Tag Archives: ATT

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

FES’s Fall Academy Takes on Disarmament Issues

14 Nov

Editor’s Note:  The following was presented on a panel organized by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung as part of their excellent, annual Fall Academy.

I have been asked this year by Volker Lehman of FES to do something different than in years past, not to speak so much about the NGO community at the UN — about which I am not always a huge fan – but to provide a critical perspective on the work of disarmament led by folks such as Fikry Cassidy of Indonesia and Thomas Markram, of UN Disarmament Affairs , two people I have known for some time and respect greatly.

Being critical, of course, does not mean being negative.   We’ve certainly butted heads in the past with a number of delegations and with disarmament affairs, and that isn’t likely to change.   We take peace and security challenges seriously; we know many people worldwide who have suffered devastating consequences when those challenges are not taken seriously enough. We make no apologies for insisting – including insisting of ourselves – that these challenges are taken up with as much serious and wise purpose as possible.

That said, most of our relationships with governments here in New York and with Secretariat officials, are quite positive.   We deeply value what they do.   Most diplomats work very hard,  harder on average than many of the NGOs trying to sell them on one policy or another.   We respect and honor their commitment, even when we differ on the paths chosen or on the assessment of our results.

We (GAPW) are an office completely independent of government and UN money.   We give the best advice we can give, we do it privately whenever possible, and we blend advice with concern about the lives people here are living, the personal sacrifices they often make to be here.   Sometimes our ideas are good; sometimes they are just plain nonsense.   But they are as clear, thoughtful and attentive as we can make them.   We know that lives are at stake in the decisions made at headquarters.  We also recognize that we don’t get a vote.   We can help make better decisions, but we don’t make decisions ourselves.

There are three core values that govern our security-related work.   First is the recognition that, as UN-based NGOs, we represent a mere sliver of the global ideas and perspectives that need to find a place at the policy table.  Despite the inferences of too many of my NGO colleagues, this is not about us.  We are not gatekeepers.  As a group of largely white, English speaking offices which are often much too cozy with our government benefactors, we are surely the least diverse pillar of the UN system. There are many governments that rarely if ever see familiar national or ethnic faces at the back of conference rooms.   We can talk more collectively about why that is so.  But believe me, diplomats notice.  And issues like disarmament are impacted by a lack of diverse policy perspectives.

Second, we must recognize that the UN system is fundamentally imbalanced, that the playing field is heavily tilted –even in the Security Council — and that states in control of the game have largely mastered the skill of coercive management out of the spotlight.   Why we value the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) so much, even when we are occasionally  at cross purposes on policy, is that the NAM represents a key, core challenge to the policy inequalities of this system, the degree to which all states at headquarters really don’t play by the same rules.   The implications of this disparity come up in disarmament discussions all the time, as states plead for consistency in application, transparency in motivation, and an even-handed assessment of the implications and power imbalances that will very possibly accrue from our implementation of negotiated agreements.

Third, we recognize the degree to which none of the key weapons-related issues impacting the UN system is likely to be solved until and unless all of the relevant stakeholders are engaged.  For us, that means looking to the many complementary issues and offices that help to define our security commitments. For instance, Illicit small arms fuel violence against women, impede development, keep children at home instead of at school, dampen prospects for the prevention of mass atrocity violence, negatively impact the health of state security sectors, and create cultures of suspicion that ultimately impact other negotiations, such as efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons, efforts which we all agree must remain at the top of the UNs agenda.

