Tag Archives: WMDs

The United Nations’ Annual Adventure

29 Sep

It is the Sunday after a long week of Heads of State, Foreign Ministers and a wide variety of other stakeholders all seeking to keep the UN on a positive, hopeful, practical trajectory, despite a myriad of global crises.

Side events on issues from the situation in Central African Republic to the abolition of child marriages occupied the attention of diplomats and select non-governmental representatives.   And then there was a most dramatic climate march as well as a media worthy presentation by Emma Watson on the need to encourage more male ‘champions’ for women’s rights.

The opening of the General Assembly corresponded with the re-opening of the General Assembly building.   While we have come to appreciate the North Lawn Building greatly, most participants in last week’s events seemed to enjoy the upgraded amenities of the new GA space, not to mention the reopening of the basement café. Guards and other UN personnel generally did a fine job of getting people in and out of meeting rooms and on and off crowded elevators.

It is not yet apparent how many compelling, new commitments were made this week by leaders.  There were, of course, some interesting ideas floated by civil society and governments – ideas that in our view still require more urgent scrutiny to minimize the possibility of unintended consequences.  We have already written about our cautions elsewhere on this blog with regard to both ‘veto restraint’ and the inclusion of a ‘peace objective’ within the post-2015 development goals.

There were many other things that happened this week that piqued our interest and even conveyed glimmers of hope that we can actually move confidently and urgently towards a holistic engagement of strategies to address some stubborn global emergencies.

  • At an event focused on nuclear disarmament, Brazil, Costa Rica and others properly highlighted the need for more investment in Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zones. At the same time, Chile called for the “delegitimizing” of nuclear weapons doctrines.
  • At another event focused on the death penalty, we were encouraged that so few states sought to defend their use of capital punishment. The President of Switzerland and Prime Minister of Italy made strong and convincing presentations exposing the fallacies of the death penalty.  At this same meeting, the office of the new High Commissioner for Human Rights launched the fine resource, “Moving away from the Death Penalty.”
  • In the Security Council, a US-led, co-sponsored resolution on foreign fighters passed unanimously, but Argentina’s president also noted the increasingly complex nature of terrorism and wondered aloud whether the Council’s responses are keeping pace.
  • In another Council meeting focused on ISIS, Luxembourg joined with other states in reminding members that (France’s reference to the ‘throat cutters’ notwithstanding) we are not going to solve deeper problems in the region through the application of threatening rhetoric and military power. In a similar vein, Rwanda described the ‘unbearable consequences’ that occur when the Council fails to use all available tools to maintain peace and security.
  • At an event on the role of education in the prevention of genocide, states noted the need to educate adults as well as children about the dangers of hate speech and other incitements to violence. Spain in particular spoke about the need to address conflict at its roots and noted its own, sustained advocacy work on behalf of more mediation resources.  For his part, USG Adama Dieng underscored the urgent responsibility to prevent incitement rather than waiting to address its consequences after the fact.
  • At a breakfast discussion focused on Women and Land, Ethiopia noted that land rights are tied to other rights and urged adoption of a holistic gender framework.  This sentiment was echoed by UN Women and other states in attendance.  It was also affirmed that land ownership by women lifts their general status in a variety of helpful ways.
  • At a ministerial event on Peace and Capable Institutions hosted by G7+ states, South Sudan highlighted the profound negative impacts of armed violence on fulfillment of development objectives, but wondered aloud about the wisdom of having a stand-alone ‘peace goal’ in the SDGs rather than, as others including the Prime Minister of Timor-Leste noted, a broader, more inclusive recognition in all SDGs of the importance of peaceful societies to development.
  • At a Sustainable Land Management event, New Zealand and others highlighted the degree to which restoration of damaged land constitutes a viable peace and security concern. During the same discussion, Germany highlighted some hopeful restoration initiatives while depicting hunger as one of the great “scandals” of our time.

There was so much more of note both within and beyond our hearing, of course: more hopeful statements, more missed opportunities, more rhetoric divorced from viable implementation strategies, more reminders of the connected, multi-dimensional crises that define our time.

All of this made up the past week at the UN, a highly political space that is often most effective at creating global norms to support change enacted at national and local levels.  It is at times like this when the need to simultaneously honor and demystify UN processes becomes apparent.  There are so many critical issues, including climate change, child soldiers and gender violence, that would have far less traction globally were it not for the UN’s sustained involvement.  On the other hand, the ‘talk shop’ reputation of the UN is only enhanced as a week’s worth of traffic-clogging motorcades and massive security bills result in modest outcomes as likely to disappoint public hopes as to inspire them.

As the barricades come down, the working-level diplomats resume their pride of place at UN headquarters.   Now is the time to take the most compelling suggestions from this week and turn them into strong resolutions that can leverage meaningful change.  We’ll be there to observe and reflect.

