Measuring Stick: Keeping Track of Disarmament Progress

12 Oct

At the opening of the General Assembly First Committee last Tuesday morning, and reinforced at a side event later in the day hosted by New Zealand and with the participation of Mexico, Indonesia and the First Committee Chair, High Commissioner for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane made several upbeat, and even hopeful statements regarding the possibility of progress in both the machinery and objectives of disarmament affairs.

Two statements struck us as particularly pertinent, the first of which is her quite correct contention that there is an important relationship between progress on disarmament and the successful pursuit of other core UN goals.  This of course requires more dialogue between and amongst the goal setters. During this month, other General Assembly committees as well as the Security Council, UNODC and other agencies are addressing policy on terrorism and foreign fighters, stable and peaceful societies, strengthening the rule of law, rapid response peacekeeping, the trafficking in arms and drugs, and other issues that have important perspectives to contribute to First Committee deliberations.  As we have noted over and over in this blog, relegating disarmament discussions to one GA committee creates temptation to needless reiteration and even robs discussions of some of their urgency.  Aside perhaps from discussions on humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons, the compelling responsibilities to reduce weapons transfers, eliminate needless weapons spending and stop illicit weapons flows are often more keenly felt in these other security-related discussions.

The other intriguing statement by Ms. Kane focused on progress in developing “metrics” to guide and measure progress on the implementation of various disarmament resolutions and treaties. We need, she noted, significantly more in the way of results-based implementation.

Indeed we do. Her emphasis on metrics adds significant value.  We have long argued that, especially in the context of the Programme of Action (PoA) on Small Arms and Light Weapons, more disclosure of successful initiatives and less normative posturing would contribute much to confidence building in conventional weapons – confidence in the quality of interventions generated by the PoA and confidence in the ability of the entire UN system – including its often beleaguered disarmament machinery — to leverage meaningful progress on weapons spending and weapons systems.

But there are issues here as well that require some attention moving forward.  First, we need to maintain clear distinctions between outcomes and impact.   For many years, I ran a food pantry in an East Harlem neighborhood, the objective of which was not to pass out groceries – which we did in large amounts — but to use food security as a lever to enhance the health and participation of the community. That we did not always succeed at this was a failure of skill and stamina, probably mine specifically.   But we never confused full grocery bags with any outcome that was related to the achievement of full and meaningful lives.

Donors in many sectors are increasingly driven by ‘numbers’ which sometimes indicate and sometimes belie impact.  In its recent statement announcing cuts in its contributions to the UN budget, Norway underscored that its preferred development strategy must become driven by metrics that are more about impact than piling up statistics.  While we hope that Norway reconsiders levels of its general contribution to the UN, its point is well taken. The point of diplomatic and capacity support is not activity to generate numbers but meaningful, sustainable progress towards a more peaceful, stable existence for more of the world’s people.

Second, there are dimensions of metrics in this instance that go beyond ticking the boxes of disarmament progress, one of which has to do with a full accounting of stakeholders and responsible parties.   It is important not to horde credit for disarmament progress any more than we should horde information regarding ‘best practices’ on reducing or eliminating the impacts of specific weapons.  With all of the crises we face related to weapons, we must steadfastly resist any temptation to marginalize state and non-state actors willing to help address these challenges.

A potential example of misplaced metrics in this sense is a large and quite attractive display that can now be seen near the Vienna Café in the newly renovated General Assembly building.   The display marks the successful entry into force of the Arms Trade Treaty and is essentially a series of multi-lingual aspirations by government officials and select members of the NGO Control Arms about how the ATT is poised to become a ‘game changer’ when it comes to saving lives at risk from illicit transfers.

Putting aside the excessive claims of treaty impact that so often accompany the ATT sales force, the otherwise welcome display misrepresents – miscounts if you will – the footprint of a single NGO coalition and a handful of “supportive’ states in bringing the ATT into force.   As someone who watched and weighed in for many years as the ATT process took shape, who contributed daily to an ATT Monitor whose impact on the negotiations was considerable at least for some states, and who was in regular contact with NGOs in Geneva and in diverse global regions trying to knock down the ‘gates’ of policy access, I have some sense of how much more this display left out than it included.

In addition, I distinctly recall discussion and negotiating rooms over many years filled with diplomats from states far beyond the handful of (mostly benevolent, enthusiastic, well-meaning) co-sponsors.  Simply put, this treaty could not exist without these states as well and their many hours of deliberative investment. Indeed, from our reading it was the states who raised (what we felt were) often valid concerns, rejecting the easiest and most immediate consensus, that helped make this a better treaty in some significant aspects that it would have been otherwise. As we move beyond entry into force, some of these states (and civil society groups) still need convincing on one or more key points, and these concerns should remain tethered to the Treaty implementation process.

Let me be clear.  GAPW would never agree to be the focal point of any display on any of the issues with which it is concerned.  However, we do recognize that, states have the right to fund NGOs and even to brand them in UN spaces if they so choose.   But in the case of disarmament or any other field of UN activity, such branding comes with a reminder that metrics is more than counting the equivalent of grocery bags – it is also about assisting as best we can in all its aspects related to the building self-sufficient and resilient lives.  And it is about acknowledging to the best of our ability diverse and even essential contributions to complex processes beyond the most obvious and best funded suspects.

Dr. Robert Zuber

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