A word on the Arms Trade Treaty, which was never conceived as a disarmament treaty per se and on which we worked very hard alongside many diplomats and a couple of the NGOs that considered thoughtfulness a more helpful contribution to Treaty negotiations than cheerleading   There is, all the hype notwithstanding, little reason to believe that this Treaty will result in any significant diminution of arms manufacturing or trade.   The gushing references to the ATT by so many First Committee diplomats is understandable given the success of these negotiations amidst UN disarmament mechanisms that continue to be frozen or rendered virtually irrelevant.   But as with the rest of life, this is a ‘be careful what you wish for’ moment for the UN.  We have a positive outcome over which we all lost lots of sleep.   But it is not a great treaty by UN standards, it does not effectively balance rights and obligations of manufacturers and recipients, it will be challenging to change provisions that turn out to be ineffective once the treaty comes into force, its implications for disarmament are unclear at best, and the opportunity costs of this treaty have been high in terms of energy expended and trust invested.     There is much heavy lifting still to do which will require much sober resolve.  Cheerleading just won’t cut it.

To conclude, we fully acknowledge the right of sovereign states to pursue their own security needs, but our goal is directly tied to the Charter idea of security at the least possible levels of armament.  To achieve this goal, disarmament itself must remain at the forefront of our common policy agenda.  The UN has many gaps in effectiveness to be addressed, and weapons have for too long been the vehicles through which states have pursued both domestic and cross-border interests.  We are convinced that these gaps can be filled, the playing field can be leveled, and thus states will find more and more reasons to embrace collective security with the same fervor that they now embrace its national equivalents.  For as long as our office exists, these are the goals and the hopes that will guide our activities and recommendations.

Dr. Robert Zuber

The UN’s Annual Presidential Party

1 Oct

Sitting across the street from the North Lawn Building at UN Headquarters on a Sunday morning, the neighborhood looks a bit like what I imagine to be a night club at 5AM.   While there are still speeches to be heard and events on migration and other matters to be attended, the limousines have mostly left the streets.  The barricades have largely been dismantled.  The tent through which passed many heads of state and foreign ministers is being carted off.   Tourists are milling around as though anticipating access to spaces that had been shut off from them.

All in all, despite some exhausted security guards and some frayed tempers (including my own) it was a pretty good week.   Iranian president Rouhani’s speech at the High Level event on nuclear disarmament energized discussions with the US that may result in a more cautious and transparent approach to any nuclear ambitions that Iran might have been harboring.  On Syria, Security Council resolution 2118 offers hope for the timely elimination of one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons. It also gives the now splintering opposition some reasonable expectation of a resolution to the conflict that does more than preserve a deadly and destabilizing status quo.

Also, there was abundant energy around the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and, more specifically, a new round of post-2015 goals that are currently being developed.   These events gave opportunity for many segments of the UN leadership and other stakeholders to affirm their commitment to both fulfilling existing development obligations and broadening those obligations after 2015 to benefit more of the world’s population.

Invitations to the many events taking place this week were generously bestowed and our office was fortunate to be able to take advantage of many of those.   The following comments are mostly my own, though they do reflect colleagues’ assessment of some of the other events that we were privileged to attend.

Aside from the infectious enthusiasm in evidence around post-2015 development goals, the human rights-oriented events were perhaps the most satisfying in part because of the willingness of high level speakers to move the discussion beyond narrow disciplinary confines and towards a more complementary human security framework.   Of special note was UN special representative Mary Robinson’s efforts to highlight climate change as a major concern for the human rights community, and USG Adama Dieng’s efforts (with the governments of Belgium and Ghana) to highlight the integrity of elections – beyond ‘free and fair’ – as an important step to keep states from lapsing into conditions ripe for mass atrocity violence.  There were also important discussions held on issues germane to gender justice including an acknowledgment of the broad range of agencies and governments now taking up a gender lens on human security.

By comparison, disarmament remains a bit of a ‘dismal science,’ and there were several events that captured high level attention but might not result in high level attainment.   The High Level event on nuclear disarmament, ably organized by Roman Hunger and the office of the president of the General Assembly, resulted in many sincere speeches by heads of delegations, but covered little new ground.   One of the problems with nuclear disarmament discourse is the degree to which it still remains locked in conceptual silos that keep the issue isolated from a host of development, human rights, small arms and gender considerations to which it is linked and from which it should be drawing (and to which it should be contributing) more support.   We do, indeed, want a world ‘free of nuclear weapons.’   We also want a world free of poverty, discrimination, environmental degradation, gender-based violence, species extinction and much more.   The small numbers of NGOs who gathered in the Trusteeship Council to listen to the nuclear weapons speeches gave evidence that most advocates with access to the Conference Building were content to invest their energy elsewhere.

