Fair and Balanced: Shifting Canons of Expertise in Disarmament Affairs, Dr. Robert Zuber

6 Apr

After a fairly lengthy hiatus, disarmament is returning to center stage at the UN.

Delegations have been at work making logistical sense of Arms Trade Treaty implementation (a potentially useful process but not about disarmament per se). Now they return to issues and processes that can hopefully have a more direct impact on the vast quantities of illicit weapons that proliferate amongst the world’s hotspots, and that continue to undermine development priorities and threaten escalations of violence by both governments and insurgencies.

As many diplomats recognize, there are virtually no conflicts occurring anywhere on this planet that are not encouraged and/or exacerbated by the readily available supply of lethal weapons, arms that mostly defy efforts to regulate them, especially in those states that no longer enjoy the broad trust of their people.  The trafficking of (mostly secondhand) weapons is surely at least as pressing a matter for states as the diversion of newly minted weapons from the major arms manufacturers.  Drastic reductions in arms production would, of course, be highly beneficial to eliminating trafficking and diversion alike.

So what is to be done about all this?   Current options don’t always inspire hope. For instance, the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament has been stalemated for years and has even lost the interest of Reaching Critical Will, a primary monitor of CD developments.   Here in New York, the Disarmament Commission opening in a few short hours has some diplomats reaching for the antacid bottles as they struggle to overcome weapons-related trust issues while mastering their deliberative mandate. The NPT Review Conference will begin at month’s end with delegations and NGOs already downplaying its potential significance, and this despite the news that a framework agreement has been reached between the P5+1 and Iran regarding the latter’s nuclear program.   Apparently, a ‘victory’ on nuclear non-proliferation is insufficient to generate enthusiasm from those same negotiating states on the much weightier (and arguably more urgent) matter of nuclear disarmament.   In this light we applaud the efforts of the New Agenda Coalition and others to keep our focus squarely on eliminating the weapons in our own arsenals that we work so hard to deny to others.

Despite the ossified structures, discouraging sessions and one-sided diplomatic investments, there were two small breakthrough moments this past week in the disarmament community that bear noting.  One of these came on Friday at a preparatory meeting chaired by Moldova’s Amb. Lupan for the June Meeting of Government Experts (MGE2) that brings diplomats and others together to tackle technical challenges associated with implementation of the UN Programme of Action (UNPoA) on Small Arms and Light Weapons.

On this occasion, much discussion had to do with ways to include (or not) industry representatives and civil society in MGE2.  Most of the delegations that weighed in supported broad participation with the European Union offering its support in the context of seeking assurances that delegations will have access to the most current issues and technologies on arms control.  Amb. Lupan suggested that industry make their inputs directly through their state representatives.  Iran noted the ‘political’ nature of much of the global business community and Russia wondered aloud about the need for civil society participation at a technical gathering like MGE2, but agreed to ‘compromise’ on that position.   In the end, we got a mixture of broad support (which we appreciate) and some lingering suspicion (which we mostly understand).

But there was another dimension to this discussion beyond participation, and this about the nature of ‘expertise’ itself.   We have high regard for the UNGA First Committee delegates, one of our most fruitful institutional exchanges.  But when states such as Japan remind delegates of the highly technical nature of marking, tracing, stockpile management and other PoA related activities, it begs the question as to which of us in that conference room has what it takes to contribute to those kind of conversations at a level demanded by those objectives?   Certainly GAPW is not equipped to do so.

This matter of balancing expertise and participation came up as well in the (sparsely attended) Mine Action Week events sponsored by UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS)  which were filled with stories of extraordinary local courage as well as promptings by diplomats to make mine removal an occasion for more development of and engagement within diverse communities.    When it comes to mine removal activities, who exactly are the ‘experts’ here?  Who understands best the social contexts, terrain and even the mindset of those seeking to consolidate ‘high stakes’ territorial gains through the deployment of landmines?  Indeed, Japan as a major funder of UNMAS called for a ‘bottom up’ approach to policy and practice on landmines that honors the “expertise” of those who are actually succeeding in this enormously challenging but hopeful task.  For those used to disarmament discussions that end in despair over structure, language and political will, the metrics pertaining to removed mines, treaty ratifying states, and available local expertise were all quite gratifying.

Interestingly, calls for honoring the knowledge base of local persons without insisting on a bevy of technical diplomas echoed across the UN this week.  In ECOSOC’s integration segment, for instance, several speakers cautioned against fueling our obsession with multiple school credentials for which there is increasingly little need or relevance.   At the same time, speakers called on governments and businesses to look again at segments of the population whose political and vocational participation has long been compromised, a theme that resonated during Friday’s session on “Employment: The Autism Advantage.”

In the case of the UNPoA, this (to our mind at least) important rethinking of our degree and expertise mania is no excuse to undermine proficient interventions on complex matters such as weapons destruction, marking and diversion.  It is however a call to guarantee that the selection process for those making such interventions is both broad and fair.   Ensuring breadth of expertise is critical, especially given the range of persons now who have on-the-ground experience with tasks — such as stockpile management — that the PoA seeks to encourage.   In this light, it was encouraging that Switzerland, Mexico, and others recognized the challenges of a “rapidly evolving” field of small arms control and are seeking diverse and evolving expertise commensurate with those challenges.

In our view, we must encourage commitments for ensuring that expertise in an MGE (or any other disarmament format) pay homage to the diverse backgrounds and experiences of experts.   Too often, when ‘civil society’ participation in invoked, a familiar set of stakeholders comes to mind, stakeholders whose expertise is both considerable and far less than fully inclusive, stakeholders who (to their credit) often have done much to build a stable of local experts whose testimony we then tend to discount. Especially in the area of small arms control, there are many people and organizations, beyond the heavily branded northern groups, who would have much to offer these expert meetings.   The insistence of Guyana, Jamaica and even South Africa that funds should be provided to make this happen was both important and most appreciated.

Once upon a time, men attempted to justify gender-specific canons of expertise on the grounds that ‘we just can’t find enough qualified women.’   Now, anyone making such a claim would be saying much more about their own personal limitations than about objective conditions.   In the same way, the assumption that heavily branded policy groups have some monopoly on PoA-related expertise says more about our conventional (and sometimes self-interested) calculations of the ‘expert’ than it does about the availability of relevant, appropriate skills sets emanating from all global regions.

In this “rapidly evolving” arms control and disarmament scenario, we won’t always know what we need until we need it.   Allowing the canons and backgrounds of our expert pool to evolve as well will help ensure that the disarmament-related needs we will come to identify can be quickly, accurately and fairly addressed.

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One Response to “Fair and Balanced: Shifting Canons of Expertise in Disarmament Affairs, Dr. Robert Zuber”

  1. Marta Benavides April 6, 2015 at 10:38 am #

    DISARMANENT key to development.. SDGs not taking IT fully into account: real name of development is peace, UN must, must be about IT NOW so development is a reality in this life time.

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