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4 October 2010 - Preview Edition

Editorial: Human security disarmament
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF


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In the lead up to this year’s UN General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and International Security, several high-level events that are linked in complex ways took place here in New York. These included a summit on the Millennium Development Goals; a high-level meeting on the International Year of Biodiversity; a Security Council meeting on the international security environment; a high-level meeting on taking forward multilateral disarmament negotiations; and a thematic meeting on counterterrorism.

Two connections among these events are of particular relevance to disarmament. The first is redefining the concept of security to one that recognizes the importance of economic and social justice, human rights, and environmental preservation. The second is revitalizing the processes by which international relations are conducted and administered.

Human security. In its concept paper for the UN Security Council summit on the international security environment, the Turkish delegation recognized the linkages between security and development that have “given new prominence to the impact of poverty, global economic crisis, infectious diseases and environmental degradation on the security environment.” While only the president of Uganda and prime minister of Japan specifically raised the issue of human security during the meeting, the outcome of the meeting, apresidential statement, does say that the Council “underlines the necessity to address the root causes of conflicts, taking into account that development, peace and security, and human rights are interlinked and mutually reinforcing.”

However, the meeting failed to make the connection between these issues and some of the primary impediments to security: excessive military expenditure, unregulated arms trade, and the possession of nuclear weapons by the permanent members of the Security Council. As Costa Rica’s President Miranda said at the General Assembly on 23 September, the accumulation and trade in arms is not only a threat to peace and survival, but “is also an aggression to development.” She explained, “Each soldier who enrolls, each missile that is activated and each isotope enriched with military purposes, imply less schools and hospitals, less food programs, less roads, less wireless networks, less seeds for the farmers or less good judges to administer justice.”

The international community needs to elaborate a robust framework for addressing the challenges to security, including a critique of militarism, overarmament, and the use or threat of use of force. Approaching disarmament and arms control through the lens of international humanitarian law and as an imperative for human rights and human security shifts the focus of debate away from weapons as tools for “state security” to the needs of human beings to be protected against the impacts of such weapons. This in turn would also affect the processes by which the international community deliberates and negotiates disarmament and arms control.

Process. The existing machinery for multilateral disarmament negotiations, the Conference on Disarmament (CD) has been deadlocked for twelve years. Governments are starting to think creatively at how to get out of quagmire and the UN Secretary-General convened a high-level meeting two weeks ago to air options for moving forward. Delegations to the CD still disagree about the cause of the deadlock, particularly over whether it is the result of the machinery itself or the lack of “political will”. Some, however, have suggested that something much more fundamental is at the heart of the problem.

In 2009, the Costa Rican delegation to the CD suggested that the forum’s paralysis is rooted in governments’ approach to disarmament from an “armament point of view and not from a humanistic approach.” The Costa Ricans argued that an exclusively military lens leads at best to the regulation or control of arms but will never lead to world disarmament.

Taking a humanitarian approach to nuclear disarmament would revolutionize the agenda at the CD and beyond, enabling the multilateral disarmament fora to move away from the incremental approach to nuclear disarmament that has shown to be ineffective so far. It would focus efforts on banning nuclear weapons rather than merely limiting its spread to other countries.

The negotiation, adoption, and implementation of the Mine Ban Treaty and the Convention on Cluster Munitions both addressed the specific weapon systems from a humanitarian perspective, banning the systems on the basis of their violation of international humanitarian law, and both treaties contain provisions that address victim assistance. This approach is equally applicable to questions of nuclear weapons. One of the real positive outcomes of the 2010 NPT Review Conference was inclusion in the final document of language expressing “deep concern at the catastrophic human consequences of any use of nuclear weapons” and reaffirming “the need for all States at all times to comply with applicable international law, including international humanitarian law.” The Review Conference’s statement reinforces the moral unacceptability and presumptive unlawfulness of any use of nuclear weapons, which is a powerful challenge to their possession by any state.

Furthermore, the humanitarian approach to disarmament enables governments and civil society to define and implement actions that lead to the desired goal—and to oppose those that lead away from it. The process of negotiating the anti-personnel landmine and cluster munition bans made it clear that certain actions violated law and principles. The same would be true of a process to ban nuclear weapons. Such a process would highlight the problems of modernizing, refurbishing, or otherwise investing in nuclear weapon research, development, or infrastructure, for example. It would make clear the problems of use and possession, as outlined above, and would challenge doctrines, postures, and policies that signal the intent or possibility of use.

The humanitarian perspective is also necessary in the preparatory process on the arms trade treaty currently underway in the General Assembly. Ensuring that human rights and international humanitarian law are at the core of the final treaty—and not just buried in its preamble—will provide guidance for deliberations on all of the treaty’s elements.

As John Borrie of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research has written in Rethinking multilateral negotiations: disarmament as humanitarian action (pdf), “new and complex challenges of security this century ... increasingly call for supplementary perspectives in order for them to be addressed effectively. Humanitarian perspectives and concepts can constitute certain of these supplements. They do not need to be viewed as exclusive alternatives to national security approaches in order to assist negotiating practitioners and can help build common ground in responding to collective challenges in security, especially as states are responsible for contributing to their citizens’ security in individual and communal terms, as well as from external threats posed by other states.”

UNIDIR, civil society, and several governments have done much work to bring the humanitarian perspective to disarmament processes—but it is up to member states to employ these perspectives and bring them to the forefront in their deliberations and negotiations. 2010, the start of the next disarmament decade, is an excellent time to start.

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