Tag Archives: disarmament

Bomb Squad: The UN’s Struggle to Give Disarmament a Chance, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 Apr

Peace Bell

Who needs immortal strength when you’ve got weapons of mass destruction?  J.A. Saare

Before he danced with his weapons, now he danced with me.  Kara Barbieri

The people most reluctant to use weapons are the ones who can best be trusted with them. Christopher Bennett

Let the silence rise from unwatered graves and craters left by bombs.
Let the silence rise from empty bellies and surge from broken hearts
. Kamand Kojouri

Can bombs heal our souls or set our spirits free? Aberjhani

During a week in which armed groups ominously marched towards Libya’s capital and the world pondered what has changed and not in the 25 years since the genocide in Rwanda, Tuesday was the day for the UN to take up another of the existential threats that have found their way on to its agenda – weapons in all shapes, sizes and destructive potential that can continue to intimidate populations, enforce discriminatory practices, impede sustainable development, undermine trust in neighbors and governments, and (too) much more.

As some of you recall, Global Action invested much of its early years in disarmament-related activity, helping to provide attentive feed-back to governments on their disarmament responsibilities and sharing office space with colleagues such as the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, with which we continue to commiserate regularly on a range of arms related matters.

That work still matters greatly, though we came to believe some time back that for disarmament to be successful it must find a broader engagement, specifically with policy communities that can make helpful connections between weapons procurement and the “deterrence” with which such weaponry is often associated and justified with other efforts to end racial and gender discrimination, protect our environment, uphold human rights obligations, eliminate the use of child soldiers, promote “DDR” with former combatants, and address terrorist threats.

Not only are these issues linked, but indeed our contention has been that there has been more policy space at the UN and elsewhere for discussions that involve weapons than for discussions that are solely focused on weapons.   Of all the policy architecture on display in the many UN conference rooms to which we are attention, it would be no stretch to conclude that the disarmament architecture is among the least flexible aspects of the current multi-lateral system, the structure most likely to double down on failed resolutions and treaties (or what passes for treaties in the disarmament world), largely squandering the energies and ideas of the often-remarkable diplomats and civil society representatives who choose in good faith to throw themselves into these essential but too-often frustrating processes.

And yet on this past Tuesday diplomats were back at it in the Security Council (which has yet to fulfill its Charter obligation to provide a plan forward on disarmament) as well as in the Disarmament Commission, a process that we followed closely for years but now only engage episodically given its political malfunctions and redundancies, as well as its almost legendary inability to move past hard statements and political maneuverings to embrace the deliberative space that could result in more thoughtful recommendations on disarmament to a UN system that hasn’t yet found them elsewhere.

On Tuesday, the Disarmament Commission could not even get through a single plenary session before politics intervened – in this instance a complaint filed by the Russian Federation against the “host state” for failure to issue visas to Russian delegates to the Commission.  While visa denial is a serious matter, this particular complaint eventually necessitated the shutting down of the day’s session, hardly a crisis in its own right, but surely a “red flag” for states and civil society organizations struggling within multiple venues to address the many challenges related to excessive arms production and deployment in all its aspects, including space weapons, nuclear weapons modernization, non-proliferation threats from the DPRK, “autonomous” weapons systems, alleged chemical weapons uses, “craft” IED production, and the biological weapons which perhaps represent the most covert and devastating of the weapons-of-mass-destruction triumvirate.

This is, at face value, an extraordinary list of threats, surely long enough and grave enough that diplomats and other global constituents could be excused for wanting more – much more — from a Commission that can barely agree on a three-year work plan, let alone transcend its national interests (legitimate and contrived) to enhance prospects for global well-being through meaningful weapons reductions.

