John Burroughs

The Declaration of Independence refers to a “decent respect for the opinions of mankind.” A central setting now for the registering of the opinions of humankind is the UN General Assembly. Every year, the General Assembly adopts scores of resolutions on disarmament and security, calling for UN member states to negotiate treaties or take other actions on a wide range of matters. And every year for many years now, the United States has distinguished itself by opposing many of the resolutions.

During the Bush administration, that trend has accelerated, and it was especially marked in votes on December 6 as described in a UN press release. As Michael Spies comments in a piece entitled “Growing U.S. Isolation at the United Nations on Disarmament and Security,” on December 6 the United States cast the lone “no” vote on 12 of 54 resolutions, and opposed 26 of the 54. Among the resolutions where the United States stood alone in opposition were ones on control of small arms, promoting development through disarmament, and prevention of weaponization of outer space. (See table at end of “Growing U.S. Isolation”; see also First Committee Monitor.)

On nuclear weapons resolutions, the United States was in very poor company indeed. Only the United States and North Korea voted “no” on the resolution calling for bringing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty into effect, reflecting the Bush administration opposition to ratification of the treaty following the Senate’s failure to approve it in 1999. Another example is the “Renewed Determination Towards the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons” resolution, as to which the only no votes came from the United States, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Virtually all governments supported the resolution, including close U.S. allies like Britain and Japan. It calls for holdout nations like the United States to ratify the nuclear test ban treaty, negotiation of a ban on production of plutonium and enriched uranium for weapons, a diminishing role of nuclear weapons in security policies, reduced operational status of nuclear forces, and verified and irreversible reductions of nuclear arsenals leading to elimination.

The General Assembly gets little attention in this country. The media and elites view it as a “talk shop,” as opposed to the Security Council, largely U.S. controlled, which can back up its edicts with sanctions and even military action. But activists and the public should become more informed about the General Assembly. It’s mostly true that it’s a “talk shop,” but it’s an important one: it’s where the opinions of the world’s nations are expressed, they’re usually opinions that should be acted upon, and they’re often consistent with the positions of Americans as shown by polling data.