An Open Letter to UN Permanent Representatives — Give the Disarmament Commission Another Chance

20 Mar

Editor’s note:  For many years, GAPW has lamented the decline in productivity of the UN Disarmament Commission.  Given some recent hopeful signs in disarmament and the fact that the DC is in the third year of a 3 year policy cycle, we believe that the upcoming UNDC is an opportunity for meaningful deliberations warranting the attention of diplomatic missions that might well choose to put their energies elsewhere. 

Excellencies:

As most of you are aware, April 7 marks the beginning of the 2014 UN Disarmament Commission, the third year of its current policy cycle.   Ambassador Drobnjak has met with delegates to brief them on his own hopes and expectations for the three-week session and will convene another preparatory meeting on March 24. As he does so, we recall Ambassador Grima’s assertion from last April that the 2013 session did much to rebuild trust among delegations as a precondition for meaningful deliberations on nuclear disarmament and confidence building in the field of conventional weapons. This assertion may be as much an aspiration as a fact, but Ambassador Grima’s words at the very least underscore the need for more trustbuilding in disarmament matters as well as to increase the resolve of the UNDC to ‘test’ strategies that can build even more trusting and policy-effective relations among delegations tasked with disarmament matters.

Excellencies, this letter is a request to all of you to consider supporting another push for effectiveness in the UNDC in April, prioritizing time and energy from your missions to help support the possibility of deliberative movement that can provide real guidance to First Committee delegates. The UNDC now stands at risk of being overtaken by events as governments and civil society increasingly look outside the UN for the means to carry forward focused and technical deliberations on critical and emerging disarmament issues. A successful UNDC, resulting in clear if modest recommendations, can help erase the frustration of many inside and outside the UN that our disarmament structures are now simply and stubbornly inflexible.  

We recognize the challenge in asking for this commitment.  Our sense while speaking with many representatives of missions is that the UNDC feels too much like a long and tedious obligation that, as we all acknowledge, has failed to produce tangible results in many years.  GAPW has noted with concern many changes in the makeup of delegations to the UNDC over the years, the smaller numbers of diplomats who make the trip from Geneva or national capitals, the reduced ranks of diplomats assigned to cover the DC and its working groups, especially after the formal statements have been concluded.

With all that delegations need to accomplish on issues ranging from disabilities and the status of women to atrocity crime prevention and post-2015 development goals — not to mention other disarmament obligations — it is understandable that many of you would choose to minimize mission involvement in such a protracted and, especially in recent years, largely unfulfilling process.  But we also recognize that disarmament structures have undergone change in the past, they can be changed again, and it is worth our while to seize current opportunities to change them further.

As you all know, the UNDC is a deliberative body not a negotiating body.  It makes political judgments regarding the best paths forward on disarmament but neither creates nor endorses binding agreements. As such, there is little pressure regarding the establishments of precedents in disarmament negotiations, important given that the UNDC will be followed this year by the precedent-laden NPT review and the 5th Biennial Meeting of States on Small Arms.   In addition, there is little pressure for the UNDC to issue comprehensive guidelines on disarmament matters.  Concrete, if modest, suggestions for how to move disarmament processes forward would be both sufficient and welcome.   As much as the global public craves solutions on disarmament matters, they can be provisionally satisfied with tangible policy movement of the sort that should by now be the UNDC’s specialized domain.

Failure to use this final year of the UNDC’s cycle to productive ends will further erode delegate interest.  It will increase the likelihood that states will no longer see the value in funding these sessions.  And, perhaps most important, failure of the UNDC might well encourage the Security Council to take up disarmament more frequently as a thematic consideration in a manner that marginalizes GA initiatives. The apparent inability of yet another GA process to live up to expectations will only embolden those who see the Council and the Council alone as the only effective body to take up these concerns.

GAPW’s clear position is that we need to keep disarmament firmly as a GA function.  But we also need to demonstrate that GA disarmament structures, especially the UNDC, can be less prone to gridlock or held hostage to an inflexible view of ‘consensus’ that belies the UNDC’s purely deliberative functions.  With all that is taking place inside and outside the UN, it is no longer clear that the UNDC will continue to have a key role in disarmament affairs if we cannot take measures now to make modest, limited recommendations to other parts of the GA which are more directly responsible for establishing and promoting disarmament obligations.

Excellencies, with all due respect for the multiple, important agendas taking up the time of you and your mission colleagues, we urge you to give ample attention to this session of the DC. We have noted with deep appreciation recent “openings” on regulating the global arms trade, fact-based discussion on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, hopeful collaborations among states as part of the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms, Iran’s still-tentative recalibration of its own nuclear ambitions, efforts to address the impact of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, building transparency and confidence in outer space activities, and more.  With all that is now attempting to bloom, this could also be the season when we can replace structural immovability with a more flexible and collaborative tone.  This could be the year for deliberation that yields suggestions for moving forward on disarmament obligations that people worldwide are yearning to see.

Excellencies, you have assurances of our highest consideration as well as our support as the UNDC navigates its current challenges and opportunities.

Dr. Robert Zuber

zuber@globalactionpw.org

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