As for the Security Council, with the Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) soon to convene in New York, Council co-presidents Germany and France smartly put non-proliferation and disarmament at the head of this month’s deliberations.  Implementing the NPT’s “three pillars” (nuclear power being the 3rd) has been a bit of a slog, individually and collectively, though German Foreign Minister Maas claimed (and a Council press statement largely affirmed) that without the NPT “mutual distrust would be much higher” and dangers greater. Indeed, the FM evoked a popular Joni Mitchell song that “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone,” a sentiment in part echoed by High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Nakamitsu, who lauded the NPT’s “staying power” while rightly lamenting recent trends that preference “individual over collective security.”

This “it would be worse for us if the NPT weren’t here” claim can fairly be scrutinized, but the core issue is whether or not, given rising threat levels, the good is still good enough.   During this discussion, many Council members including Poland and Indonesia reflected on these three NPT pillars under stress, noting that the disarmament obligation remains the least implemented of the three. Indonesia’s MFA further reminded Council members that it is precisely tangible progress on this disarmament obligation that lends legitimacy to non-proliferation demands, progress that has been insufficient at best.

For his part, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Amano was forceful in proclaiming the work of his organization, specifically work focused on weapons monitoring and compliance deemed indispensable to the eventual fulfillment of the NPT’s promises. Indeed, that some NPT parties seem to put so little political stock in what Amano rightly deemed “powerful verification tools,” is a bit unsettling.  But more to the point, given that the health of the NPT is tied to its access to “state of the art” verification mechanisms unavailable in other weapons contexts, that key NPT members would then set out to “question” or even undermine the validity of these mechanisms is the sort of disconnect that should be called out in UN contexts more often.  No state should get a pass while voicing support for the NPT as a key component of the “rules based order” and then simultaneously creating distance in any form (including on financial support) from the one agency capable of verifying that the progress we claim on reducing nuclear weapons threats is actually being made.

An important issue for us is the extent to which a piece of our weapons-related monitoring and compliance can segue from states that might be guilty of undermining resolution and treaty obligations to the states and stakeholders that have — in UN and other contexts — turned an existential weapons threat into an occasion for trust-eroding, political posturing.   The question of how much we can trust the proliferators has largely been answered.  The question for this NPT Prep Com and for all subsequent NPT activities is whether or not we can trust the erstwhile disarmers?  If IAEA monitoring and compliance is as reliable as we believe it is, then we should support it.  If it is not as reliable as we believe it is, then we should fix it.  And if the problem is, as this Prep Com approaches, that some states simply don’t think that threats from nuclear (and other mass destruction) weapons warrant their best, “good-faith” diplomatic and technical efforts, then they simply (and quickly) need to think again.


The Courage of Good Questions, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 Mar


Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas. – Marie Curie

I’ve always been really curious about things and slightly confused by the world, and I think someone who feels that way is in a good position to be the one asking questions. -Terry Gross

I spent many years in school, but it was rarely a happy or satisfying place for me. There were simply too many times when the “who said so” of ideas trumped the complexities behind what was actually being conveyed.   For me, school was full of ideas that seemed beyond reproach when they left the mouths of the instructors, only to be revealed as incomplete and at times even misleading down the road.

And such a long road it was.  It was not until my doctoral program that I literally “lucked into” mentors who were more passionate for their ideas than for their careers, who were far more curious than defensive, who understood at the deepest levels that most of the problems soon to confront the world had not yet been faced, let alone overcome.

These mentors pushed me hard, beyond trying to impress others with my edgy “cleverness,” towards a place of rigor and kindness – rigor characterized by attentiveness and the willingness to “ask the next question,” and kindness grounded in the (hopefully) humble recognition that all of us, even the most accomplished in worldly terms,  have much still to learn.

Part of what Global Action seeks to accomplish (and occasionally does) is to embody that all-too-rare combination of attentiveness and curiosity, understanding that the best questions make good use of existing context and help to examine not only what has been “settled,” but to preview the ground soon to move under our feet, requiring more of what Jeremy Taylor once referred to as “the incontinency of the spirit.”  In our office, we don’t often abandon attentiveness for chatter, but we do at times try to ask good and hard questions at the UN, not to draw attention to ourselves but rather to the unresolved matters of policy that are both far from consensus and close to undermining our current, fragile stasis.

