FES’s Fall Academy Takes on Disarmament Issues

14 Nov

Editor’s Note:  The following was presented on a panel organized by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung as part of their excellent, annual Fall Academy.

I have been asked this year by Volker Lehman of FES to do something different than in years past, not to speak so much about the NGO community at the UN — about which I am not always a huge fan – but to provide a critical perspective on the work of disarmament led by folks such as Fikry Cassidy of Indonesia and Thomas Markram, of UN Disarmament Affairs , two people I have known for some time and respect greatly.

Being critical, of course, does not mean being negative.   We’ve certainly butted heads in the past with a number of delegations and with disarmament affairs, and that isn’t likely to change.   We take peace and security challenges seriously; we know many people worldwide who have suffered devastating consequences when those challenges are not taken seriously enough. We make no apologies for insisting – including insisting of ourselves – that these challenges are taken up with as much serious and wise purpose as possible.

That said, most of our relationships with governments here in New York and with Secretariat officials, are quite positive.   We deeply value what they do.   Most diplomats work very hard,  harder on average than many of the NGOs trying to sell them on one policy or another.   We respect and honor their commitment, even when we differ on the paths chosen or on the assessment of our results.

We (GAPW) are an office completely independent of government and UN money.   We give the best advice we can give, we do it privately whenever possible, and we blend advice with concern about the lives people here are living, the personal sacrifices they often make to be here.   Sometimes our ideas are good; sometimes they are just plain nonsense.   But they are as clear, thoughtful and attentive as we can make them.   We know that lives are at stake in the decisions made at headquarters.  We also recognize that we don’t get a vote.   We can help make better decisions, but we don’t make decisions ourselves.

There are three core values that govern our security-related work.   First is the recognition that, as UN-based NGOs, we represent a mere sliver of the global ideas and perspectives that need to find a place at the policy table.  Despite the inferences of too many of my NGO colleagues, this is not about us.  We are not gatekeepers.  As a group of largely white, English speaking offices which are often much too cozy with our government benefactors, we are surely the least diverse pillar of the UN system. There are many governments that rarely if ever see familiar national or ethnic faces at the back of conference rooms.   We can talk more collectively about why that is so.  But believe me, diplomats notice.  And issues like disarmament are impacted by a lack of diverse policy perspectives.

Second, we must recognize that the UN system is fundamentally imbalanced, that the playing field is heavily tilted –even in the Security Council — and that states in control of the game have largely mastered the skill of coercive management out of the spotlight.   Why we value the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) so much, even when we are occasionally  at cross purposes on policy, is that the NAM represents a key, core challenge to the policy inequalities of this system, the degree to which all states at headquarters really don’t play by the same rules.   The implications of this disparity come up in disarmament discussions all the time, as states plead for consistency in application, transparency in motivation, and an even-handed assessment of the implications and power imbalances that will very possibly accrue from our implementation of negotiated agreements.

Third, we recognize the degree to which none of the key weapons-related issues impacting the UN system is likely to be solved until and unless all of the relevant stakeholders are engaged.  For us, that means looking to the many complementary issues and offices that help to define our security commitments. For instance, Illicit small arms fuel violence against women, impede development, keep children at home instead of at school, dampen prospects for the prevention of mass atrocity violence, negatively impact the health of state security sectors, and create cultures of suspicion that ultimately impact other negotiations, such as efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons, efforts which we all agree must remain at the top of the UNs agenda.

A word on the Arms Trade Treaty, which was never conceived as a disarmament treaty per se and on which we worked very hard alongside many diplomats and a couple of the NGOs that considered thoughtfulness a more helpful contribution to Treaty negotiations than cheerleading   There is, all the hype notwithstanding, little reason to believe that this Treaty will result in any significant diminution of arms manufacturing or trade.   The gushing references to the ATT by so many First Committee diplomats is understandable given the success of these negotiations amidst UN disarmament mechanisms that continue to be frozen or rendered virtually irrelevant.   But as with the rest of life, this is a ‘be careful what you wish for’ moment for the UN.  We have a positive outcome over which we all lost lots of sleep.   But it is not a great treaty by UN standards, it does not effectively balance rights and obligations of manufacturers and recipients, it will be challenging to change provisions that turn out to be ineffective once the treaty comes into force, its implications for disarmament are unclear at best, and the opportunity costs of this treaty have been high in terms of energy expended and trust invested.     There is much heavy lifting still to do which will require much sober resolve.  Cheerleading just won’t cut it.

To conclude, we fully acknowledge the right of sovereign states to pursue their own security needs, but our goal is directly tied to the Charter idea of security at the least possible levels of armament.  To achieve this goal, disarmament itself must remain at the forefront of our common policy agenda.  The UN has many gaps in effectiveness to be addressed, and weapons have for too long been the vehicles through which states have pursued both domestic and cross-border interests.  We are convinced that these gaps can be filled, the playing field can be leveled, and thus states will find more and more reasons to embrace collective security with the same fervor that they now embrace its national equivalents.  For as long as our office exists, these are the goals and the hopes that will guide our activities and recommendations.

Dr. Robert Zuber

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