UN First Committee and NATO Defence Ministers meeting

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The United Nations General Assembly First Committee opens today in New York, the UN forum for disarmament and international security affairs. Its month-long session contains an ambitious program of work, including discussion on nuclear weapons and other WMDs, in the weaponisation of space, conventional weapons, regional disarmament and security, and disarmament machinery (conventions and treaties). Specific examinations of these broad topics are going to focus on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, the establishment of WMD-free zones, the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty and the Arms Trade Treaty, and the Conference on Disarmament as a mechanism of disarmament. Critics are weary of the First Committee’s unhurried progress on important issues, which comes down to differences in member states’ underlying perceptions on security issues heard through public statements and table resolutions that are put forth each year. A main focus on the nuclear front will be the process to establish a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, as the first official conference to discuss the matter is expected to be held in Helsinki in the next few months.

Also this week, NATO Defence Ministers will meet on Tuesday and Wednesday. They are expected to discuss defence capabilities and missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has suggested that NATO will attempt to transfer full responsibility to the Afghans by the end of 2014 and expects that NATO defence ministers at this meeting will begin plans to provide training and assistance to Afghan forces beyond 2014. Last time defence ministers met in September (with foreign ministers), the main focus was on engaging with Russia on reductions in its arsenal of non-strategic nuclear weapons, an issue that could perhaps find its way into the agenda this week.

Moving forward, NATO ministers need to adapt to a new form of cooperation as the security climate is visibly changing. In the UK, Defence Minister Philip Hammond has announced that he will engage with French and German counterparts at the NATO defence ministers’ meeting in discussions on the high profile merger of (originally) French and British defence companies-- European Aeronautic, Defence & Space (EADS) and BAE Systems. With tight defence budgets and an economic crunch, Hammond wants to ensure that the merger is beneficial to all parties and protects British defence-industry jobs.

US Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, has stated that at the NATO defence ministers’ meeting he will reinforce the US’ commitment to the NATO mission in Afghanistan and enhancing alliance capabilities in missile defence, cyber security, counterterrorism and non-proliferation of WMD. Today, Panetta is with other senior officials at the Conference of Defence Ministers of the Americas in Uruguay. In a press briefing yesterday he spoke about a new era of security in the Western Hemisphere, with the United States no longer acting as the sole provider of security and the development of new partnerships in the Americas.

Next week, the Scottish National Party Convention will convene and debate the Party’s position on NATO membership in the case of Scottish independence. The issue of an independent Scotland’s relationship to UK and NATO nuclear weapons is likely to heavily influence the vote.

These are the personal views of the author.