is happening: “From Torquay to the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, to the Western Australian Goldfields, somehow, it is happening.”

The world is watching. For those that think what happens in the walls of this conference room doesn’t matter or isn’t known, think again. Expectations are high. Every person here has the chance to be on the right side of history and help set a course for a safer, more peaceful, and more just future for us all.

For further reading, Reaching Critical Will also publishes its ‘First Committee Briefing Book’ ahead of the UN General Assembly First Committee each year. This briefing book highlights a number of critical disarmament topics and suggests how governments can achieve progress.

Download the ‘First Committee Briefing Book 2016’ by Reaching Critical Will.


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Melissa Torres


Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani


Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo


Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

IPB Congress Barcelona

WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

Militarised masculinity

Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

WILPF has been working on challenging the prevailing notion of masculinity based on men’s physical and social superiority to, and dominance of, women in Afghanistan. It recognizes that these notions are not representative of all Afghan men, contrary to the publicly prevailing notion.

Feminist peace​

In WILPF’s view, any process towards establishing peace that has not been partly designed by women remains deficient. Beyond bringing perspectives that encapsulate the views of half of the society and unlike the men only designed processes, women’s true and meaningful participation allows the situation to improve.

In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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