Sounds of Silence: Low Level Energy for a High Level Opportunity

2 Jul

On July 2, the GA president’s office and UNODA conferred a preparatory session for diplomats whose governments are expected to attend the high level summit on nuclear disarmament to be held on September 26 at UN headquarters.

The briefing included discussion of efforts to attract “regionally balanced” heads of state to headline the gathering, the need for time constraints on delegate presentations, and the possibility of having short presentations from civil society near the close of the day-long discussions.

Responses from the delegations who attended (there was limited P-5 involvement) were few and far between.  Speaking on behalf of the NAM, Indonesia made welcome reference to the possibility that the event will send a “strong political message” on the need for continued scrutiny and movement on nuclear disarmament.  The Nigerian delegation, speaking on behalf of the Africa Group, reminded delegates that the “only solution” to the threat of nuclear weapons is their elimination and complete disavowal of use.   The Nigerian delegate also mentioned the need to promote more WMD-free zones (such as in the Middle East) and to strengthen those zones that already exist.

After these statements, the room fell silent.    The briefing was adjourned in less than 25 minutes much to the surprised of onlookers – and even the security guards!

In our many presentations here at headquarters and in the field, we have learned to interrogate audience silence.  There are times when silence means satisfaction.  The audience has gotten what they need from the event and energy is now shifting to their next responsibilities. Silence might also indicate some confusion about expectations, specifically regarding the need for delegations to respond directly to specific proposals from the GA president’s office.  If indeed there was some confusion about expectations, the silence in the Trusteeship Council Chambers would then seem more appropriate.   Diplomats, after all, rarely speak out in situations where they are not prepared to adequately represent the policies of their respective missions.

Silence can also indicate disinterest, a polite but disengaged response to what is being shared or proposed.  At the UN, especially, it is highly unusual for delegations to publicly question the relevance of a briefing or other event, even if they were hoping for or expecting more.   Diplomats are skilled at endurance through multiple events – even on disarmament – that they might otherwise interpret as not of personal interest nor relevant to their missions.   The fact that this meeting was virtually bereft of inspiration contributed to our concern that the energy of the room might reflect something more troublesome than polite attentiveness to high level logistics.

Those of us who are deeply involved with First Committee diplomats and issues certainly hope that this last interpretation of ‘silence’ is not pertinent here.   Despite some understandable frustrations with the UN’s disarmament machinery, most participating diplomats understand well the stakes of September 26 for international security.   While none of us know when we will reach the breaking point on resistance to nuclear disarmament, a high level event such as this can certainly move us closer.  It must be given every opportunity to do so.

The silence in Tuesday’s briefing was deafening.   The volume needs to be turned up much louder in September.

Dr. Robert Zuber

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