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UN Chief's Disarmament Agenda Faces Rough Waters

By Jayantha Dhanapala

Photo: UN Secretary-General António Guterres speaks at the University of Geneva, launching his Agenda for Disarmament, on 24 May 2018. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferre.

The UN Secretary-General's new Disarmament Agenda entitled, Securing Our Common Future, "seems unlikely to secure our common future with the present actors," writes Jayantha Dhanapala, a retired Ambassador of Sri Lanka and a former UN Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament. "We will either have to wait for a change of actors or search among the debris of failed negotiations for a fresh start. But that depends on the unpredictable Trump and Kim Jong Un," he adds. [P 07JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF

KANDY (IDN) – The much heralded disarmament programme of the UN Secretary-General was unveiled on May 24 before a university audience in the city of Geneva.

It comes in António Guterres' second year in office when the stage has unfortunately been dominated by the exhibitionist antics of Trump with his bellicose statements asserting U.S. military and in particular nuclear weapon superiority.

And this, though conflicts rage in Syria, Yemen and other parts of the world with the use of prohibited weapons like chemical weapons as well as new weapon technologies using artificial intelligence. The symbolism of a youthful audience and its likely impact for the future is unmistakable.

The General Assembly had agreed just a month earlier on April 26 that the United Nations high-level international conference on nuclear disarmament stands postponed indefinitely.

The unchanged context was described by the UN chief accurately: "At the same time, the very nature of the war has changed.

"Conflicts are now more frequent, longer and more devastating for civilian populations. Civil wars are linked to regional and global rivalries. At times belligerents are found – violent extremists, terrorists, organized militias and common criminals. And these groups have a vast arsenal that includes both handguns that drones or ballistic missiles, and they are constantly seeking to strengthen.

"Military spending is increasing and the arms race is accelerating worldwide, especially in the most dangerous regions.

"Last year, arms purchases and military spending amounted to more than $1.7 trillion: a record sum since the fall of the Berlin Wall, which is about 80 times the amount needed for global humanitarian aid.

"Chemical weapons have reappeared. The international community is divided and fails to take action to combat them effectively.

"Powerful and devastating explosives designed for the battlefield are now used in populated areas.

"And new weapons using artificial intelligence and autonomous systems are emerging, in violation of existing laws and conventions.

"Meanwhile, action to end poverty, promote health and education, combat climate change and protect our planet is being deprived of the necessary resources."

Even under normal circumstances the Secretary-General of the United Nations has a hard time competing for attention to his messages on peace and disarmament amidst the Permanent Five members of the Security Council with their nuclear arsenals.

Ban Ki Moon’s simple 5-point plan was announced and ignored by the Permanent Members of the Security Council. They could well be voicing Joseph Stalin’s reportedly cynical riposte to the Pope about how many divisions he has. The common posture of these P5 is that as the putative global decision makers they want a SG who is more "Secretary" than "General".

The unrivalled legitimacy of the UN's role in global peace and disarmament goes back to the origins of the UN and the fact that the very first resolution of the UN General Assembly in January 1946 focused on nuclear disarmament.

We have passed through the Cold War when the frightening imminence of nuclear war on a global scale surfaced dramatically in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Today nine countries – five of them within the 50-year old Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) – hold some 15000 nuclear warheads amongst themselves ready to be launched through deliberate policy or unconscious accident triggering a nuclear holocaust.

The famous Doomsday Clock of the Chicago-based Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, in the setting of which I once participated as a member of its Science and Security Board, is now at TWO MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT – the closest it has been since the Cold War.

I was fortunate to be a member of the 1996 Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons – a multilateral grouping convened by the Australian Government.

Its report stated unforgettably: "Nuclear weapons are held by a handful of states which insist that these weapons provide unique security benefits, and yet reserve uniquely to themselves the right to own them. This situation is highly discriminatory and thus unstable; it cannot be sustained. The possession of nuclear weapons by any state is a constant stimulus to other states to acquire them.

"The world faces threats of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism. These threats are growing. They must be removed.

"For these reasons, a central reality is that nuclear weapons diminish the security of all states. Indeed, states which possess them become themselves targets of nuclear weapons."

The latest UN Agenda for Disarmament with its evocative origami paper crane symbolizing peace makes powerful arguments analysing the security environment at global and regional levels.

Patiently setting out the case for why we need a new Disarmament Agenda amidst rising military expenditure, the document goes on to describe Disarmament to save humanity; Disarmament to save lives; disarmament for future generations and strengthening partnerships for disarmament.

Supported by individual boxes devoted to special subjects, figures and statistical tables the arguments are marshalled with precision and rigour.

The First Special Session of the UN Devoted to Disarmament, convened in 1978 at the request of the coalition of Non-aligned countries, broke new ground with a historic Final Document by setting up a special machinery for the deliberation and negotiation of disarmament. Much of the machinery is now, forty years later, rusty and inactive. It is not clear how the new agenda will be fed into this ineffective system and who will be the driving force.

Already international civil society helped achieve the 2017 Treaty for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons which won ICAN the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. That Treaty is gaining support but slowly.

The NPT meets in 2020 for its ritualistic Review Conference.

The successful negotiation of the JCPOA by the EU with Iran has been wrecked by Trump encouraged by Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia.

Only the possibility of a peaceful settlement of the nuclear threat of the DPRK at the "off-again; on-again" Singapore Summit promises a positive signal.

The new Disarmament Agenda of the UN Secretary-General seems unlikely to secure our common future with the present actors. We will either have to wait for a change of actors or search among the debris of failed negotiations for a fresh start.

But that depends on the unpredictable Trump and Kim Jong Un. [IDN-InDepthNews – 7 June 2018]

Photo: UN Secretary-General António Guterres speaks at the University of Geneva, launching his Agenda for Disarmament, on 24 May 2018. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferre.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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