Tag Archives: conventional weapons

Conditions and Elements:  The Disarmament Commission holds its NPT Dress Rehearsal, Dr. Robert Zuber

13 Apr

There were some really hopeful discussions in the UN this week on ocean health, Education for All, and Financing for Development.  But the most hopeful image of all was surely in the Security Council where, for the first time, an Arab Woman sat as Council president.   The topic was Mali, not at this point a poster-child for Council competence.   Nevertheless, seeing Ambassador Kawar  in the president’s chair is a clear and persuasive sign that remaining gender impediments to leadership on peace and security are steadily eroding.

Downstairs from Council chambers the UN’s Disarmament Commission was concluding general debate and moving on to the (mostly closed) working groups.   After much fussing about the agenda, the Commission retreated to familiar formulations – a Group on Nuclear Disarmament and another Group on Confidence Building Measures in Conventional Weapons – a formula which is in keeping with the DC’s deliberative mandate, but one which has not resulted in concrete recommendations to the General Assembly since well before the advent of cell phones.

Working Group 1, kindly and competently presided over by Kazakhstan’s Ambassador Abdrakhmanov, inherited a room that had experienced some clear divisions during general debate. Many of these disagreements were extensions of geo-political tensions, highlighted by Ukraine and Georgia’s condemnation of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the further “erosion of confidence” in the UN security system which that annexation caused.  Several Latin American countries derided the notion that Venezuela could possibly be a “security threat” to the US, a country with a military many times the size of the combined Latin American forces.   Israel (and its own arsenal of nuclear weapons) was cited as a major impediment to progress on a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone.  And the DPRK responded to criticism of its nuclear ambitions from several fronts while insisting that its motive for acquiring such weapons had less to do with “prestige” and more to do with direct security threats allegedly emanating from Seoul and Washington.

None of these disagreements are likely to fade away completely, if at all, before the NPT review begins later in April.  Nor will disagreements disappear regarding the policies that ought to be pursued in order to bring about a long-anticipated world free of the WMD which, as many delegations noted, threaten security more than guarantee it.   And as more and more states feel confident asserting their security preferences, individually and through regional coalitions, disagreements on security priorities and tactics will need to be resolved through honest negotiation rather than major power bullying.

One of the interesting sub-themes in the early days of the DC focused on the matter of “conditions” and “elements.”   At first glance, these would seem to have much in common, but a closer look reveals some discomforting differences.   States attending Working Group 1 that refer to “elements” generally are seeking clarity on concrete measures to bring about outcomes such as verifiable, irreversible nuclear disarmament – most often cited through development of a Nuclear Weapons Convention.  The objective is clear; the issue is about which building blocks – and in which order – should states pursue in order to bring about the desired outcome.   While there are different lenses through which the unacceptability of nuclear weapons are viewed –legal, moral, humanitarian – the key element is that there is ‘good faith’ validation of the ultimate objective.   While there remains much to discuss regarding tactics and their priorities, the objective itself must remain firmly planted in security consciousness.

“Conditions” suggest something different.   There is conventional wisdom in its use, as we can learn from any negotiating or counseling session.   In our rights-based cultures, “conditions” are too often held hostage to unilateral demands — demanding things from others to which we feel entitled without any commensurate contributions to the fulfillment of what we want. In other words, we too rarely assume any responsibility for helping to facilitate others’ fulfillment of their promises.   This ‘logic’ is in keeping with assumptions of rights-based entitlement but is problematic for sound human (or organizational) relations.   Demands unaccompanied by expressions of support, after all, are rarely endearing.

In the case of nuclear disarmament the case for “conditions” often rings hollow.   Commitments to disarmament are not of the nature of our more conventional promises but are largely embedded in legal instruments that, however many quibbles we might (and do) have with their formulation, represent an obligation that, until it is formally altered or withdrawn, is grounded in solemn, binding assumptions

If these disarmament commitments cannot be fulfilled — and we think they can be — the only viable reasons would be a failure of one or more of the agreed elements, not because “conditions” just don’t seem quite right to honor a solemn promise.  Making the world safe for disarmament is “conditions” language.   Making the world safe through disarmament is “elements” language.

