Disarmament that Saves Lives

Opportunities and Challenges drawn from the Panel Discussion, “Building on the Secretary General’s Disarmament Agenda”

(Centre for International Studies & Diplomacy at SOAS University of London, UNOG, 12th February 2019)

by Marc Finaud, Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP)

  1. Relevance of the Secretary-General’s Agenda in the Light of the Current Context

This is probably the chapter of the Secretary-General’s Agenda that should resonate the most in many countries because of the severe casualties and fatalities inflicted every year mainly on civilian populations in conflicts (50 to 60,000 killed) but also by armed violence in peaceful societies (half a million killed). International humanitarian law, a common heritage of humanity, is applicable in armed conflict but is grossly disregarded by both state and non-state actors that are parties to such conflicts.

In recent years, we have witnessed, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen or Ukraine, how explosive weapons such as artillery, rockets, mortars, air-dropped bombs or surface-to-surface ballistic missiles are used indiscriminately in populated areas. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are used by terrorist armed groups or criminals but also regular forces, as we have seen in the case or barrel bombs in Syria, against civilians, humanitarian workers or UN peacekeeping forces.  Armed drones are increasingly used also both by state and non-state combatants for targeted strikes without real oversight or accountability.

Thanks to the civil society initiatives of the Ottawa Treaty banning antipersonnel landmines and the Oslo Convention on Cluster Munitions, the number of victims caused by such indiscriminate weapons has dropped dramatically over the last 20 years (from some 20,000 to 8,000 per year). But dozens of countries remain affected by them.

On a global scale, the world is awash with conventional armaments. Military expenditure, which includes both equipment and manpower, continues to increase every year to reach over 1,700 billion dollars. If for most states, such spending is below the world average of 2.5 percent of GDP, for at least 34 countries, it is above, sometimes 5 or 10 times more. The 5 top spending countries spend 60 percent of the world’s military expenditure. Three of them (the US, China, and Russia) are also among the top 6 arms exporters (along with France, the UK and Germany) while two of them (India and Saudi Arabia) are the two main arms importers.

Apart from heavy weapon systems, over one billion small arms and light weapons are in circulation worldwide and 14 billion pieces of ammunition are produced every year. If the international community has finally decided to regulate the international trade in conventional arms with the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), illicit trafficking in firearms continues on a global scale: 80 to 90 percent of trafficked weapons originate from licit transactions, diverted by criminals or corrupt officials.

2. Ways to Move the Agenda Forward

Some security situations are conducive to conventional arms build-up, and sometimes exploited by defence industry and arms exporters. So it is unlikely that arms control or disarmament will succeed if nothing is done about conflict prevention or resolution. However, even in times of transition or in situations of tensions, the international community has designed tools that can reduce the impact of weapons on civilian populations or prevent military escalation. It is today a paradox that Europe, which showed the example to the world at the end of the Cold War in negotiating and implementing far-reaching confidence- and security building measures and conventional disarmament, is now unable to respond to its security challenges by concluding new agreements while the international community, in the UN Disarmament Commission, has finally recognized the relevance and importance of such measures for regional security and stability. This is all the more crucial in areas where conventional conflict may escalate into nuclear war. The relevant governments should also listen again to the voice of civil society and academia and look carefully at the recommendations of groups such as the European Leadership Network or the OSCE Network of Think Tanks and Academic Institutions, and of course the SCRAP Project!

The actions proposed by the Secretary-General in his Agenda on conventional arms control and disarmament make perfect sense, and if they are followed, there is no doubt that they will give existing processes a useful impulse and create safer conditions on the ground: avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas; share policy and practice to protect civilians; introduce casualty recording in UN operations; establish civilian harm mitigation cells; strengthen inter-agency coordination on IEDs; common standards for armed drones; a dedicated trust fund on small arms; build understanding on the impact of arms on conflict management; secure excessive and poorly maintained stockpiles; and regional dialogue to build confidence on military matters.

3. Linkages and Gaps in the Current Disarmament Processes

The main challenge ahead lies in the silo approach, very familiar to the arms control community in Geneva. Some progress has been achieved in allowing some dialogue among stakeholders, whether governmental or not, thanks to meetings organised in Geneva by key actors such as UNIDIR, UNODA, the Geneva Disarmament Platform, Small Arms Survey, DCAF, GICHD, or the GCSP. Those meetings revealed the extent of the need for comprehensive approaches, inter-agency coordination, and the development of common good practices. A good example could be followed: the Geneva Peacebuilding Platform that federates since 2006 all the Geneva-based actors involved in one way or another in peacebuilding activities and that established a bridge with the New York-based UN Peacebuilding Commission and Fund.

In the vast area of conventional arms control, the Geneva-based treaty bodies (Implementation Support Units of the Ottawa Treaty and Oslo Convention as well as the CCW, the Secretariat of the ATT, UNMAS) could work more collaboratively among themselves and with governments, research institutions and civil society. They could create more institutional and practical bridges with other organisations working in similar fields such as the ICRC in Geneva, INTERPOL in Lyon, the World Customs Organization in Brussels, the International Maritime Organization in London, and the Vienna-based organizations (UNODC, the Hague Code of Conduct, the Wassenaar Arrangement and the OSCE).

The task of pulling bureaucracies out of their comfort zone may seem daunting but past achievements clear show that it is feasible: apart from the Geneva Peacebuilding Initiative, let’s mention the International Small Arms Control Standards (ISACS), the UN Integrated DDR Standards (IDDRS), the International Ammunition Technical Guidelines (IATG), the Ammunition Safety Management (ASM) method, Physical Protection and Stockpile Management (PPSM) standards, or the Montreux Document on private military and security companies. All those achievements resulted from wide-ranging consultations and negotiations with all the relevant stakeholders.