Dr. Robert Zuber

Twilight Zones:  Keeping a Fading Light on Disarmament Obligations

7 Sep

A line in the UN Journal for September 8 invites diplomats and observers to an ‘informal’ meeting of the Disarmament Commission, a body that has, by the admission of most who participate in it, fallen short of any reasonable expectations for its performance.

A reputation like the one attributed to this Commission, rightly or wrongly, has led increasingly for calls to pursue disarmament outside of existing international structures.   Such structures clearly add value to certain weapons-related processes – cluster munitions come immediately to mind — but are not without their detractors.  Indeed there is legitimate concern that self-selected policy settings tend to accelerate the pace of ‘like mindedness’ that crowds out the thoughtful and critical assessments of weapons policies that can help eliminate policy errors and create new disaramament consensus among all UN member states.  Reservations, as many others have noted, should not automatically imply efforts to demean or weaken.

That said, there is one area that has a tenuous relationship to the disarmament policy grid, that can and should attract more diplomatic interest, and that might even help to revitalize interest in more formal disarmament structures of the UN – the Nuclear Weapons (and proposed WMD) Free Zones.

The inspiration for this post derives much from the policy work and strategic thinking of UNODA’s Michael Spies.   He correctly identifies the ‘highly fragile and weak’ international regime governing the possession and spread of nuclear weapons.  He also identifies ways in which the zones can help to close loopholes that allow non-nuclear weapons states to continue to contribute in varying ways to (and derive the benefits from) the arsenals of the nuclear weapons states.   And he identifies the different ways in which the common strengthening of the zones can help promote a safer, nuclear free world.

Spies makes clear that paying closer attention to the zones can clarify responsibilities for non-nuclear weapons states in confronting the inability of the nuclear weapons powers (those acknowledged by the NPT and those not) to honor disarmament obligations.  Such attention can also help solidify standards of policy and infrastructure that can both elevate the effectiveness of individual zones and more directly ensure that states participating in any of the zones can speak with a clear and unified voice when seeking due diligence on security and disarmament from the nuclear weapons powers.  Such ‘consolidation of standards,’ to use a term favored by Spies, can also help states monitor each other to ensure that they are not condemning nuclear weapons possession on the one hand while simultaneously providing cover or support for states committed to keeping nuclear weapons as a signature feature of their military doctrines.

Another value from our standpoint is that states participating in more robust zones can thereby enhance their capacity to work together on a wide variety of security matters affecting conditions both within and between regional states.   While we have no data to support this assertion directly, it has always seemed to us that the relatively robust structure of Latin America’s OPANAL (Treaty of Tlatelolco) could be a particularly useful starting (not an end) point for the creation of common standards of zone organization and conduct.  Clearly there are other factors promoting Latin America’s leadership in this area including growing economies, the relative absence of armed violence and grave human rights violations, and excellent interventions by international organizations including the UN’s regional disarmament office in Lima (UNLiREC).  As the Latin American region becomes more politically stable, efforts to create and sustain regional security frameworks (ie. UNASUR) that distance themselves from the US and other larger powers  provide additional hope that Latin American states can forthrightly examine OPANAL’s own strengths and limitations while promoting commonly adhered standards for zone conduct that are very much in the interests of the global commons.

In so many respects, the international security situation seems to be moving steadily towards a dark place.   But the zones represent a lengthening (if fading) light, a chance for the regions – especially those regions not currently drowning in insurgencies or groaning under bloated military expenditures — to make their case for alternatives to a world awash in illicit (or profoundly destructive) weapons and the weapons-dependent doctrines of possessor states.

The nuclear weapons free zones have not, in our view, gotten the attention they deserve from the UN’s mostly-stalemated disarmament architecture.   Before the disarmament sun sets entirely, there are many more opportunities to promote more effective, robust, common standards for the zones that can leverage more integrated regional security arrangements and especially close loopholes that needlessly accommodate the needs of nuclear weapons powers.  Such opportunities must be seized while the twilight remains.

Dr. Robert Zuber

The Emotional and Psychological Trauma to Our People Can’t Be Measured In Real Terms

31 May

Editor’s Note:  Lia Petridis Maiello is a frequent contributor to this blog.   John Burroughs of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy is both an office mate and is also deeply involved with the Marshall Islands suits. 

The Republic of the Marshall Islands in the northern Pacific Ocean is not only a breathtakingly beautiful island state, but has recently moved into the public eye by starting a bold initiative that is widely interpreted as a “David against Goliath” undertaking.

The Marshall islands were subjected to dozens of nuclear tests, carried out by the U.S. after 1945.

According to the Associated Press, the island group filed suit in late April against each of the nine nuclear-armed powers in the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands. It also filed a federal lawsuit against the United States in San Francisco.