I can help another to fulfill their obligations, assuming those obligations are made in good faith.  But I am not responsible to convince someone that their binding commitments are, well, binding.   This would be a complete misreading of “conditions,” insofar as they refer to externally imposed assessments of circumstance which were not present at the time the original “promise” was transacted.

For those who fail to see the distinction outlined here,   I urge you to conduct an experiment in the form of a conversation to explore “conditions” for the fulfillment of basic (and mostly public) obligations to your spouse.    (Please let me know how that conversation goes.)  Generally, couples can help each other fulfill commitments, but only in cases where there is demonstrated good faith regarding the objectives of the commitments themselves.

It is clear from the Disarmament Commission general debate and Working Groups that there are many weapons-related issues that require serious deliberative input from delegations, from verification protocols (as suggested by the US) to Brazil’s encouragement to employ existing disarmament machinery in a more serious and creative way.   Nigeria referenced the “choice instruments of destabilization” represented by illicit small arms.  Spain highlighted increasing dangers from “explosive weapons” and promoted a “code of conduct” for outer space.  Austria and others sought the closing of legal gaps on disarmament as well as more communication with UNIDIR and other outside experts.  There were even calls for more disarmament education.

In this context, we would also do well to take more seriously Chile’s assertion of the “indivisibility” of security, affirming the linkages among various weapons-related interests, but also the implications of poverty, refugees and a deteriorating climate on our security options. This might now be beyond the purview of the DC, but these linkages are essential to a security system that inspires public trust and provides additional motivation and urgency for delegations in many realms of UN security activity. In this context, Nepal’s call to place disarmament at the center of foreign policy could be an important integrating factor, as they understand both the risks of weapons and the multiple elements that need to be mobilized and organized effectively in order to promote genuinely peaceful and inclusive societies.

The DC is running out of time to be much more than a dress rehearsal for what seem to be sobering expectations of the upcoming NPT.  Skepticism and even disinterest, as noted by Vietnam and others, has taken over too much public and diplomatic perception of our disarmament machinery.  There is trust to build, both within and beyond the NPT states, but also with the larger policy community and its public.

Cuba made reference this week to the “mushroom cloud” that would spark “genocide” on an unprecedented scale.  It is time for the DC to both recommend and embrace “elements” towards a legally binding and fully verifiable end to such a genocidal threat.   On grounds of urgency and trust building, “conditions” for ending the threat of “mushroom cloud” are simply not sufficiently relevant.

Text Message: The BMS Draws to a Close

23 Jun

Editor’s Note:   This essay was one of GAPW’s contributions to the Small Arms Monitor organized by Reaching Critical Will. Access to all essays and all monitors is available at:  

Thanks to determined leadership by Ambassador Tanin (Afghanistan) and the Bureau of the Fifth Biennial Meeting of States (BMS), as well as the willingness of states to ‘walk away’ from some Programme of Action on Small Arms (PoA)-related policies dear to their hearts, consensus on a BMS outcome document was reached at around 5PM last Friday.

While we tend not to regard textual consensus as major feature inspiring implementation of PoA objectives, it was nevertheless heartening to see this fine group of diplomats come away with an outcome worthy of applause.  As GAPW has noted from the beginning, as much as diplomats seem to enjoy wrestling with and negotiating text, the purposes of the PoA are likely to be better served through an examination of successfully multi-lateral efforts already undertaken within the key activity frameworks endorsed by the PoA.  As Qatar seemed to imply on behalf of the Arab Group, the consensus sought at this BMS is as much about the value of the PoA itself as about the specifics in the outcome document. Such a document has uses as a window on state priorities, but it is unlikely in itself to force serious reassessment of or increase levels of commitment to PoA implementation.  That motivation will come from elsewhere.

Sometimes what is not said in these documents is more important that what is said.  Australia, CARICOM and others noted issues that were neglected, or omitted altogether – Security Council resolutions, security sector reform, the role of UNSCAR, border-related issues, and of perhaps greatest concern, ammunition.  In addition, there were also closing statements by Israel, Canada, the US and the EU distancing each from language linking self-determination and actions to eliminate small arms.

