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How Covid-19 Is Impacting Multilateral Disarmament and Arms Control

By Izumi Nakamitsu, United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) High Representative

Image credit: UNODA

NEW YORK (IDN) – Since my previous update on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the work of disarmament, the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs has continued working to fulfil its mandates while supporting the Member States as they respond to the rapidly evolving global health emergency. [2020–06-06]

Yet even as our staff and the broader disarmament community have found new ways to collaborate and carry on many aspects of our work, the international arms control regime and other security arrangements have shown worrying signs of further erosion. Left unchecked, this deterioration will create new global dangers likely to outlast the pandemic itself.

Working to eliminate all weapons of mass destruction

We continue to work with the States Parties of relevant treaties, instruments and bodies, as well as civil society and other actors, as they develop new means of engaging with one another in pursuit of a world free of all nuclear weapons and secure against threats from biological or chemical weapons.

The President-designate of the Tenth Conference of States Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) has asked the UN Secretariat to place a tentative hold on the dates of 4 to 29 January 2021 for the Review Conference. He will seek a formal decision from States Parties on those dates when the COVID-19 situation allows it, and if no alternative dates become available. In the meantime, the Office for Disarmament Affairs is supporting the President-designate as he consults with regional groups and engages stakeholders in virtual activities to ensure continued momentum ahead of the Review Conference.

Meanwhile, I am briefing the Security Council at its monthly virtual meetings on ongoing activities related to the elimination of the chemical weapons programme of the Syrian Arab Republic. At the same time, our Office is supporting Council members in their efforts to hold the perpetrators of chemical weapons use accountable.

To help prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction to non-State actors, our Office is continuing to support the Security Council Committee established pursuant to resolution 1540 (2004), including in a mandated five-year comprehensive review of progress in implementing the resolution. We continue to ally with our colleagues in other departments and agencies to make sure States fulfil all their disarmament and non-proliferation obligations in this field, regardless of the conditions.

My Office continues to support the process of the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction. To this end, we are co-organizing, with Jordan, a virtual informal workshop on “Sharing good practices and lessons learned from existing nuclear-weapon-free zones” in early July this year. We continue to support participating States in their implementation of the outcome of the first session of the Conference.

Tackling threats from conventional weapons

Since my last message, the General Assembly decided to postpone the Seventh Biennial Meeting of States (BMS7) on the Programme of Action on small arms and light weapons, originally scheduled for this June, to a date in 2021 that is yet to be decided. Our Office continues to support Member States and the Chair both in preparing for the Meeting and in submitting national reports on the Programme’s implementation.

From 20 to 24 April, we successfully facilitated informal, virtual discussions among participants in the Group of Governmental Experts on “Problems arising from the accumulation of conventional ammunition stockpiles in surplus”. The Group’s next formal session is scheduled to take place this July in New York. To ensure that the Group can complete its work in a timely manner, my Office is also actively exploring alternative means of holding discussions in the event that in-person sessions cannot be held as scheduled.

Even though a new date has yet to be set for the next consultations led by Ireland to develop a political commitment on addressing the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, the current global situation has underscored the urgency of this issue and our collective need to sustain momentum. That is why on 27 May, together with the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and the Director-General of the International Committee of the Red Cross, we co-authored an op-ed in support of the Secretary-General’s ceasefire call. We described in particular how such use of these weapons disrupts and destroys the essential infrastructure that conflict-affected societies desperately require to contain the pandemic. 

Meanwhile, our Office continues other essential preparatory work to guarantee the successful implementation of our conventional arms-focused projects. This includes ongoing consultations and coordination with partners, including our regional and national counterparts, as well as in-depth preparation to carry out online training and outreach on conventional arms control.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has further worsened the socioeconomic and healthcare conditions of vulnerable communities across the world, threatening new tensions and armed violence. Women and girls, in particular, are suffering a dramatic increase in cases of domestic and gender-based violence, where small arms have long played a deadly role. In the current challenging resource environment, it is critical to maintain a focus on conflict resolution and peacebuilding so as not to create a vacuum with possible long-term consequences.

Addressing emerging challenges and new weapon technologies

The Office for Disarmament Affairs is continuing its efforts to raise awareness about the implications of new weapon technologies, both by contributing to a report of the Secretary-General on the matter and by organizing virtual events where physical meetings are no longer possible. We plan to facilitate the informal exchange of information and experiences on the review of new weapons, including through a virtual workshop later this year. Moving to a virtual format has not been entirely negative; in the case of our project on “Responsible Innovation for a Secure Environment in Asia and the Pacific”, we now can offer a wider range of sessions to university partners and students in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

With regard to the Open-ended Working Group and the Group of Governmental Experts on information and telecommunications in the context of international security, I am committed to working with the Chair of each process to assess the need for any change in the schedule of  meetings in the second half of 2020, including the final session of the Open-ended Working Group and the third session of the Group of Governmental Experts.