The Marshall Islands claims that instead of negotiating disarmament, the nine countries are modernizing their nuclear arsenals, spending $1 trillion on those arsenals over the next ten years.

“I personally see it as kind of David and Goliath, except that there are no slingshots involved,” David Krieger, president of the California-based Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, told AP. The Foundation is acting as a consultant in the case and is hoping that other countries will join the legal effort, Krieger points out.

Russia, Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea are included in the indictment. The last four are not parties to the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), but appear to be, according to the lawsuits, bound by its provisions under “customary international law.” The NPT, considered the cornerstone of nuclear disarmament efforts, requires negotiations among countries in “good faith” on disarmament, AP reports.

None of the countries had been informed in advance of the lawsuits. The case found broad recognition within the international press.

The Foreign Minister of the Marshall Islands, Tony de Brum, explains in an interview the impact the nuclear tests had and still have for his citizens and what he hopes this lawsuit can achieve for the island state and the world community.

You grew up on the island of Likiep during the 12-year period when the United States tested 67 atomic and thermonuclear weapons in the atmosphere and under water in the Marshall Islands (1946-1958). What are your memories on the impact these tests had for the island of Likiep and its inhabitants? Environmentally, politically and psychologically?

My memories of the tests are a mixture of awe, of fear, and of youthful wonder. We were young, and military representatives were like gods to our communities and so our reactions to the tests as they took place were confused and terrifying. We had no clue as to what was happening to us and to our homelands. Our elders, including my grandfather, tried to stop the tests in petitions and communications to the UN but were not successful. I personally witnessed the injuries to some of our countrymen from Rongelap and to this day cannot recall in words my sense of helplessness and anxiety without severe emotional stress. But for as long as I can remember, the explosions and the bizarre effects that lit up our skies are still a source of pain and anger. How could human beings do this to other humans?

While in later life many attempts have been made, both in good and bad faith, to reconstruct the impact of the testing on our people, only the physical and environmental effects can be discussed with some confidence. The emotional and psychological trauma to our people, both young and old, cannot be measured in real terms. The pain is real and the uncertainty is overwhelming. As a young lady said to me when showing me pictures of her dead deformed infant child, “God did not create my baby. He cannot be so cruel.”

The Republic of the Marshall Islands recently filed an extraordinary lawsuit at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, suing all nine nuclear weapons possessors for failing to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. But only three of the nine nuclear states named by the lawsuit generally accept the rulings of the International Court of Justice. What do you hope for the outcome of this case?

My country has exhausted all means within our limited power to bring attention and closure to our outstanding nuclear issues with our former Administrative Authority, the United States. Mechanisms jointly established for dealing with outstanding claims for physical injury and property damage have fallen way short of satisfying even the basic findings of the Nuclear Claims Tribunal formed under treaty agreements. This is due mostly to the withholding of critical information necessary for us to make informed decisions regarding our nuclear past and our uncertain future. To this day the United States still refuses to release information we have identified and requested under established processes. All the while we have to cope with displaced communities, skyrocketing medical costs, dangerously radioactive environments, and deprivation of use of traditional lands.

The United States tells us they have satisfied their obligation under the Free Association Compact, a Treaty, and that they will not entertain any claims or requests for meaningful assistance in this issue. In fact, the US Supreme Court refused to hear the cases of the People of Bikini and the People of Enewetak seeking damages for their destroyed homelands. After seeing what mere testing of these terrible weapons of mass destruction can do to human beings it makes sense for the Marshallese People to implore the nuclear weapons state to begin the hard task of disarmament. All we ask is that this terrible threat be removed from our world. It is the best we can do as collateral damage in the race for nuclear superiority. Our sacrifice will be for naught if the nuclear countries do not stand up and take notice of the evil that nuclear weapons present to our earth.

Do you think that this case can help to create enough international momentum for the Non-Proliferation-Treaty (NPT) to be treated — due to its near universal adherence — as part of customary international law by which all states must abide, regardless of whether or not they actually signed the treaty?

We believe that it is sensible and logical for the world community to consider this matter as one of customary international law. To do otherwise is to gamble with the future of the world.

What effects would that have on the discourse of nuclear disarmament worldwide?

It should stimulate intelligent discourse and wise solutions. For what would it gain the world for instance, to be protected from climate change, only to suffer massive destruction from nuclear weapons? All our efforts to be sane about the future must be connected to survival and peace. The right hand cannot be out seeking climate peace while the left is busy waging nuclear war.

Looking at the status quo of this discourse, how do you evaluate the outcome of the recent NPT PrepCom at United Nations’ headquarters in New York City which closed without adopting the Chair’s draft recommendations to the Review Conference?