The UN can be a remarkable place, filled to the brim with experience and expertise on the widest possible range of policy concerns.   It provides, in some ways, an education like no other.   But it also harbors noticeable intellectual deficits.  There are few opportunities for genuine open-ended discussion on policy needs and responsibilities.   There are few questions posed that genuinely push “authorized speakers” to signal new space for potential policy shifts.   We are a building full of consensus-builders and (on the NGO side) campaigners, useful skills to be sure, but skills not ideal for breaking up our superficially optimistic mood or reminding people of the hard truth that some of the consensus resolutions they worked so hard on are unlikely to accomplish much in the world beyond First Avenue.

Two examples from this past week highlighted the pedagogical frustrations and opportunities of this very political space.  On Wednesday, the UN University organized an excellent discussion on the problem of modern slavery.  The keynote speaker made learned and helpful background remarks which emphasized distinctions between the “prohibition” of slavery and its “eradication.”   The pitch was, as is often the case in UN conference rooms, for the provision of national legislation that parallels and supplements international legal obligations to prohibition.

Fair enough, though as we pointed out, there is a deep conundrum attached to this approach.   Within the Human Rights Committee, for instance, a frequent response given by states whose human rights record has been called to account is something along the lines of, “this can’t be happening here, we have laws to prohibit it.”  But as NGOs in Geneva are fond of reminding Committee members, the presence of laws does not by any means guarantee eradication of the practice.  Thus our concern that a focus on legislation alone is insufficient to end the scourge, while a focus on eradication might make states more reluctant to sign on to human rights agreements in the first place.    How to navigate this problem?

The response we received was unfulfilling at best, almost as though the expert hadn’t considered this conundrum previously (surely he had) or failed to appreciate it being brought to his attention during a session that was being webcast. Moreover, no one in the audience approached us afterwards (or even made eye contact) to continue the conversation.  Apparently, ours was not a polite, courteous question, despite the fact that it seemed well within the band-width and interests of the speaker to respond and reflect.

This is what the UN is like too often – implicit and even excessive deference to “experts” and “authorities” who are often, but by no means always, on the best possible policy track.

Fortunately, there are bursts of healthy curiosity to be found if one is open to them.  One such occasion was on Tuesday when Ecuador ably convened a gathering to discuss prospects for a Fourth Special Session on Disarmament (SSOD).  There has been no such “special session” for 29 years now and delegates spent most of this morning discussion debating the scope of a possible meeting, whether to focus on one of the many stubborn areas of disarmament dysfunction or instead authorize a thorough review of all disarmament-related processes.

At one point, the Ecuadorian diplomat intervened, wondering aloud (lamenting perhaps) why the word “disarmament” so rarely is heard now across UN headquarters?   The question was simultaneously simple and brilliant.  For if disarmament has been downgraded in at least some quarters from a core UN priority, can a “special session” possibly help to restore its luster?

Despite the fact that disarmament matters attract some of the most capable diplomats in the UN system, the topic itself has never had a lower profile in my entire UN-based tenure.  Part of this is due to the discipline itself – inflexible architecture, low levels of state trust, treaties that are disregarded or are full of loopholes that uncooperative states are happy to exploit, invitations to weapons manufacturing states to hide behind consensus as a way of undermining disarmament agreement, a focus on managing the flows and modernization of weapons rather than reducing their volume and “footprint.”

But part of this low profile is due to successes in other parts of the UN, successes that have spawned a series of new, interesting, policy-rich discussions on conflict prevention and sustainable peace, conversations that often explore the implications of omnipresent weapons for development, climate, trafficking, even gender based violence.   Disarmament practitioners are only rarely present for these discussions; indeed SDG 16 on “peaceful and inclusive societies” was drafted and adopted with almost no involvement from disarmament-focused diplomats or related UN resource persons.

Whether another SSOD can resurrect the UN disarmament priority is debatable. What for us is less debatable is that our collective task here remains not to get things settled so much as to get them right.  Good questions – probing and respectful – are important contributions to ensuring timely and credible responses to constantly evolving global challenges, including human rights and disarmament challenges.