On small arms and arms trade, the news was a bit better.   The ATT high level event was also conducted in a considerably less than full room with ample celebratory language (especially given that the US earlier in the day signed the treaty) but fewer reminders of the long slog that lies ahead, not only before the treaty enters into force, but in making this particular treaty relevant to efforts to end diverted transfers and, in a larger context, eliminate violence from illicit weapons.   We were also surprised that there were so few references to the UN Trust Facility Supporting Cooperation on Arms Regulation (UNSCAR), a most welcome program underwritten by Australia and Germany to help build capacity support for ATT implementation.

Additionally, in the Security Council, Australia’s leadership was essential to passing resolution 2177, the first time in five years that the Council has taken up the issue of illicit small arms.   Generally speaking, we are skeptical of Council efforts to remain seized of yet another issue as we don’t believe that the degree of the Council’s legislative effectiveness on such issues (not to mention its willingness to ‘play’ collaboratively with other relevant UN stakeholders) has been sufficiently established.  Moreover, the resolution seems to place considerable burden on already overstretched peacekeeping operations to enforce arms embargoes, a move that we can’t imagine was taken based on wild enthusiasm emanating from DPKO.  We hope that the Council will also remain seized of these serious limitations as the resolution moves forward towards implementation.

But the biggest ‘take away’ for me in all these meetings was less about policy and more about psychology. This is the time of year when most of us here at headquarters are reminded of how little we matter in the grand scheme of things.   Governments from capitals run this show, none nearly at the level of the US, but all of them more than the diplomats who populate the missions and certainly more than the NGOs who gather around the gates clamoring for admission to events over which we have virtually no say.  This ought to be a humbling business each and every day, but it is especially hard to escape this feeling during this ‘presidential party’ season at the UN.

Of course, being humble doesn’t mean being silent about what we wish to see beyond what we have seen. Back when I used to attend parties, I took some advantage of the context to let sides of my personality, even my ideas, escape the confines of my emotional habits and need for control.    While the events we attended at the UN last week are probably too ‘public’ for leaders to speak with full frankness and take policy risks that might not play well back home, it would be helpful if at least we could hear more about where government leaders think we’re headed as a global community as well as the priorities of states going forward. Perhaps most importantly, we would all do well to hear more about the concrete and specific contributions that states — all states —  are willing to make to help the ‘world we want’ become the ‘world we have.’

 Dr. Robert Zuber

Signature Moment: A Final Thought on the ATT

2 Jun

On Monday June 3, the Arms Trade Treaty (67/234B) will be officially open for signature at UN Headquarters by all Member States.

On that day, there will be a special event to mark the opening as well as a large celebratory reception that evening. The amount of diplomatic and civil society energy that went into this treaty was considerable and certainly is worth at least a bit of cheer.

Like many others, GAPW devoted considerable amounts of program time to ATT-related matters.  Primarily through the ATT Monitor which we developed and distributed with Reaching Critical Will, we gave what we believed to be thoughtful and attentive analysis to diplomats about the ways in which treaty negotiations could function more smoothly and identified (red) ‘base lines’ that separated a nominally successful treaty from one that, in our view at least, was as likely to do more harm than good.

Those baselines in our view were barely exceeded. The treat that was adopted on April 2 was considerably better than the version which had (thankfully) dodged consensus in July 2012.   The new version boasts many improvements, all of which have been chronicled on our website (www.globalactionpw.org) as well as on the more robust and comprehensive web presence of Reaching Critical Will.