The outcome of the recent NPT PrepCom appeared to be more “business as usual,” with the nuclear-armed parties to the treaty essentially evading their Article VI obligations or claiming they were fulfilling them in a step by step manner, while at the same time continuing to modernize their nuclear arsenals and relying upon them in their military strategies. It is clear that the nuclear-armed states are not pursing negotiations in good faith to end the nuclear arms race and to achieve complete nuclear disarmament, as they are obligated to do under Article VI of the treaty.

You have also been advocating on the issue of climate change, a grave concern that affects not only the Pacific Islands, but has obvious global consequences. Are there linkages between nuclear disarmament and climate change? Considering that both issues climate change, as well as nuclear disarmament are political matters of tremendous significance, which one, in your opinion, has the capacity of being addressed faster by the international community?

I hit upon this somewhat in question four but clearly one cannot isolate climate change from the other most pressing issue of world security today. They go hand in hand, and must be dealt with in a coordinated and universally accepted pathway. As a country that has seen the ravages of war, suffers the lingering effects of nuclear tests, and facing the onset of a rising sea, we see all these to be threats of equal force against world peace and human life. But finger pointing and challenges of who goes first must now stop and sane and intelligent human beings must confront this insanity with firm confidence and clear peaceful intentions.

Lia Petridis Maiello, Journalist

Five Lost Weeks

9 May

Editors Note:   Our hope is to use this space for multiple pieces of commentary motivated by the largely unsuccessful end to both the 2014 Disarmament Commission and the NPT Preparatory Committee. Additional information on both the DC and NPT can be found on the Reaching Critical Will site. 

With applause emanating from most delegates to the NPT Preparatory Committee, five weeks of disarmament commitments from diplomatic missions, Secretariat officials and others was drawn to a close.  The Disarmament Commission. The NPT Review Committee.   Hundreds of government statements.  Many more hours of deliberations.   Millions of dollars in airfare, accommodations, interpreters and more.  The opportunity costs have been staggering, the opportunities themselves largely wasted.

Welcome to spring 2014, a time when some of us anticipated a slight breath of new momentum on disarmament, at least with fingers crossed, but even those modest expectations were effectively suppressed. The Marshall Islands lawsuit in the ICJ was the one glimmer of hope among the many dim flickers of disarmament possibility.

The mood inside the NPT room mirrored some familiar dynamics. On the one hand, diplomatic reverence for the NPT persists, a bit like holding on sentimentally to an automobile that once held promise but is not beginning to show signs of rust.  As Ambassador Roman-Morey wisely noted, we are dealing now with 2014 issues.  The vehicles we employed in 2010 might need a bit of upgrading now.

On the other hand, modifying agreed treaty text within a highly imbalanced and politicized security system allows powerful states to open up pathways to consolidate their own national interests at the expense of others.   And we know that once opened, those pathways are invariably exploited.

The NPT process appears to be caught in a trap of its own making.   A highly political treaty in its own right without independent mechanisms to ensure compliance, the NPT is known by its three pillars as well as its key “essentialist” notions. Foremost among these notions is the NPT’s insistence that the designation of “nuclear weapons states” is not directly tied to the actual possession of such weapons.   This creates needless wastes of energy trying to convince some current nuclear powers to adopt a treaty which, in essence, denies the existence of weapons that everyone knows they have. According to NPT logic, if France were tomorrow to rid themselves of their weapons they would remain a “nuclear weapons state,” while Pakistan, the DPRK, etc. will forever be non-nuclear weapons states regardless of how large their arsenals become. Israel would as well, of course, which makes some modicum of sense, albeit cynical, since they do not acknowledge the existence of weapons that are widely known to exist.  Apparently, there are neither clear points of entry, nor clearly marked exit signs, within the NPT.

The Middle East WMD-Free Zone, a pillar of the 2005 Review Conference, remains a large unfulfilled promise, taking on the character of ‘suggested behavior’ rather than a fundamental, treaty-related commitment.   This is not what was intended in 2005 and is not what is needed now.  After all, we have collectively solved tougher technical and political challenges over the past nine years than getting this conference up and running.

From the outside, the NPT (and its non-outcomes) looks like nothing more than standard UN disarmament politics, disconnected from the public security longings that help inspire state connectivity to the UN in the first place.

In our experience, the good will on the floor of disarmament negotiations is surprisingly sincere, but it also masks deep levels of distrust that play out in multiple policy venues beyond the reach of weapons.  It also hides a diplomatic rotating door that leaves large gaps in institutional memory that new diplomats can only attempt to fill.

Diplomats do their best but then, with few exceptions, they quickly rotate home or to new posts overseas.   For their part, many NGOs parachute in to share their preferences and then go home as well, learning little about how UN headquarters functions including the ways in which their presence is manipulated by states to articulate plausible (but not necessarily successful) outcomes.