The most-curious Ralph Waldo Emerson once prodded teachers that when your students correct your mistakes, “hug them.”   There is little reason to believe that hugging will become common practice inside the UN, but a bit more curiosity regarding gaps yet to be filled — and perhaps even a modicum of gratitude for those who expose such gaps — would help keep us all on a more progressive policy path.

The UN’s Coordination Dilemma, Kai Schaefer

25 Nov

Editor’s Note:  Kai is one of our fine group of fall 2016 interns and fellows.  Having orginally come here to pursue an interest in Responsibility to Protect, Kai has taken a keen interest in both disarmament affairs and the working methods of key UN agencies, including and especially the Security Council.  The following reflects his rapidly expanding policy interests. 

With heightening tensions at the international level– recently manifest during the Security Council meeting of October 27th which ended with a walkout by the U.S, UK, and Ukrainian delegations when the Syrian representative took the floor — the efficient functioning of the United Nations system and its subsidiary bodies is of increased importance. However, in addition to increasing tensions among the world’s great powers — especially Russia and the United States — which prevents the efficient functioning of the Security Council, the UN system itself and its lack of coordination creates various obstacles that need to be overcome.

The problem of coordination and cooperation shortcomings among the various GA committees, UN bodies and subsidiary organs is not a novel problem. As the 71st GA session continues to unfold, the international community would well benefit from increased dialogue especially between the disarmament and human rights committees, but also in linking to diverse areas of peace and security more generally.

A recent example of the lack of coordination is draft resolution L.41 that was introduced by Austria and adopted by the first committee on October 27th with almost three-quarters support from the General Assembly. L.41 calls on all states to start negotiations on a legally binding treaty to ban nuclear weapons in 2017.  Especially given the fact that the resolution was not supported by any of the nuclear weapons states, the lack of coordination and failure of states to link crucial issues of security, development, and human rights is equally hampering in creating treaty bodies and resolutions that will have lasting impact.

First Committee disarmament debates in New York seemingly occur in a vacuum, shielded from external influences and events, as well as security-related trends highlighted in other UNGA committees especially in 3rd. The inherent connections between disarmament and socio-economic development, human rights, and international law often remain unexamined. Likewise, the NGO’s involve in the promotion of L.41 would benefit from a widening of their vision for disarmament by taking note of other events and advancements occurring at UNHQ.

This problem, however, is systemic in nature and goes beyond narrowly focused NGO’s and member-states negotiating at the UN. The UN cannot necessarily be characterized as a learning community, which is in part desired by certain member-states. The shuffling around of diplomatic delegations and missions in New York make sustained efforts in developing robust and lasting political commitments difficult to achieve. Moreover, as the UN is often described as one of the world’s largest bureaucracies, a certain degree of overlap, duplication, waste, and lack of coordination is hard to avoid.

Much of the work carried out at the UN suffers from the oft-mentioned “silo approach.”Many delegations now realize that in order to create policies that will have a lasting and sustained impact on the ground, increased coordination among the numerous UN bodies is needed. The value of cooperation and coordination among NGO’s, IGO’s, civil society, academics, epistemic communities, MNC’s, and nation-states has long been recognized. However, the continuing lack of practical coordination within the UN itself often remains unaddressed. Certainly, the amount of specialized knowledge which is at the UN’s disposal is one of its core strengths. Nonetheless, the current compartmentalized approach taken by the UN often misses crucial links among security topics and across policy spheres. The UN membership continues to insist that peace cannot exist without development, and development cannot be achieved without lasting peace. However, public rhetoric and institutional structures are clearly not always aligned.