That said, we have many issues with this treaty which we have also enumerated in various publications and policy briefs.   It is not necessarily a ‘game changing’ document, either on substance or on form.   Formally, the treaty does not adhere to the formula of other treaty processes engaged under UN auspices.  It is, as we suggested and as some key diplomats (and even the chair) noted, more like a ‘resolution on steroids’ than a document that has any real prospect of holding arms exporting states accountable to the full range of obligations listed within the ‘criteria’ and other sections of the treaty.

Moreover, this treaty was oversold from the beginning, a function more of the logistics of funding provided to select NGOs by certain states than of sustained, sober reflection on how this process could actually impact armed violence, the precedents it might establish, or the ways in which the UN might once again, rightly or wrongly, be held up to scrutiny as a body resigned to branding over substance.   Enthusiasm has its place but is no substitute for hard, sustained reflection on gaps to be filled and consequences to be anticipated.

Let us be clear once again.  The desire to create and pursue a framework for regulating arms transfers came from a good and caring place.   But that is not the end of the story. That this treaty process has created a legal framework that de facto endorses weapons transfers and which likely served as a distraction from concrete work on transfers policy over the past ten years are, from our standpoint, quite problematic.  That the treaty process also cost us so much – in political capital, in NGO relationships, in institutional credibility, in energy that could have been spent on other important, security-related issues – is a debt load that might take us quite some time to service.

Indeed, the greatest of these challenges for us is that, in pursuing a treaty in this way, we have inadvertently provided a gloss of international law sanction to the practice of weapons transfers, a practice that many of us find inherently problematic despite the UN Charter’s recognition of the right of self-defense.  We may find, assuming that we can eventually find our way back to our proper business of disarmament, that we have undermined any leverage we might otherwise have had to roll back a system that continues to pump millions of weapons into global regions that are not properly equipped to control their uses or trace their movements throughout what are often long life cycles, and with multiple iterations of use.

Weapons diversion is a critical issue for the planet and the treaty does well to highlight this, far better than the July version.   But weapons don’t divert themselves, nor is diversion likely to be as large a problem in situations where weapons transfers have been reduced or even eliminated. It will take much more than a treaty and some enthusiastic branding to build political commitments to eliminate diversion and build security based on the least possible levels of armament. As one diplomat said to us, ‘now that there appears to be legal sanction for transfers, maybe we should get in the arms business ourselves.’  We can only hope that his proverbial tongue stays in his cheek, and that other states are not thinking what he was saying.

To the sponsoring governments, the conventional arms branch of UNODA and funded (and unfunded) NGOs who have all worked hard for this treaty, please enjoy a toast to yourselves on the 3rd.   Given all the uncertainty around long-term costs and consequences, however, GAPW prefers to maintain the more sober approach.  As much as we might be tempted to think otherwise, we are not nearly ‘out of the woods’ on sound policy and practice related to transfers.   Nor have we yet had those difficult conversations with global constituents who were led to expect a treaty that will significantly impact levels of armed violence and reduce levels of transferred weaponry, only to learn that this treaty will be hard pressed to make a dent in either of those noble goals.

There are things to celebrate now, to be sure, but also much for us remaining to do and especially much for us to account for.

Dr. Robert Zuber

Fueling the Syrian Conflict From All Sides

29 May

As the conflict in Syria rages on, ostensibly slipping further and further into an increasingly grievous civil war, the European Union decided on 28 May 2013 to lift an arms embargo thereby allowing for the option to provide arms to the Syrian rebels fighting against President Bashar Al-Assad and his government. The decision to lift the embargo was supported mainly by the UK and France. Catherine Ashton, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, remarked that the non-renewal of the arms embargo comes with certain conditions—weapons can only be sent to the so-called moderate Syrian National Coalition and the affiliated Free Syria Army and can only be used to “protect civilians.” While the embargo sets the stage for weapons transfers to the Syrian rebels, there is no immediate plan to begin authorizations of weapons as the earliest possible time for such transfers would be August 2013 (after a conference is to be held in Geneva next month to negotiate a peace agreement). Nevertheless, this policy change is indeed a worrisome development in the context of a bloody, prolonged, and seemingly intractable civil conflict in a region of unsettling politics and violence. Several countries have rightly argued that more weapons will inevitably mean more death and destruction no matter to which parties to the conflict they are intended.