Still five weeks of policy attention in a dangerous world should yield more than commitments to revisit commitments.    It is getting harder and harder for those of us who have pretentions to being answerable to global constituents to explain how governments seemingly hold local security needs and aspirations in such little regard.

These constituents can’t experience for themselves the uneven power dynamics and hidden deals that characterize so much of the UN’s disarmament machinery.  They can’t fathom what it takes to create consensus from 194 state positions, all mediated by often extraordinary diplomats who can’t make many more binding policy commitments than the NGOs can.   They can’t grasp why the politics of states, over and over, take blanket precedence over the security needs of communities.

Diplomats will never get this time back again.   The global community, for its part, might never fully regain the confidence that states are truly promoting the community’s best security interests. We’ll have to wait until 2015, it seems, for a full cost accounting of the trust deficits that have only widened during these five long weeks.

Dr. Robert Zuber

Forewarned is Forearmed — Thoughts on the Looming Threat of Pandemic and What We Can Do About It

11 Feb

The deadly influenza outbreak of 1918 swept across the globe, claiming tens of millions of lives. The more conservative estimates place the death toll at around fifty million people though the number may have been far greater. My grandmother lost her older sister during that outbreak, but with the advent of more advanced medical technologies and increased understanding of how pandemics spread, my generation has so far experienced these deadly global outbreaks largely through the study of history. However, as the flu virus continues to mutate and scientists push the boundaries of experimental manipulation of pathogens, I wonder if we are adequately prepared to meet the biological security threats of tomorrow.

A recent article in Foreign Affairs by Laurie Garrett, “The Next Pandemic”, offers a comprehensive look at how the evolution of pathogens may shape our future and highlights the lack of governmental capacity for dealing with this urgent security threat. Due to several mergers in the 1990s and the high risk associated with investment in vaccines, there are now only a few companies that produce an influenza vaccine. Furthermore, as of 2003, the entire market for all vaccines accounted for less than two percent of the global pharmaceutical market. Thus if disaster strikes, manufacturers will have trouble ramping up production sufficient to meet dramatically increased demand. Garrett notes that “manufacturers have never produced more than 300 million doses of flu vaccine in a single year”, a disturbing figure given that in order to inoculate the entire population in the event of a global pandemic, the US alone would require roughly 300 million doses.

Should a pandemic strike now, given our current level of preparedness, tragic consequences seem inevitable. The world would be thrown into turmoil – widespread panic and drastically reduced law enforcement make for a bad mix. Peacekeeping operations would be weakened by loss of personnel, leading to a worldwide rise in conflict potential. Inter- and intrastate tensions would be further exacerbated by a severely limited supply of lifesaving vaccines and medication. In addition, a vastly reduced workforce, as well as an almost inevitable global stock market meltdown would lead to major economic troubles throughout the world. The combined effects of these outcomes would lead to global chaos and discord, exactly what security experts around the world spend their lives working to prevent.

In addition to formulating a response to the natural evolution of pathogens, we must also decide how to deal with the challenges that manmade pathogens pose to global security. Laurie Garrett offered some thoughts on this issue in “Biology’s Brave New World: The Promise and Perils of the Synbio Revolution.” She notes that “[i]n May 2010…J. Craig Venter and his private-company team started with DNA and constructed a novel genetic sequence of more than one million coded bits of information known as nucleotides.” This heralded the beginning of a new era where scientists could both manipulate the genetic code of existing organisms and create new ones. This is the age in which my peers and I will experience our adulthoods, and it has the potential to be a time of exciting innovations – everything from “smart” materials to artificially grown organs. However, this new era brings with it the potential for frightening innovations in the realm of biological warfare, as well as warfare triggered by biological catastrophe.

It is vital that we ask ourselves what the boundaries of exploration are and whether there are experiments that simply should not be conducted. In 2011, Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam announced that he had “mutated the hell out of H5N1”, turning it from a disease confined mainly to birds and transmissible only to humans who had direct contact with infected animals, into a possible human-to-human flu. Initially, he created a virus that could infect ferrets – ferret flu susceptibility is similar to that of humans, and thus they are often used as human stand-ins in labs. Fouchier then did what he described as “something really, really stupid” – he swabbed the nose of infected ferrets and then used the gathered virus to infect more of the animals, repeating the process until he had produced a strain of H5N1 that spread through the air. Fouchier defended his actions, arguing that the experiment served to alert that world that H5N1 could become airborne. However, the experiment set off a debate about what should and should not be allowed in the lab, with people raising concerns about what would happen if such a virus fell into the hands of terrorists.