In regard to the previously mentioned resolution L.41 calling for negotiations to ban nuclear weapons, it is noteworthy to state that many of the arguably most compelling and probably more effective security-related discussions occur not in First Committee but instead in the
Third, a committee largely centered on the protection and promotion of human rights. In order to create effective and efficient treaties centered on disarmament that will end up having a genuine effect on the ground, it is crucial to consult with voices of locally engaged staff, special rapporteurs, and persons directly affected by weapon inflicted violence. Thus the ongoing stalemate in First Committee could be overcome by joint events between first and third committee, and more significantly between all relevant stakeholders, and not solely by the disarmament community alone.

In like manner, the UN and international community as a whole, would benefit from stronger emphasis on preventive measures instead of acting largely retroactively. This holds especially true for the Security Council which tends to only take action when crises become unsurmountable. Increased consultations between the SC and TCC’s / PCC’s as occurred on November 10th is also welcome in order to create sustainable peace and foster capacity building. Furthermore, coordination shortcomings within the security domain at the UN could be overcome in part by not scheduling Security Council and Peacebuilding Commission sessions at the same time. The link between coordination and prevention is crucial in this regard. Essentially, a fundamental flaw is not the lack of information available at the UN, but how such information is being processed, disseminated (and even scheduled) throughout the organization.

Nevertheless, despite coordination and cooperation shortcomings within the UN, it remains the epicenter of multilateral diplomacy. The Security Council continues to be the arguably single most important chamber in the world.  However, due to deadlocks over Syria, the rest of the UN membership is becoming increasingly anxious to find an end to six years of brutal conflict. A General Assembly informal dialogue organized by Canada on October 20th underlines efforts of various states no longer willing to sit on the sidelines until the Council finds the means to take urgent action on Syria, especially in Eastern Aleppo. The participation in this GA dialogue by Council members both permanent and non-permanent accentuates this general concern.

The UN is tasked with settling the world’s most protracted conflicts and finding solutions to some of mankind’s most pressing issues and problems. There is almost no issue area in today’s globalized world that has not been impacted by the UN or at least found its way on to the UN’s agenda. This becomes evident upon examination of a plethora of “side events” at UNHQ sponsored by states, NGO’s, civil society, and the UN itself. During these side events the real scope of UN activities becomes apparent, highlighting the ongoing relevance and importance of the UN, providing a forum where a multitude of relevant stakeholders can raise awareness, set agendas, and sustain momentum towards agreed upon policies and treaties. Nevertheless, it is vital that the UN remains more than a mere talk-shop. Enhancing internal coordination regarding issues, scheduling and more can help create broader, sounder security policy.

Sue Me, Part II:   The Marshall Islands Pushes the Nuclear Weapons States on Their “Good Faith” Deficits, Dr. Robert Zuber

20 Mar

ICJ (2)

There is a line not far off the United Nation’s home page that indicates what UN officials imagine the role of journalists to be: Journalists who cover the United Nations play an important part in its work, because they help explain to the public what the Organization does and why. 

There are several ways to interpret this, but the most obvious is to assume that the job of journalists is to act as conduits for the promotion of UN activities, largely employing the words with which the UN seeks to have those activities conveyed.  The assumed role of journalists, it would appear, involves some measure of capitulation to the dominant narrative, pushing the soundbites that elevate the stature and impact of the UN in ways that are likely misleading – explaining away mistakes and even missing some important ways in which the UN adds value beyond the fringes of policy centers.  After all, in a highly competitive, branded environment, we are as likely to lose sight of the places where we add value as the places where we have failed to add it.

What we need from journalists, with all due respect to the UN’s web content, the pressures of the media market and the unpredictability of editors is to be attentive, thoughtful and, to the extent any of us can be, balanced.  We need journalists who strive to see the whole picture, who eschew easy abstractions focused on political power or celebrity scandal, who resist the pages handed out for them to read in favor of pages they investigate for themselves.

And most of all, we need journalists who flock to the places where matters of genuine importance are taking place, matters where lives are potentially being saved, where threats are being vanquished, where longstanding prejudices are being overcome, where awareness can swiftly lead to action on some of the critical issues facing our planet.   Those of us who supplement journalism with active social media know how to get to the scenes of impact, but professional journalists most often bring a more disciplined eye.