Nevertheless, the ‘good mood’ largely persisted in the room during the course of the week, in some cases through long meetings that challenged diplomats and civil society to forsake World Cup matches. This was both satisfying and a credit to BMS leadership, including the widely-praised Anthony Simpson.  As Venezuela noted with pleasure, ‘there is still a disarmament process which can still achieve consensus.’  Indeed, this might be the single most powerful message that this BMS sends out to a weapons-weary world.

Clearly, with or without this text, the PoA seemed destined to move forward.   States and civil society will continue to identify small arms-related security problems.   Capacity support will be solicited and offered.   We will continue to seek technology for marking, tracing and physical security of stockpiles that can stay one step ahead of those who seek to undermine its benefits.  We will continue to highlight PoA norms and face squarely the challenges (noted by Egypt, Indonesia and others) of implementation based on national and regional priorities.

And we will continue to count victims of needless gun violence; victims of small arms trafficking, of unrestricted flows of mostly second hand weapons, of arms manufacturers pushing weapons like dealers push heroin, of rabid gun lobby groups who refuse to acknowledge, as my late, gun-using father once said to his then gun-possessing sons, that gun rights are at best a relatively minor part of the myriad rights and responsibilities that make up a great country.

What this BMS made clear is that, as welcome as consensus on text is, there is only so much momentum that text alone can build.   The real momentum, the real hope for the victimized and the fearful, is in the many stories of success that the PoA has leveraged; the borders that are more secure, the streets that are safer, the gang members and insurgents who have been disarmed, the illicit ordinance that has been sent up in flames.

China warned on Friday that there is so much further we need to travel to remove the scourge of weapons-related violence.   It is through stories of progress as much as through textual norms from which the impetus to continue on this challenging and life-saving journey will come.

Dr. Robert Zuber


Highlight Reel: The DC’s Work in Progress

11 Apr

As the Disarmament Commission settles into its two Working Groups for the next couple of weeks, the rest of the world hopes that a spirit of deliberation will prevail over some of the policy impediments that have hindered progress in years’ past.

We have written previously about some of these impediments, but they are worth repeating in summary fashion:

  • Confusion about the nature of the deliberative process
  • Concerns of states about setting policy precedents
  • The recent history of inertia from disarmament machinery
  • A lack of confidence regarding compliance with existing commitments
  • The expectation of resolving issues rather than contributing to their resolution
  • Unaddressed power imbalances in the UN’s security system

These impediments were exacerbated by conflicts in Ukraine, Central African Republic, Syria and elsewhere, and might well lead to assumptions about the quality and creativity of Disarmament Commission statements made by member states.

But, in fact, there were some very good reflections from delegations, reflections that were sometimes modest in their implications but were also hopeful from the standpoint of reassuring the world that the UN is, in fact, up to the challenges of reducing threats from new and existing weapons systems.

Here is some of what we heard over the first two days that piqued our interest and raised our levels of anticipation for the Working Groups:

  • Ambassador Drobnjak’s admonition to the group that we need to “prove otherwise” that the DC has lost its way.
  • DSG Eliasson’s caution that we must not allow the option of returning  to a “dark age” of mistrust.
  • Switzerland’s call for more efforts focused on DC working methods, including more access by civil society (echoed by Japan, Kazakhstan and others).
  • The African Group’s calls for complete, non-discriminatory security assurances from nuclear weapons states.
  • CELAC’s generous mention of the contributions of both OPANAL and UNLiREC to regional disarmament.
  • The NAM’s proposal for an international day for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.
  • The mention by Australia, Ecuador and others of the urgent need for universal adherence to efforts to eliminate cluster weapons and land mines.
  • South Africa’s assertion that nuclear weapons should be subject to prohibition as chemical and biological weapons now are.
  • Venezuela’s call for both “horizontal and vertical” disarmament processes.
  • China’s concrete commitments to both a ‘five point plan’ to move forward negotiations with Iran and the production of a national PoA report.
  • Algeria’s suggestion that lessons from existing nuclear-free zones be readily available to assist the Middle East zone process.
  • The European Union’s positing of dangerous linkage between illicit/diverted weapons and prospects for the commission of mass atrocities.
  • Egypt’s concern that the issue of ‘overproduction’ of small arms and conventional weapons is not sufficiently addressed by the ATT or other international instruments.