Certainly, one way we can learn about these potential killers is by experimenting with them. However, Garrett raises an interesting point noting: “When HIV emerged in the early 1980s, nobody was sure just how the virus was transmitted…Had it been technically possible to do so, would it have been wise to deliberately alter the virus then, giving it the capacity to spread through the air or through casual contact?” In all fairness, although both are infectious, flu is very different from HIV, and the chance of H5N1 naturally mutating to become airborne and human-to-human transmissible is significantly higher. However, there is also a very real risk that the blueprints of experiments like Fouchier’s could fall into the wrong hands, with catastrophic consequences.

Perhaps the endless predictions of the coming storm have deafened us to the far off thunder. So far we have avoided a pandemic, but it is likely that eventually a highly contagious, deadly strain of influenza will emerge on a large scale. Whether that influenza kills hundreds of millions of people or not depends on how well we prepare for it. Stockpiling enough vaccines to inoculate the global population is not a viable option, but perhaps policymakers can offer companies incentives to enter the vaccine market and increase production capacity. Furthermore, by augmenting controls on and monitoring of scientific experimentation and weapons development, world leaders can help assure that no manmade biological weapon is ever unleashed. Our world is full of threats as well as opportunities. For the moment, we might well be missing the opportunity to proactively prepare for the threat of a pandemic, natural or otherwise. Through conducting a global dialogue on this potential danger to all humanity, we can share ideas on how to prepare and hopefully both prevent the malevolent use of biological agents and also mitigate the effects of a naturally occurring pandemic.

My generation is eager to add our brainpower and our voices to this discussion as we take on the mantle of tomorrow’s innovators. For now we must still rely on those at higher policy and scientific levels to take the lead on such initiatives and protect all our futures. I would urge those in authority to consider the consequences of failure to take proactive action. As Cervantes once noted, “to be prepared is half the victory.”

Carly Millenson, Student and WIIS New York Coordinator

Securing the inspectors: Legitimacy, capacity and security dimensions of disposing Syria’s chemical weapons

17 Oct

Editor’s Note:  The following is analysis on options for protection of those disposing of Syria’s chemical arsenal by Dr. David Curran.  David teaches at the University of Bradford in the UK and is a Fellow in peacekeeping at GAPW for fall 2013.  David has taken leadership on joint conferences and publications with GAPW and has offered consults with diplomats on some of the important peacekeeping issues coming up in the Fourth Committee of the UN General Assembly. 

The UN Security Council’s endorsement for Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s three-stage strategy for the elimination of the Syrian Governments arsenal of chemical weapons marks a small yet positive step in its handling of the crisis. It has also set a rapid time frame between the passing of UNSCR 2118[1], and the eventual elimination of all chemical stockpiles belonging to the Syrian Regime. Destroying the stockpile contains a number of risks, at several different phases in the process, from transportation to sites, securing the sites, destroying stockpiles and the process of verification of the destruction. This is difficult enough in peace-time yet alone in the midst of a civil war. Thus in the implementation of UNSCR 2118 a question arises over the possible role of military and security assets which will be used to assist the joint OPCW/UN mission. In particular, the question of ‘who’ provides such assets will be of importance to the development of the operation.

The Secretary General outlined a three phase approach to the elimination of the chemical arsenal. Phases I and II make the first steps towards the destruction of chemical weapons, through initial investigation and destruction of production and mixing and filling equipment respectively. Phase III of the plan poses the most serious challenges for the mission, particularly regarding the safety and security of the inspectors. In Phase III, (to be completed between 1 November 2013 to 30 June 2014), the joint team will be expected to ‘support, monitor and verify the destruction of a complex chemical weapons programme involving multiple sites spread over a country engulfed in violent conflict’ [2]. This process is expected to require movement by the operation (and potentially certain types of chemical agents) through ‘active confrontation lines and in some cases through territory controlled by armed groups that are hostile to the objectives of the Joint Mission’ [3].  In a situation described as ‘dangerous and volatile’, with a range of belligerent groups (some attached to formal command structures, some not), there exists a potential for serious risks to the success of the operation and, more significantly, the health and wellbeing of those in the vicinity of the destruction sites.

The assessment of the Syrian opposition from the International Crisis Group outlines the range of factions fighting against the Syrian regime as being ‘pluralistic and deeply divided, their structures improvised and shifting and their foreign backers apparently altogether less consistent and coordinated’[4]. Moreover, as Al Jazeera has reported there has been a shift in the opposition whereby thirteen of the most powerful rebel groups have withdrawn their recognition of the Syrian National Council, leaving the free Syrian Army ‘increasingly splintered’[5]. There are also significant reasons for those in opposition to be skeptical about any process which leads to ceasefire

Surrender, they are convinced, would mean merciless vengeance at the hands of a regime that, already, has shot at peaceful protestors, killed untold numbers of detained prisoners, tolerated the slaughter of women and children, bombed villages and fired ballistic missiles into densely populated neighbourhoods[6]

It is in this environment that the Joint Mission will operate. It is therefore important to look through what options for military support have been discussed.