Ensuring continuity in Geneva-based disarmament processes

In Geneva, our Office is engaging with stakeholders to continue discussions and preserve the 2020 calendar of meetings of disarmament conventions and bodies to the greatest extent possible. In this regard, we are helping States to identify possible alternative dates and rescheduling options, subject to host country policies on in-person meetings and the availability of multilingual virtual platforms.

The current status of Geneva-based disarmament forums and processes is as follows:

  • The Conference on Disarmament has resumed the second part of its 2020 session through virtual informal consultations with regional groups and between the six Presidents of 2020.
  • States Parties of the Convention on Cluster Munitions have postponed the First Preparatory Meeting for the Second Review Conference to 29 June. On 8 June, when the Meeting was originally scheduled, the Presidency will hold a virtual briefing on the way ahead for the Review Conference, which is scheduled for November.
  • The intersessional meeting of the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention will take place virtually from 30 June to 2 July. 
  • High Contracting Parties  of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons have decided to postpone the Amended Protocol II and Protocol V Meetings of Experts and the first session of the Group of Governmental Experts on Emerging Technologies in the Area of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems, all of which were initially scheduled for 17 – 26 June, to 21 – 30 September. The August session (10 – 14) of the Group of Governmental Experts will go ahead as planned.

Notably, the COVID-19 pandemic has reinvigorated discourse around the necessity and value of national preparedness and response for biological incidents. As a contribution, the Biological Weapons Convention Implementation Support Unit organized a webinar in May to consider lessons from the pandemic for assistance, response and preparedness under the Convention. It will organize a similar webinar for experts in South East Asia in June. 

The implementation of projects in support of the Biological Weapons Convention and a prospective fissile material cut-off treaty are also ongoing, including planning to convene a workshop for young scientists from the Global South.

Advancing disarmament education

In Vienna, our Office is implementing the online segment of the project on disarmament education it is undertaking with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The project’s 152 participants are currently completing an eight-week online training, and our organizations have agreed to postpone a separate in-person segment until conditions allow.

To build on the success of this joint undertaking, our staff in Vienna are exploring options to develop similar training programmes with other interested regional and sub-regional organizations.

As the COVID-19 crisis underscores the value and effectiveness of distance learning, our Vienna colleagues are also exploring how we can strategize with various partners to further improve and promote learning in the virtual space. In a related area, we are adding to our online disarmament education materials to include short courses on a wide range of disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control issues as well as cross-cutting matters related to international security.

Promoting women’s empowerment and equal representation in disarmament

This is a milestone year for the advancement of women’s equality and empowerment in the field of international peace and security, including disarmament and arms control. As we celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) on women, peace and security, the tenth anniversary of the General Assembly resolution on women, disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control, and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action, let us redouble our efforts to maintain this promising momentum.

Our Office, for its part, reaffirms its commitment to promoting women’s leadership and full, equal and meaningful participation in all disarmament processes, including in meetings held in a virtual format, and to strengthening analysis and approaches that take into account the gendered impact of different weapons.

Promoting disarmament at the regional level

To adapt to the current situation and minimize interruptions to their activities, the three regional centres of the Office for Disarmament Affairs have reorganized their work plans and begun to proactively reconfigure certain in-person programmatic activities to take place in virtual formats satisfactory to both donors and beneficiary States. To date, our centres already have completed several activities using available online platforms.

In this context, the regional centres will continue exploring options to enhance the efficient implementation of their activities. Since my previous update, they have secured funding to complete several additional projects this year and in 2021.

Supporting the Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters

Our Office remains committed to supporting the Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters as it undertakes its two-year programme of work. In this regard, we are facilitating arrangements and supporting the Chair to hold meaningful discussions in June 2020 in a virtual, adjusted format with members who are situated across multiple time zones.

Communicating with stakeholders

Building on our ongoing efforts to engage, educate and empower the younger generation, our Office is forging new partnerships within the United Nations and its extended family, and with civil society organizations and youth activists.

In cooperation with the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, and spanning several months, we are providing online training to prepare youth leaders from China, Japan, the Republic of Korea and Mongolia for a workshop on “Youth Perspectives on Disarmament and Non-Proliferation in Northeast Asia”, planned for November. We have also launched the “Open Minds Project”, an e-newsletter of the #Youth4Disarmament Initiative providing resources for young people to meaningfully engage on disarmament and non-proliferation issues.

Meanwhile, in my capacity as the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, I have stepped up my online engagement with civil society by participating in a growing number of disarmament-related virtual forums convened by non-governmental organizations and academia.

Our common future

The work of disarmament, like the response to COVID-19, is a global project in which we each share the deepest stake.

I am confident that if we draw the right lessons from this immensely challenging period, we will emerge with renewed faith that we can cooperatively tackle our greatest common challenges. [IDN-InDepthNews – 06 June 2020]

Image credit: UNODA

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