Particularly in light of the recent adoption of an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) in the UN General Assembly (set to be open for signature next week on 3 June 2013), the dangers of transferring conventional arms to governments (or, in this case, entities) with the potential to violate international humanitarian law, international human rights law, undermine peace and security, or be used to commit acts of gender-based violence or violence against children are highly relevant to the debate over supplying arms to “stabilize” a conflict versus “exacerbating” the violence. The original intent and impetus of an ATT—preventing the human suffering associated with the unregulated and illicit arms trade—are interestingly on display in the Syria case. The human suffering apparent in the Syrian context is indisputable. The UN estimates that nearly 80,000 individuals have died in addition to the dire refugee and displacement crises and the overall disruption of livelihoods. Such violence has been committed with imported (legally and illicitly) weapons of all kinds as arms flow into and within the region. Moreover, the dangers of “legitimate” arms falling into the hands of “non-legitimate” entities are even more severe in the context of Syria given the lack of information on the rebel groups and the instability of the region writ large. The determination of which groups are the “legitimate” representatives of the Syrian people is hardly clear.

Applying the ATT to the Syrian case is not straightforward, but an interesting case study nonetheless. Export assessment criteria represent the linchpin of the ATT operability insofar as these criteria must be examined prior to any arms authorization by the exporting states party. The agreed criteria in the ATT do provide an interesting backdrop to the discussion of whether or not such export authorizations are in line with international legal obligations. Of course, a major difference (and ultimately a major complication and what would seem a “loophole” in the Syria case) that must be noted is that the ATT covers inter-governmental transfers and does not explicitly elaborate on criteria related to transfers to non-state actors. A prohibition against transfers to non-state actors was a hotly debated issue during the ATT negotiations and, ultimately, was not included in the final text. Many of the loudest objectors to the text, including many Arab states and the three states that formally objected to the text at the conclusion of the March 2013 negotiations (the DPRK, Iran, and Syria), noted the absence of this prohibition as a major oversight in the drafting. They noted that although the majority of states called for this prohibition, it was purposefully left out. Therefore, the ATT, even if it had already entered into force and the relevant parties were state parties, would not apply in this case. If instruments such as the ATT are to have a real impact, then treaty criteria must be incorporated into all export decisions and not just those which are explicitly referenced. Otherwise, a policy of criteria avoidance could be easily adopted and implemented.

In the same week that the EU lifted the embargo, the Russian government announced that it would move ahead with the transfer of anti-aircraft missiles to the sitting Syrian government as a “stabilizing factor” that would “deter” foreign intervention into the conflict. It is clear that arming either side—the Assad regime or the rebel groups—is doing little to bring the violence to an end or address the dire humanitarian crisis. The Syrian conflict has ultimately moved from a rebellion to a civil war to a regional war by proxy with external forces such as Iran and Russia eager to counterbalance moves by the EU and the US.

The insertion of more weaponry on either side has little hope for changing the political or practical dynamics of the conflict and, thus, instigating hopes for bringing forth a negotiated peace. As Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted to the Human Rights Council in Geneva recently, “The message from all of us should be the same: we will not support this conflict with arms, ammunition, politics or religion.”


–Katherine Prizeman

UNDC 2013: Memory Lane

19 Apr

Among the proposals emerging from this year’s session of the UN Disarmament Commission (UNDC), there were two that particularly caught our eye. The Swiss proposals presented during the opening exchange of views calling for more involvement by experts in the work of the UNDC is one that Global Action to Prevent War and Armed Conflict (GAPW) has discussed in other commentary and fully supports in practice.