It appears that discussion on the topic has led to two main options being espoused. Firstly, a ‘coalition of the willing’ type arrangement formed from a lead nation, and supported by others. For example, towards the end of September, the Russian government offered to provide a security force comprised of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan troops[7]. The benefits of such a coalition would be in common operating procedures, and cultural familiarity (through joint training for example). However, such compositions may effect the legitimacy of the operation in a context such as Syria, where the conflict has become internationalized to a considerable extent[8], and a wide range of states are seen as being allied to one side or another. This is particularly true with regards to the generally hostile view held by opposition groups towards the Russian Government, a strategic partner of the Syrian Government[9].  Reflecting on this, Richard Gowan from NYU’s Centre on International Cooperation suggests that Russian personnel would be counter-productive for security

I think there is a very significant risk that rebel forces will try to disrupt this process, especially if they see significant numbers of Russian personnel involved in the destruction of chemical weapons, because for the hard-line rebels the Russians are almost certainly fair game[10]

An alternative solution would be some kind of force which would look similar to UN peacekeepers. The Secretary General’s letter to the Security Council highlights that in the process of developing a ‘viable operational concept’ there is a requirement for consultation with Member States ‘that may be in a position to contribute to the associated activities’, leading to questions of the extent to which the DPKO would be involved[11]. Involvement of a ‘type’ of peacekeeping is reflected in other areas. Richard Guthrie, a British chemical weapons expert, suggested that some kind of UN peacekeeping presence was needed as those who normally inspect weapons under the Chemical Weapons Convention are not military personnel, and ‘can’t stand there with machine guns in hand and protect the weapons,’ Guthrie adds that any mission ‘would have to be done in coordination with some kind of UN peacekeeping force — which would have to be armed guards and they would have to be able to deter any attack on those locations’[12]

A UN peacekeeping-style plan may however be more difficult to attain in practice. There are reasons for this. Firstly are the technicalities of raising a UN peacekeeping force. In particular issues of mobilizing forces, logistics, equipping and the levels of training have led some in the UN to suggest a Peacekeeping plan is not feasible’ [13]. Moreover, the requirement of a functioning peace process has also been highlighted by advocates of intervention as a necessary precondition for the deployment of UN peacekeepers[14]

However, one thing that the United Nations could represent is a degree of legitimacy in being able to cross lines of conflict. This legitimacy is not by any degree watertight, but it may mean (to use Gowan’s terminology) that UN forces are not seen as ‘fair game’. The internationalized nature of the conflict could well mean that conflicting parties rely on external funding and support. Attacking a civilian-led UN operation designed to uphold international law may not be the best way in which to maintain an external funding base. One of the guiding principles of UN peacekeeping is the perceived legitimacy of its operations, as they are derived from an institution which broadly represents the will of the international community[15].

This short review of response options has opened up an important issue. On the one hand (a ‘coalition of the willing’) there exists high levels of preparedness yet possibly less legitimacy in the eyes of all parties; yet any attempt to mandate a UN peacekeeping-style operation would likely have lower preparedness but a higher chance of maintaining legitimacy. Unfortunately it appears that the nationality of the security providers will matter, possibly as much as where the highest levels of expertise can be sourced. This means that there exists a fundamental need for creative solutions to blend competence and legitimacy in the operation, something which is already evident in Ban Ki Moon’s flexible design of the operation, as well as in the recent plea from the head of the OPCW to instigate short-term localized ceasefires[16], which may facilitate the removal of weapons. Possibly a ‘golden egg’ solution can be found which is able to draw on the best expertise whilst maintaining legitimacy in the eyes of those involved in violent conflict (a different type of coalition?). This is a large step into the unknown, and the stakes are high. This fact is not lost on the Secretary General, who stated in his letter that this will be an ‘operation the likes of which, quite simply, has never been tried before’[17].

Dr. David Curran, Peacekeeping Fellow


[1] United Nations, United Nations Security Council Resolution 2118 (S/Res/2118), 27 September 2013

[2] United Nations, Letter Dated 7 October 2013 from the Secretary General addressed to the President of the Security Council (S/2013/591), 7th October 2013, P6

[3] United Nations (note 2), P6

[4] International Crisis Group, Syria’s Metastasising Conflicts: Middle East Report N°14327, June 2013, P25, Found at

http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/Middle%20East%20North%20Africa/Iraq%20Syria%20Lebanon/Syria/143-syrias-metastasising-conflicts.pdf)

[5] Al Jazeera, The Future of the Free Syrian Army, 6th October 2013, Found at http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/insidestory/2013/10/future-free-syrian-army-2013105155250560782.html