From March 7 to March 16 before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, one longstanding threat to the human race came a bit closer to being vanquished. A superb team of legal experts – with leadership from Dutch lawyer Phon van den Biesen and HE Tony deBrum, Foreign Minister of the Marshall Islands (and including John Burroughs of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy) — argued persuasively that the nuclear weapons states have manifestly failed in their obligations under customary international law and the provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to pursue “in good faith” negotiations towards a nuclear-disarmed world.

The cases entitled, Obligations concerning Negotiations relating to Cessation of the Nuclear Arms Race and to Nuclear Disarmament (www.icj-cij.org/docket/index.php?p1=3&p2=3&code=miuk&case=160&k=ef) also brought to the court legal teams of the three nuclear weapons states – United Kingdom, Pakistan and India – which had previously accepted compulsory jurisdiction of the Court regarding adjudication of these claims of obligation. (For more on these cases, see https://www.wagingpeace.org/international-court-of-justice-concludes-hearings-in-preliminary-phase-of-historic-nuclear-disarmament-cases/).

While a comprehensive review of this process is beyond our competence, the arguments of the nuclear armed states seemed to us simultaneously vigorous and fatuous, attempting as they were to make the case that the jurisdiction which they had already accepted did not now apply, while also seeking to re-write history such that the weapons each state has unilaterally pursued and now seeks to modernize are somehow “consistent” with legal obligations to negotiate towards nuclear disarmament.   Perhaps even more remarkable, states seem to have been largely oblivious to what is quite a “high character” gesture by Foreign Minister deBrum of the Marshall Islands.   The Minister was consistent throughout that his country was not seeking punitive damages, financial compensation or reparations in any form, but was rather seeking legal remedy that would help to drive meaningful (and irreversible) policy change regarding any alleged “right” to ignore disarmament obligations.

Despite the damage inflicted on the islands and its peoples from years of above-ground nuclear testing, the Marshall Islands early on in this process took the prospect of financial compensation off the table.  The “compensation” of preference was a judgment that nuclear weapons states have simply not fulfilled their obligations under customary international law, and that the tangible commitment to “good faith” negotiations was necessary to satisfy both the judgments of the court and the people of the Marshall Islands that their longstanding and radiation-soaked sacrifices could serve a higher calling – a world once and for all free of nuclear weapons.

There were other matters about this case that were intriguing from the vantage points of policy and media. First, we have to admit that we don’t quite understand what appears to be incessant squabbling over relevant lenses – legal, humanitarian, moral – through which the question of nuclear weapons possession can finally be put to rest.   The skillfulness of the plaintiffs’ arguments in this case was matched by the compelling, kind and far-reaching nature of the relief being sought, not treasure in the conventional sense but the treasure of the greater good.  In these three legal cases, what is at stake is nothing short of our ability to have confidence in international law as applied to the dangers posed by the possession of these potentially “ecosystem destroying” weapons.

Second, while all arguments stayed fairly close to issues of admissibility and jurisdiction that dominated so much of the three state “defenses,” there was an under-current in the room that these three cases might create “jurisdiction” of another sort in the form of “good faith” negotiating pressure on the (majority) nuclear weapons states that chose to stay away from this case.   It surely occurred to the ICJ judges – as it must have for the Marshall Islands legal team – that it is a short distance from precedents established in these cases to accusations of “good faith” negotiating failures on the part of the other weapons possessors, including and especially the two largest possessing states.   The UK’s “one hand clapping” reference notwithstanding, there is reason to believe that such precedents coupled with political pressure from the “humanitarian” sector and moral pressure from the faith communities might finally be sufficient to get us on a path characterized by something other than pious statements advocating disarmament followed closely by negotiating intransigence.