The other proposal that we wished to highlight was provided in a working paper by the Egyptian delegation, often among the most thoughtful delegations on disarmament matters. While their proposals specific to both substantive working groups will no doubt help to frame discussions during the third and final year III of the current UNDC cycle, the opening paragraphs of their paper (A/cn.10/2013/WP.1) are perhaps the most actionable in terms of their implications for the ongoing deliberative potential of the UNDC.

Paragraphs 1 and 2 of the Egyptian paper highlight an ongoing problem for both the UNDC and many other parts of the UN system — a lack of institutional memory.  Given the turnover in diplomatic missions and ODA staff, and given the lack of interest in or invitations to NGO experts with a deep interest in supporting the efforts of the UNDC (Reaching Critical Will and GAPW are generally the only NGO monitors in the room — when we are allowed to be there), it is difficult if not impossible to keep track of what the Egyptian working paper calls “unfinished business,” including both proposals not implemented and consensus not reached.   Aside from information and commentary posted on the Reaching Critical Will, there has been little effort to summarize key discussions, insights or proposals.   As RCW recognizes, it is difficult to “nurture” (to quote the Egyptian paper) new ideas when you can’t remember what those ideas are, let alone track their development.

Delegates with a longer term engagement with the UNDC will recognize the degree to which deliberations have followed a well-worn path. Moreover, the nature of involvement with the UNDC has changed over the years, with fewer delegations consisting of experts from Geneva and more and more of the deliberative burdens falling on already overworked diplomats from New York missions. There has been less and less energy around the UNDC in recent years, which to our mind requires some urgent remedial response. GAPW would like to endorse, consistent with the Swiss and Egyptian proposals, that the UNDC promote side events in partnership with NGO experts to more thoroughly investigate substantive and procedural matters that are germane to the mandate of the UNDC but also at times impede its progress.

It may be, as some NAM-affiliated delegations have suggested, that the UNDC will require a more robust overhaul, perhaps within the context of another Special Session on Disarmament (SSOD IV). But until that issue is resolved, the UNDC would do well to establish procedures for reporting and stakeholder engagement that can preserve institutional memory and allow interested observers in and out of government to track both UNDC progress and impediments over time.

There are, as Egypt notes, some fairly simple ideas that can enrich the experience of the UNDC for both participants and observers.  Having more sets of trusted eyes in the room for future UNDC sessions would certainly help ensure that the best of the Commission deliberations can find more suitable, trustworthy venues where they can be studied, assessed and even acted upon.


–Dr. Robert Zuber

UN Disarmament Commission Concludes Without Consensus Recommendations: Moving Towards Final Year in Review Cycle

19 Apr

The UN Disarmament Commission (UNDC) concluded the second year in its three-year cycle on Friday, 19 April without adoption of consensus recommendations or guidelines. Much of the discourse during the concluding plenary had a positive tone with delegations noting that the work done in the 2013 substantive session will “set the stage” for progress next year, and in his concluding remarks, Chair Ambassador Christopher Grima of Malta called the three-week session “productive” and rich in discussion. Still, it is discouraging that the session could not come to more concrete conclusions.

The 2013 UNDC adopted a procedural report took account of the session’s organization of work, documents submitted by the Secretary-General (the annual report of the Conference on Disarmament) as well as by member states (a working paper from the delegation of Egypt), as well as the reports of the two subsidiary working groups. The delegations of Iran and Algeria underscored that converting the status of the Chairman’s non-papers to a working paper does not set a precedent for future sessions nor does it enjoy consensus. Indeed, both reports of the subsidiary working groups clearly noted that all working papers “do not represent negotiated positions or command consensus and should not set a precedent.”