[6] International Crisis Group, (see Note 4), P26

[7] The Guardian, Russia offers to guard sites holding Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, 26th September 2013, Found at

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/26/russia-guard-syria-chemical-weapons-sites

[8] Open Democracy, Syria, realigning the war, 10th October 2013, http://www.opendemocracy.net/paul-rogers/syria-realigning-war

[9] See: CNN, War of words between Russia, U.S. on Syrian crisis heats up, 6th September 2013, Found at, http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/05/world/russia-us-relations/index.html; The Moscow Times, Russia’s Syria Ties Boost Humanitarian Aid, Red Cross Says, 8th October 2013, Found at: http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/russias-syria-ties-boost-humanitarian-aid-red-cross-says/487556.html

[10] Worldpress.org, Syria: Interview with Richard Gowan, 10th October 2013, Found at http://www.worldpress.org/Mideast/3985.cfm

[11] Inner City Press, On Syria, Questions of UN Trust Fund & Plans, Ban Said to “See From One Eye”, 8th October 2013, Found at http://www.innercitypress.com/syria1baneye100813.html

[12] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Explainer: How Practical Is Russia’s Syria Chemical-Weapons Proposal?, 10th September 2013, Found at,  (http://www.rferl.org/content/syria-chemical-russia-practical/25101800.html)-

[13] The Nation, Racing the Clock, Chemical Experts Begin to Disarm Syria, 7th October 2013, Found at, http://www.thenation.com/article/176519/racing-clock-chemical-experts-begin-disarm-syria#

[14] The Guardian, MPs vote down military intervention in Syria: Politics live blog, 30th August 2013, Found at http://www.theguardian.com/politics/blog/2013/aug/29/mps-debate-syria-live-blog

[15] United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, United Nations Peacekeeping Principles and Guidelines, UN, New York, 2008

[16] See: BBC, Syria chemical weapons: OPCW plea for short ceasefires, 14th October 2013, Found at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-24516303; New York Times, Syrian Rebels Urged to Let Inspectors See Arms Sites, 14th October 2013, Found at

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/15/world/middleeast/syria.html?_r=0

[17] United Nations, (see Note 2), P6

Test Pattern: The UN Gets a Helpful Reminder on Nuclear Testing

5 Sep

Once again this year, the government of Kazakhstan has capably organized events (www.un.org/en/events/againstnucleartestsday/2013/events.shtml) to highlight the international obligation to abolish nuclear testing as a precondition for abolishing nuclear weapons once and for all.

The highlight for many was an evening reception on the first floor of the renovated UN conference building hosted by Ambassador Byrganym Aitimova and featuring the art work of Mr. Karipbek Kuyukov, a young man who was born without arms and who shared his artwork with diplomats and other UN stakeholders.  The art, it should be noted, was painted with his feet and was in its own way a remarkable testament to the damage that nuclear tests can do to local populations long past the point at which the ‘test results’ have been tabulated by nuclear weapons states.

It should be noted that, despite the lack of universal ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, nuclear testing is being functionally rendered inert.  Tests are few and far between and subject to almost universal condemnation by states.  At the same time, nuclear weapons states continue to modernize their arsenals, a veritable slap in the fact to those who states that have been pursuing a nuclear free world in a variety of settings – through nuclear free zones, in largely deadlocked fora such as the Conference on Disarmament, through ‘like-minded’ processes such as such as was convened last spring in Oslo, through the Open Ended Working Group in Geneva, or through the high level meeting on nuclear disarmament being organized by the GA president’s office during its opening session in late September.

In addition to diverse policy venues, there are also diverse security responsibilities.   As we have noted with respect to nuclear free zones, there is an important difference between honoring a treaty and supporting the security arrangements of a zone.   Lowering violence thresholds and enhancing human security involves multiple complementary activities that can reduce incentives for (and excuses by) the nuclear weapons states to preserve their nuclear monopoly.

There are many pathways to disarmament and all of them have rough patches, some rougher than others. Despite the fact that nuclear testing sits on few of the top priority lists of member state security concerns, it is critically important that there be no backsliding on testing.  As challenging as progress towards disarmament can be, we cannot afford to burden that agenda further, not to mention place new generations at risk of dangerous fallout from the reckless pursuit of such tests.

The ‘path to zero’ articulated during the panel presentations on September 5 has been winding and full of potholes, but still points us towards a nuclear free world.   There are detours required at times, but no dead end.  While it is not always clear how individual events at the UN contribute to preferred outcomes, it is important that we ritualize even more of these powerful reminders of our nuclear weapons responsibilities.  Just as birthdays, religious and national holidays, anniversaries and more are the signposts through which we reaffirm the deep value to our families, friends and other loved ones, such events as those organized by Kazakhstan can help keep us from turning our attention away from our disarmament obligations before our work is done.

Dr. Robert Zuber