Guns and Roses: The UN Delivers Uneven Messaging on Disarmament and Development, Dr. Robert Zuber

25 May

The week just ended did not always bode well for the United Nations in its efforts to find meaningful consensus on core issues affecting the health and sustainability of our planet.

On Thursday, the co-chairs of Intergovernmental Negotiations on the Post-2015 Development Agenda – Ambassadors Kamau and Donoghue — were subject to some serious blow-back on their efforts to prepare a document on Sustainable Development Goals that would be fit for inspection by Heads of State when they come to New York for the opening of the UN General Assembly in September.  The co-chairs attempt was to lightly edit the outcome document, eliminating un-clarities and even blank spaces where data should have been inserted, such that heads of state could concentrate on endorsing obligations rather than searching for missing text.

Nevertheless, one by one, the G-77 and China, the African Group, CARICOM, the Arab Group and others urged the co-chairs to accept and pass along to the President of the General Assembly the negotiated consensus document intact, even with its obvious flaws.   For this majority of states, reopening agreed text means also reopening opportunities for the large powers to manipulate outcomes and meanings.  The related discussion within Conference Room 4 on the use of “vulnerable groups” was valid at one level – it is important in our deliberations and the actions they set in motion to avoid the stigmas of group labeling  – but this concern was interpreted by many in the room as also an issue of trust more than content.

This (largely rhetorical) lack of trust, even in a process overseen by such highly respected diplomats, was evident in other areas of UN activity.  For instance, in the UN Security Council, the current president (Lithuania) struggled to gain support for a far-reaching resolution on small arms that incorporated some important dimensions (including robust gender perspectives) to help address the scourge of illicit weapons. Lithuania made the strongest possible case for why the UN system needs to place more emphasis on addressing illicit arms flows and the massive community-level violence that follows from any collective failures in this area.

The resolution that Lithuania championed certainly made progress in sharpening our understanding of the deep dysfunction caused by so many weapons in the ‘wrong hands,’ and in its suggestions for how to strengthen arms embargoes and work more effectively with other UN agencies. But this process was also bogged down in controversy – related to the unwillingness of the US and others to allow the resolution to explicitly reference “non-state actors” in its prohibitions – that caused an extraordinary number of Council members to abstain during the vote.  There was also, at least from our viewpoint, confusion among some Council members as to whether our remedial strategies are up to the global challenges posed by illicit small arms. This confusion was evidenced in part by excessive referencing to the Arms Trade Treaty, a limited process that is not yet ready for prime time and that, at its best, will restrict the intended destinations of manufactured arms without impacting either their quantity or their lethal potential.  Other referenced response options, including marking, tracing and stockpile management commonly associated with the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms, are equally valuable and equally works in progress.

The US, which in the minds of some shed its ‘shadow’ oversight of UN weapons-related architecture this week — preferring instead to point aggressive fingers at states that it felt tried to ‘sabotage’ progress – made clear that the small arms resolution is a significant, if tentative step forward. What the US did not mention, and caused others to wonder about, is that the P-3 role in the resolution controversy might be an effort to assert a “right” to arm non-state groups serving national interests based on distinctions between terrorists and “legitimate” opposition forces.  Trust issues perhaps emanating from such an alleged “right” motivated some Council members to question (unfairly) the legitimacy of the resolution itself, but certainly motivated a critique of Council working methods that left, once again, some members shaking their heads while the P-3 questioned the flexibility and good faith of all but themselves.

Finally it was not until late in the evening of May 22 when delegates completed the task of tossing flowers on the grave of the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Amidst various accusations from Canada, the UK and other states about which delegations ‘wrecked’ the conference, it had been clear for some days that the ‘wreck’ had already occurred.   The tentative hope for a Middle East WMD Free Zone, the avalanche of energy around the allegedly ‘new’ humanitarian initiative, the unprecedented Marshall Islands lawsuit, none of this had power to overcome legacies of bad faith that have long since blocked meaningful progress towards fulfillment of the NPT’s disarmament pillar.    Even if Egypt and the US had been able to suspend their spitting fight long enough to agree to some sort of deal that both shed light on Israel’s nuclear arsenal and preserved the US’s pride of place as facilitator of the Zone process, the lack of progress on disarmament would have placated few of the diplomats and even fewer NGO participants.  The absence of both urgency and flexibility by at least a few key states cast a dark shadow over the UN system that no amount of finger-pointing by Nuclear Weapons States or their NAM counterparts could hope to lift.

The ‘step by step’ approach advocated by the P-3 could be useful inasmuch as it creates the prospect of feedback loops to help assess progress, to ensure that we don’t stubbornly adhere to a policy that has been found to undermine the very goals it seeks to achieve. But in a UN context, step-by-step is more often a formula for institutional and diplomatic inertia, a systemic failure to match urgency with initiative.   We should avoid as much as we are able recklessness in our movements, but global events compel us to move.  Global citizens beg us to move. Apparently, Paper Smart misplaced that memo.

When we as a collective body cannot figure out how to push forward on urgent matters threatening the planet, the odds are that mixed motives are in play.   They were in play as the post-2015 negotiating sessions moved forward on a final text.  They were in play as Lithuania tried to ‘herd cats’ towards an agreement on small arms that generated some suspicion but avoided direct opposition.  They were certainly in play in the NPT as states – especially the P-5 — once again asserted the primacy of their own security interests over the increasingly clear and compelling disarmament interests of the global public.

The lessons for the week are as mixed as the outcomes.   Despite the fussing, the GA president will get a set of development goals and objectives to present to heads of state.  Moreover, the process will come attached to metrics and mechanisms for assessment and funding that can help us honor commitments made to end poverty, heal the planet, unleash the talents of women and indigenous people, and much more.

On small arms, Lithuania’s resolution adds good value, specifically in its gender referencing, more effective sanctions,and unusually warm and supportive regard for the parts of the UN system already tasked with many important activities related to small arms flows.   What role the heavily-referenced Arms Trade Treaty will play remains to be seen, though delegations are urged to revisit some of its intrinsic limitations – some significant– that will require a great deal of complementary work from other disarmament stakeholders if we are indeed serious about controlling arms flows.

On nuclear weapons, despite the contention of some states and NGOs of a “humanitarian tidal wave” that will overcome the objections of stiff-necked nuclear weapons powers, we are still in need of combined and multiple strategies that not only link legal, political, moral and humanitarian advocates but that create venues for discourse that are broad and kind, and that help widen circles of concern far beyond what the nuclear disarmament field has achieved to date.  We have our doubts about these possibilities, but also trust many of the diplomats and NGOs seeking to ensure security based on the least possible levels of armament.

What is probably not in doubt, however, is that a week of sometimes head-scratching objections, half-measures and outright disrespect has not raised levels of public endearment regarding the UN system.  We wasted vast quantities of time, energy and money of diplomats and NGOs; we insulted the honor and dignity of our political friends and opponents; we failed to match the urgency of our analysis with commensurate remedial measures.

We all need a bit of rest and then return to the UN ‘armed’ with more roses and fewer weapons, ready to do better than “mixed messaging” to persons facing security threats and development deficits who need more from us than we have so far been able to provide.

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