Gun Running: New Prospects towards Silencing the Weapons, Dr. Robert Zuber

18 Nov

Ignore those that make you fearful and sad, that degrade you back towards disease and death. Rumi Jalalud-Din

Why do we call all our generous ideas illusions and the mean ones truths?  Edith Wharton

Grief does not change you.  It reveals you.  John Green

Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.  George Bernard Shaw

This past week, I was honored to team-teach a course at the NATO School, located in the German Alps.  The School attracts military and diplomatic personnel from NATOs 29 members, but also from other states which are considering membership or which have training needs that cannot routinely be fulfilled at national level.

To say the least, NATO isn’t the usual stomping grounds for Global Action.  Indeed, we were one of the voices (rightly or not) that questioned the existence of NATO as the Cold War subsided, assuming that the continued existence of such a partisan, militarily-focused organization in the absence of a clear security threat (“enemy” as they would say) would likely stoke future tensions as sustain their elimination.

And then Crimea happened, and whatever we imagined to be the trajectory for a thaw in global tensions had to be recalibrated.  Moreover, and despite the occasional Russia-obsessive policy responses within NATO countries, there appeared other visible, credible threats to international peace and security in the form of climate degradation, famine in Yemen, insurgencies across the Sahel, DPRK missile launches as well as nationalist and racialist resurgences inside several NATO states on both sides of the Atlantic.

And then there are the weapons which we continue to develop and then deploy in every corner of our proximate universe: modernized nuclear weapons, weapons in outer space, autonomous weapons, new generations of rapid-firing small arms, more target-efficient shoulder mounted weapons, all of which push from prominence previous generations of arms, weapons that are still deadly, still a major generator of grief in our communities, still threatening to civilians and protection forces alike.

The concept note for the course stressed two matters seemingly unrelated but integral nonetheless.  The first is an opening to leverage the impact of a large alliance that NATO created in June at the review of the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons, an opening for greater collaborative engagement as stressed in the statement written by the widely-respected Roman Hunger (also the primary director for this NATO course).  The second piece is the recognition that our agreements and resolutions, at the UN and beyond, have largely failed to alleviate a problem that seems to get more serious by the month – weapons being “improved”, trafficked over borders and through port facilities, leaked from storage, sold on the black market and on the dark web, printed 3-D or created as “craft weapons” or improvised explosives.  This arms activity creates gaps between what we have promised global constituents and what we have so far been able to deliver.  It is this need for better “promise keeping” together with enhancing prospects for NATO as an honest broker on arms production, destruction and trade within its alliance that created the incentive for our own participation.

Our group of 18 consisted of active military and equally active diplomats.   NGOs and NATO representatives were brought in to cover both the status of international small arms agreements and the “state of play” on technical matters from arms destruction and landmine clearance to addressing arms trafficking and the need for more comprehensive data on arms movements, especially in areas such as the Balkans where circulating arms too-often seem to hone in on unauthorized and unstable users.  We also spent time on the gendered dimensions of the arms trade in the process reaffirming the non-negotiable premise that all security sector dimensions must be better balanced by gender.

As one might expect, there were disagreements among participants regarding where and how to push, largely due to their positioning in the world.   While diplomats wrestled with how to better engage NATO in all areas of disarmament, including in the often-neglected area of small arms, active duty military had a somewhat different interest – how to protect themselves and those they in turn were tasked with protecting from small arms ambushes or makeshift explosive devices while on patrol.   Some of these differences of focus were narrowed during “syndicate” meetings which allowed participants and their “coaches” to debate and share recommendations for NATO on how the world we collectively inhabit can be made safer, fairer and more fulfilling for persons within and beyond the NATO orbit.

Perhaps the one thread that most linked course discussions beyond the weapons themselves was the need for accurate, timely data on small arms throughout their (often lengthy) life cycle.  Given the vast numbers of “second hand” weapons that have been dumped on our streets and in otherwise unstable societies, and given the “lust” of governments (of more or less corrupt dispositions) for state-of-the-art armaments, the challenges of monitoring weapons flows, weapons storage and weapons availability is vast.  Once ammunition is thrown into this mix — and as the “oxygen” of weaponry it needs to be there — these data challenges merely multiply.

Two highlights (for me) emerged from the many insights in our discussions. First, that while data is essential to evidence-based policy, we might also consider producing a “user’s manual” for data in terms of its reliability, its comprehensiveness of scope and relevant disaggregation, its timeliness in unfolding ever-evolving security contingencies.  In addition, as noted by one of the more senior military officials in the course, we must ensure that data does not become a substitute for action or even an impediment to it.   Getting the numbers right and getting the world right are overlapping but not identical tasks.

The other learning of high note had to do less with numbers and weapons, and more with ourselves.  We seem now to have greater insight into our tools and toys than the humans behind the controls.  We routinely have better success (though not enough of it) manipulating the outside world than fixing our inner spaces.  We recognized through this course that, regardless of our disarmament views, we must do a better job of ensuring that future procurement is relevant to civilian protection, a better job of making security from weapons fully beholden to the goal of security for communities.

This weekend before boarding a plane for home, I was privileged to visit the Alte Pinakothek in Munich and its extraordinary collection of paintings by Rubens, including one of his “Allegory of Peace” series along with many other of his graphic images of war and even interpretations of Armageddon that routinely sent shivers down my spine. Yes, we might indeed have come a considerable way as a species in terms of our thirst for violence, lust and revenge, but we have also created new threats to our very existence that we have not properly prepared for.  Moreover, whether we like to acknowledge it or not, we are in the midst of a cynical cycle of half-hearted actions and half-baked solutions.  More than we might recognize, we need to find the path to believe again in life-upholding change, to reaffirm our ability to prevent and transform threats of violent conflict.  We need to believe that the thin coating of civilization that barely now protects us from the worst of our predatory impulses can be fortified and made more sustainable with additional layers of varnish.

Our best impulses on moving (carefully as many of our students warned)  to a world of fewer arms made, fewer arms sold, fewer arms trafficked, fewer arms used to intimidate and abuse are not at all “illusions.”  These impulses are necessary to creating stable environments from which we can address our other sustainable goals commitments – from governments we can trust to oceans that can continue to support the life on which we all depend.   Terror and other threats notwithstanding, these and related promises simply will not come to pass at the tip of a gun.  For all the weapons we have convinced ourselves we need, we will never be able to shoot our way to a sustainable future for our children.  Our grief will some day overcome us if we think otherwise.

What became clear from this course amidst all the technical guidance and skepticism about peaceful change is that the ingredients to sustain ourselves and our planet are still available to us.  Our task now is in part about us:  to refuse to settle, to ask the next questions, to keep pulling metaphorical spices from the shelves until the recipe for our common survival is satisfying for all.   We can do this, but it will take more caring and flexibility from each of us in all our diverse deployments, more resistance to the current degrading of our humanity which promises little more for our common future than “disease and death.”

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