The culture of stalemate across the UN disarmament machinery cannot afford any further delays.  While the progress made in both working groups of this session on the development of working papers is clear insofar as there is some substantive work upon which to build, it is discouraging that the international community must endure yet another delay of concrete movement forward in any part of the failing multilateral disarmament machinery. As noted by High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane in her opening remarks three weeks ago, the UNDC will be judged not according to its words, but its quality of its outcomes.  Once again, without adoption of recommendation of guidelines, there is little on which to positively assess the UNDC beyond yet another year of national statements and non-consensual working papers.

In the 20 years since its re-establishment in 1979, the UNDC was able to reach consensus a total of sixteen times to adopt guidelines or recommendations on a wide variety of disarmament issues. However, most strikingly, all of these consensus outcomes came before 1999 illustrating that any momentum generated in the UNDC has been elusive at best over the last fourteen sessions. Some combination of lack of political will and immoveable working methods surely accounts for the paralysis that continues to plague the UNDC, a paralysis also apparent in the inability of the Conference on Disarmament to adopt a program of work for more than fifteen years. While a fourth Special Session on Disarmament (SSOD IV) could dissolve and re-establish the UNDC to revamp its working methods, mandate, or perhaps both, the short-term provides only the opportunity to make one last stitch effort at consensus at next year’s 2014 substantive session building on the progress made in the working group papers presented by this year’s Chairpersons.

In addition to the substantive discussions in the two working groups, discussions of working methods arose. As noted by several delegations during the general exchange of views at the opening of this year’s session, the lack of willingness to adapt working methods to better address the lingering stalemate as well as the UNDC’s inability to reach consensus recommendations are worrisome trends. The proposals from the Swiss delegation to revitalize the UNDC’s working methods (limiting the agenda to one item, opening deliberations to experts, and submitting an annual report to the UN General Assembly regardless of the session’s outcome) must be more seriously considered if the UNDC is to move away from the road to irrelevance on which it is headed. Ambassador Grima agreed that the working methods would need to be reviewed for both how it conducts deliberations and how even limited success can be better reported after each session. Moreover, Ambassador Grima said that the application of consensus in the UNDC should be reflected upon.

Working Group I:  Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation

The agenda item on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, an item that is mandated to be addressed at every session of the UNDC, once again saw divergence of views. Working Group I (WGI), chaired by the Ambassador Naif bin Bandar Al-Sudairy of Saudi Arabia, adopted a report outlining its procedures over the last three weeks.  Other documents presented to WGI included a working paper submitted by the US entitled “Preventing the use of nuclear weapons” (WP1), and two working papers submitted by the Chairman entitled “Recommendations for achieving the objective of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons” (WP2), and “General guiding elements for achieving nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation” (WP3), respectively.  Also discussed in WGI was a compendium text of comments on the working papers of the Chairman (CRP2). CRP2 is a compilation of proposals made by member states during the consultations. It is clearly noted in the report that the working papers “could form a basis for further deliberations for the formulation of consensus recommendations at the conclusion of the Commission’s three-year examination of agenda item 4 at its substantive session in 2014.”

WP2 outlines so-called “recommendations” for achieving nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation and recalls several current initiatives to take forward multilateral negotiations, including the open-ended working group (OEWG) in Geneva, the group of governmental experts (GGE) that will make recommendations on possible aspects of a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT), and the upcoming September 2013 High-level meeting of the UNGA on nuclear disarmament. Also taken up in this document is the issue of the Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (WMDFZ), for which a 2012 conference was not convened as mandated by the 2010 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference outcome document. The DC document calls for such a conference to be convened “without further delay as soon as possible.” WP3 on “guiding elements” reconfirms the mutually reinforcing relationship between nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation and the importance of multilateralism in achieving nuclear disarmament. This document also “expresses grave concern about the current status of the disarmament machinery, including the lack of substantive progress in the Conference on Disarmament for more than a decade.”