By any relevant standard, this process before the ICJ would seem to rise to a level of importance –politically, symbolically and legally – for it to have received wider attention from both professional journalists and social media advocates for disarmament.  While grateful to the outlets and organizations that covered the cases (and even in the latter instance funded the participation of the Marshall Islands legal team), we simply cannot fathom how so much of this important work remained in the media shadows.   There is so much about peace and security advocacy that is bogged down by duplicitous state interests, distracted NGOs, even a lazy press.  This is one instance when our collective eyes and ears should have taken better notice.

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

Disarmament Deadline: Powering Down a Three Year Cycle

20 Apr

In reviewing the most recent versions of the Disarmament Commission Working Papers submitted by the Chairs of both Working Group I (nuclear weapons) and II (conventional weapons), it would seem that we are getting close to some kind of agreement whereby recommendations will be forthcoming that can both bind the two Working Groups within a successful process and provide real guidance to a disarmament community badly in need of deliberative assistance.

Without disclosing the specific contents of these Working Papers (negotiations on text language are well under way), we would like to offer the following comments:

After three weeks and, in essence, three years of the current policy cycle, it is imperative that the Disarmament Commission renders a set of recommendations on its two policy objectives – nuclear disarmament and confidence building in the field of conventional weapons.   As we have noted in other contexts, the value of these recommendations lies as much in building confidence in the Disarmament Commission itself as in providing working ‘capital’ to inspire movement on some of the difficult disarmament challenges that we all face.

Confidence, of course, is largely in the eyes of the beholder, but Working Group II especially seems to have found the language to facilitate some movement in that direction, in part by keeping in mind the nature of the deliberative process – recommending next steps in areas such as stockpile management or ending the diverted arms trade rather than engaging in preemptive policy precedents that are the proper domain of other parts of the disarmament machinery.

The ‘bar’ regarding Working Group I is set higher of course, since the objective is the elimination of a potentially devastating weapons system rather than spreading confidence to address a range of weapons tasks, from marking and tracing to regulation of the global arms trade.   Still, as weapons of all kinds increase in destructive potential and find new pathways (i.e. unmanned aerial vehicles, outer space) for threat or use, an approach that is disarmament-focused (more than about mere regulation) and at the same time committed to greater trust building among states should be able to result in shared policy advice.

That task is hardly a modest one.  As noted by Working Group II, confidence building measures cover a broad range of mutually reinforcing activities of a political, military, economic, social, humanitarian and cultural nature.  This is important point, tying the work of disarmament to other core functions of the international community and reminding diplomats and others that all work on weapons includes confidence building dimensions.

Some delegations have taken their Working Group responsibilities quite seriously. Mexico for instance has offered its own recommendations for achieving nuclear disarmament, joining other proposals offered by the Non-Aligned Movement and the League of Arab States, as well as the significant input on Working Group I drafts offered by Iran, Egypt, China, Brazil, the UK, Morocco, South Africa and other states.

The essence of Mexico’s position takes account of the fact that, “in the past, weapons have been eliminated after they have been outlawed.  We believe that this is the path to achieving a world without nuclear weapons.”

While delegates seem united in affirming the need for the total elimination of nuclear weapons, Mexico’s strong commitment to a legally binding instrument towards that end is unlikely to be echoed in the final Working Group I document.  Indeed there are several other items of importance to us that are also unlikely to be included:  modernization comes to mind as does a stronger insistence on convening a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone conference with full engagement by regional states.   In addition, it would also be useful from our standpoint to reaffirm that nuclear disarmament and its conventional counterpart are best promoted through multiple lenses – humanitarian to be sure, but also legal, political and even ethical.   A combination of lenses that can reinforce commitments and inspire greater will to abide by them seems to us to be the most propitious path.

But the most important thing now is to produce a document that satisfies the basic commitment of the Disarmament Commission to the productive policy engagement by the remainder of the UN’s disarmament machinery.   While disarmament is a matter of utmost urgency, this particular deliberative body must show it can first walk before being expected to move at a more urgent pace.

Some good, sound, actionable suggestions from each Working Group that provide guidance without threatening work in other disarmament settings would be a welcome outcome of this final week of a long and winding cycle, welcome for the Commission’s future as well as for the wider world.

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