This is just a small sample of hopeful statements offered amidst the finger pointing over the failure (so far) of the ME WMD-free Zone, the DPRK’s deteriorating relationship with the US, and other tensions.  These tensions are real, they beg for resolution, but it is unclear that a Commission dedicated to deliberation is the proper forum to work out full details towards progress and reconciliation.

In the end, as with the C34 Peacekeeping Committee that recently produced a report after having failed to do so a year earlier, it is critical that the DC Working Groups produce real recommendations this year.   As Australia and others noted, the recommendations don’t have to be ‘game changing’ in order to have impact.   At this point, any recommendations – however modest – would be helpful both in advancing disarmament discussions and in sparing the reputation of the Disarmament Commission itself.

It is not necessary to fix things entirely in order to improve them substantially.   As we have done in the past, and as Reaching Critical Will and others have done over many years, we urge the DC to use every bit of its considerable technical and diplomatic expertise to point the way to the next levels of disarmament progress.

Dr. Robert Zuber

An Open Letter to UN Permanent Representatives — Give the Disarmament Commission Another Chance

20 Mar

Editor’s note:  For many years, GAPW has lamented the decline in productivity of the UN Disarmament Commission.  Given some recent hopeful signs in disarmament and the fact that the DC is in the third year of a 3 year policy cycle, we believe that the upcoming UNDC is an opportunity for meaningful deliberations warranting the attention of diplomatic missions that might well choose to put their energies elsewhere. 


As most of you are aware, April 7 marks the beginning of the 2014 UN Disarmament Commission, the third year of its current policy cycle.   Ambassador Drobnjak has met with delegates to brief them on his own hopes and expectations for the three-week session and will convene another preparatory meeting on March 24. As he does so, we recall Ambassador Grima’s assertion from last April that the 2013 session did much to rebuild trust among delegations as a precondition for meaningful deliberations on nuclear disarmament and confidence building in the field of conventional weapons. This assertion may be as much an aspiration as a fact, but Ambassador Grima’s words at the very least underscore the need for more trustbuilding in disarmament matters as well as to increase the resolve of the UNDC to ‘test’ strategies that can build even more trusting and policy-effective relations among delegations tasked with disarmament matters.

Excellencies, this letter is a request to all of you to consider supporting another push for effectiveness in the UNDC in April, prioritizing time and energy from your missions to help support the possibility of deliberative movement that can provide real guidance to First Committee delegates. The UNDC now stands at risk of being overtaken by events as governments and civil society increasingly look outside the UN for the means to carry forward focused and technical deliberations on critical and emerging disarmament issues. A successful UNDC, resulting in clear if modest recommendations, can help erase the frustration of many inside and outside the UN that our disarmament structures are now simply and stubbornly inflexible.  

We recognize the challenge in asking for this commitment.  Our sense while speaking with many representatives of missions is that the UNDC feels too much like a long and tedious obligation that, as we all acknowledge, has failed to produce tangible results in many years.  GAPW has noted with concern many changes in the makeup of delegations to the UNDC over the years, the smaller numbers of diplomats who make the trip from Geneva or national capitals, the reduced ranks of diplomats assigned to cover the DC and its working groups, especially after the formal statements have been concluded.

With all that delegations need to accomplish on issues ranging from disabilities and the status of women to atrocity crime prevention and post-2015 development goals — not to mention other disarmament obligations — it is understandable that many of you would choose to minimize mission involvement in such a protracted and, especially in recent years, largely unfulfilling process.  But we also recognize that disarmament structures have undergone change in the past, they can be changed again, and it is worth our while to seize current opportunities to change them further.

As you all know, the UNDC is a deliberative body not a negotiating body.  It makes political judgments regarding the best paths forward on disarmament but neither creates nor endorses binding agreements. As such, there is little pressure regarding the establishments of precedents in disarmament negotiations, important given that the UNDC will be followed this year by the precedent-laden NPT review and the 5th Biennial Meeting of States on Small Arms.   In addition, there is little pressure for the UNDC to issue comprehensive guidelines on disarmament matters.  Concrete, if modest, suggestions for how to move disarmament processes forward would be both sufficient and welcome.   As much as the global public craves solutions on disarmament matters, they can be provisionally satisfied with tangible policy movement of the sort that should by now be the UNDC’s specialized domain.