The working paper presented by the US is a disappointing review of the US’ nuclear weapons policy underscoring the importance of a “future, step-by-step” approach to disarmament. The paper calls this approach “the only practical path” towards complete nuclear disarmament as there is “no quick fix.” The paper goes on to highlight the US and Russian new START commitments as well as the proliferation risks associated with the DPRK, Iran, and Syria, but does little on elaborating how disarmament obligations will be met in a serious and timely manner. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and a FMCT are identified as “essential multilateral steps for nuclear disarmament,” both of which do little to further disarmament but instead have a distinct non-proliferation focus. Lastly, the US paper underscores the Nuclear Security Summit process as well as the Permanent 5 (P5) process as contributors to “strengthening global architecture that governs nuclear security” and “breaking new ground” on engaging new issues related to disarmament, non-proliferation, transparency, and confidence-building measures. However, it is still unclear what precisely a “step-by-step” approach would entail or what “new ground” is being broken. Such P5 declarations are often clouded in vague reiterations of previously accepted NPT commitments and the modernization programs currently being undertaken in all the nuclear weapon states further undermines the international community’s pursuit of the goal of nuclear abolition.

The working paper provided by the delegation of Egypt (WP1) considered by the committee as a whole noted that the League of Arab States is concerned about the issue of the Middle East and “expects a conclusion highlighting ways to ensure the implementation of the 2010 Review Conference commitments and to convene a conference on the establishment of a zone free of nuclear weapons” in 2013. The fact that the Middle East conference was not convened during the 2012 calendar year will continue to be an issue of contention in all fora of the disarmament machinery as well as the upcoming NPT preparatory committee session in Geneva this coming week.

Working Group II: Confidence-Building Measures in the Field of Conventional Weapons   

Working Group II (WGII), devoted to confidence-building measures (CBMs) in the field of conventional arms, also adopted a procedural report and considered a working paper presented by Ireland on behalf of the European Union entitled “Practical confidence-building measures in the field of conventional weapons.” The Chairman, Mr. Knut Langeland of Norway, presented a non-paper that included principles as well as practical CBMs such as transparency and information exchange measures (the UN Register on Conventional Arms, the UN Report on Military Expenditure, the Programme of Action on small arms (UNPoA), and the International Tracing Instrument (ITI)), observation and verification measures, military constraint measures, and cooperation and assistance. The previously mentioned working paper from the delegation of Egypt also addressed the issue of CBMs in conventional weapons measures noting that any CBM process must address overproduction, increased levels of stockpiling and mutual accountability, as well as principles in the UN Charter such as references to crimes of aggression and foreign occupation.

The WGII Chairman’s non-paper, drafted under Mr. Langeland’s own responsibility, also references existing instruments in the field of conventional arms, such as the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), the Anti-Personnel Mines Treaty, the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), as well as the recently adopted Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). The paper “encourages” member states to “consider signing and ratifying” the ATT after it open for signature on 3 June 2013. The working paper contains brackets and bold text that highlight the various proposals made during the working group’s consultations. Mr. Langeland noted that hopefully some parts of the non-paper illustrated areas for possible consensus and a basis for work next year.

Last chance in 2014

In an environment of low-yielding (if non-yielding) multilateral disarmament machinery, there is a growing intolerance for delay in any part of its operations. With another year of the UNDC passing without adoption of recommendations or conclusions, it is quite clear that it has not been fulfilling its role as the deliberative body of the machinery providing consensus recommendations and guidelines for consideration in the General Assembly First Committee.

The general sense of the session this year has been that its deliberations will provide “a good basis” for the formulation and adoption of consensus recommendations and guidelines next year in 2014. However, according to this line of argument, the last fourteen sessions of the UNDC have formed a “basis” for adoption of consensus recommendations or guidelines. Delaying yet another year does nothing to address the stalemate in the disarmament machinery, but does increase the stakes for next year’s session. The pressure is most certainly on to finally adopt consensus recommendations and end a fifteen-year UNDC drought.


–Katherine Prizeman