Failure to use this final year of the UNDC’s cycle to productive ends will further erode delegate interest.  It will increase the likelihood that states will no longer see the value in funding these sessions.  And, perhaps most important, failure of the UNDC might well encourage the Security Council to take up disarmament more frequently as a thematic consideration in a manner that marginalizes GA initiatives. The apparent inability of yet another GA process to live up to expectations will only embolden those who see the Council and the Council alone as the only effective body to take up these concerns.

GAPW’s clear position is that we need to keep disarmament firmly as a GA function.  But we also need to demonstrate that GA disarmament structures, especially the UNDC, can be less prone to gridlock or held hostage to an inflexible view of ‘consensus’ that belies the UNDC’s purely deliberative functions.  With all that is taking place inside and outside the UN, it is no longer clear that the UNDC will continue to have a key role in disarmament affairs if we cannot take measures now to make modest, limited recommendations to other parts of the GA which are more directly responsible for establishing and promoting disarmament obligations.

Excellencies, with all due respect for the multiple, important agendas taking up the time of you and your mission colleagues, we urge you to give ample attention to this session of the DC. We have noted with deep appreciation recent “openings” on regulating the global arms trade, fact-based discussion on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, hopeful collaborations among states as part of the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms, Iran’s still-tentative recalibration of its own nuclear ambitions, efforts to address the impact of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, building transparency and confidence in outer space activities, and more.  With all that is now attempting to bloom, this could also be the season when we can replace structural immovability with a more flexible and collaborative tone.  This could be the year for deliberation that yields suggestions for moving forward on disarmament obligations that people worldwide are yearning to see.

Excellencies, you have assurances of our highest consideration as well as our support as the UNDC navigates its current challenges and opportunities.

Dr. Robert Zuber


Reinforcing Gender and Small Arms Policy Linkages

21 Sep

The issue of the gender dimensions within efforts to stem the proliferation of illicit small arms and light weapons (SALW) has gained significant traction earlier this year and is likely to continue developing as the year progresses.

In April 2013, the Secretary-General (SG) noted in his report on Sexual Violence in Conflict instances of rape and sexual violence arising from armed groups.[i] Furthermore, the SG’s report to the Security Council on Small Arms reiterated that armed conflict can negatively impact women and men, making them susceptible to violence.[ii] The SG noted that “[a]ttention should be paid to women, who suffer disproportionately from the effects of violent conflict: an abundance of uncontrolled weapons and a context of lawlessness lead to increases in gender-based violence, which includes rape, abduction into sexual slavery and trafficking.”[iii]

It is generally known that SALW can be one of the most pervasive threats to a strong and reliable security sector and that the illicit flow of small arms, including illegally diverted arms, can contribute to the commission of violence against women as well as a source of intimidation for women’s participation in social and political life.[iv] As Global Action has noted in previous policy briefs, the illicit flow of small arms can contribute to acts of sexual violence in conflict which can pose a threat to international peace and security.[v] Additionally, “women can be weapon-carriers, especially as members of militias or armed groups from the national to the local level. Women can likewise promote a culture of guns, especially for the younger generation for which they are often responsible, and ultimately contribute to the proliferation of small arms.”[vi] Furthermore, and perhaps most important to us, the illicit flow of small arms can create security concerns hindering women’s participation in conflict and post-conflict communities, as weapons can be used to intimidate or instill fear.[vii]

Whether it is in the high level meeting expected this month in the Security Council[viii] or within work of the First Committee, or even within the purview of the Security Council Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security, it is imperative to reinforce the gender dimensions in efforts to control illicit arms.

Women’s participation in decision-making processes is highlighted in Security Council Resolution 1325, as it is in gender-sensitive Disarmament Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) programs.[ix] Subsequent relevant resolutions have also reiterated gender-sensitive DDR programs and have called for targeted measures against perpetrators of sexual violence in armed conflict.[x] SCR 1960 has called on the SG to include names of perpetrators suspected of committing, or responsible for, crimes of sexual violence during armed conflict in his reports to the Security Council.[xi]

Additionally, the United Nations Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (UNPoA) binds member states to commitments to prevent and combat the illicit flow of small arms. While only in the context of the preembular paragraphs, member states acknowledge that they are ‘gravely concerned’ about the impact the illicit flow of small arms can have on women, children, and the elderly.[xii] Furthermore, the General Assembly Resolution on Women, Disarmament, Non-Proliferation and Arms Control, promotes women’s equal representation in disarmament and arms control processes, “in particular as it relates to the prevention and reduction of armed violence and armed conflict.”[xiii] The resolution promotes women’s participation in the ‘design and implementation of disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control efforts,” as well as in the context of preventing and eradicating the illicit SALW.[xiv]

Finally, it is also worth noting that “[t]he use of conventional weapons, including small arms, in armed conflict is subject to the limitations of international humanitarian law (IHL),” whose purpose is to protect civilians from suffering by controlling the ways and means that can be used to inflict violence.[xv] IHL is violated not simply by the use of small arms, but rather by their unauthorized use, whether by government or non-armed groups, to target civilians.[xvi] “The unregulated proliferation of SALW contributes to violations of IHL by providing abusive actors with the tools used to commit these crimes.”[xvii] It is therefore imperative that emphasis is placed on the prevention and eradication of the illicit flow of these  weapons.

This year has been significant in that early 2013 saw the adoption of two major instruments that further strengthen international commitments to pursue this policy linkage. The impact of the illicit flow of small arms on violence against women was noted in the Agreed Conclusions of the 57th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women, the main policy-making body on the promotion of women’s rights.[xviii] Additionally, the recent adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty made significant progress in ensuring that the gender considerations are non-negotiable aspects of binding criteria when determining the validity of arms transfers.[xix]

Moving forward, the momentum should be maintained around these issues in relevant UN Processes, of course to the extent that procedural mandates do not already overlap.  The gender dimensions within arms control and disarmament should continue to be highlighted, placing special emphasis on women’s participation in disarmament processes, ranging from decision-makers in policy discussions, to active members of security forces, to equal recipients of benefits available through DDR programs. In regards to 1325 National Action Plans, gender and disarmament dimensions should be integrated therein, in situations and circumstances where it is relevant to the security of women. Finally, one must also remember that women have a distinct and unique set of protection and participation needs which have to be addressed in relevant policies.

–          Melina Lito

[i] See A/67/929, S/2013 399.

[ii] See, S/2013/503, para. 20.

[iii] See, S/2013/503, para. 20.

[iv] See, Gender and Disarmament: Making Important Linkages to the ATT and UNPoA: A Policy Brief, http://www.globalactionpw.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/gender-and-disarmament-update-sept-2012.pdf.

[v] See, Gender and Disarmament: Making Important Linkages to the ATT and UNPoA: A Policy Brief, p.2 http://www.globalactionpw.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/gender-and-disarmament-update-sept-2012.pdf

[vi] See, Gender and Disarmament: Making Important Linkages to the ATT and UNPoA: A Policy Brief, p. 2 http://www.globalactionpw.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/gender-and-disarmament-update-sept-2012.pdf.

[vii] See, Gender and Disarmament: Making Important Linkages to the ATT and UNPoA: A Policy Brief, p.2 http://www.globalactionpw.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/gender-and-disarmament-update-sept-2012.pdf

[viii] See, Security Council Report, Monthly Forecast, Small Arms, September 2013.

[ix] Security Council Resolution 1325 (2008) OP. 1-4, 13.

[x] Re: DDR, See SCR 1889 (2009), OP. 13, 1820 (2008), OP.10, SCR 2106 (2106), OP. 16(a); Re: targeted measures, see, SCR 1820 OP. 5, SCR 2106, OP. 13.

[xi] SCR 1960 (2010), OP. 3.

[xii] UN Document A/CONF.192/15, http://www.poa-iss.org/poa/poahtml.aspx.

[xiii] A/C.1/67/L.35/Rev.1, OP.1.

[xiv] A/C.1/67/L.35/Rev.1, OP.4-OP.5.


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