Global Policy Forum

UN: Move To Downgrade Disarmament


By Thalif Deen

Inter Press Service
January 16, 2007

A proposal by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to downgrade the UN's Department of Disarmament Affairs (DDA) -- and possibly bring it under the umbrella of the Department of Political Affairs -- has sparked a critical reaction from member states, peace activists and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

"This is the wrong move for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to make and would be an inauspicious start to his term," warns John Burroughs, executive director of the New York-based Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy. He said the DDA was established in its current form in 1998 in order to meet post-Cold War challenges of disarmament and non-proliferation. "Those challenges have grown more, not less, urgent since then," Burroughs told IPS. He said disarmament NGOs have already started opposing this proposal. "We will be sending letters to the secretary-general and requesting meetings," he added.

At a meeting of the "troika" of the 116-member Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) -- comprising past chair Malaysia, present chair Cuba and future chair Qatar -- there was unified opposition to the proposed move.

Worse still, noted one ambassador who was present at the NAM meeting last week, are rumours that the soon-to-be revamped UN department of political affairs is likely to be headed by a U.S. national: a nominee of the administration of President George W. Bush, which has strong reservations on arms control and nuclear disarmament. "Having an American as head," the ambassador told the meeting "is like putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop."

The largest single political bloc at the United Nations, NAM is planning to send a letter of protest to the secretary-general. But the NAM Caucus decided to hold back the letter until an upcoming meeting with Chief of Staff Vijay Nambiar, who is expected to provide details of Ban's merger proposal.

The DDA, which was once headed by an assistant secretary-general (ASG), was downgraded during the five-year tenure of former Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali (1992-1996). But his successor Kofi Annan, who gave high priority to arms control and nuclear disarmament, upgraded the DDA with an under-secretary-general (USG), a higher rank than ASG, as its head.

"I think the dismantling of DDA as a UN department is a retrograde step irrespective of whether an American is to head DPA or not," an Asian diplomat told IPS. "We will only be repeating the blunder that Boutros Ghali made and which Kofi rectified." He said the problems of disarmament and nuclear proliferation are mounting, particularly in the context of the failure of the 2005 UN summit to reiterate disarmament in its outcome document; the collapse of the 2005 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference; and the deadlock at the UN small arms conference last year.

"This is all the more important why the United Nations should not abdicate its leadership role in this vital field in which it has played an influential role since the very first General Assembly resolution of January 1946," he said. "Burying disarmament in the department of political affairs will kill it, and especially so under a U.S. national as its head," he added.

There has also been an unwritten rule at the United Nations that the department of disarmament should not be headed by any one of the five declared nuclear weapons states: the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia.

Cora Weiss, UN Representative, International Peace Bureau, and president of the Hague Appeal for Peace, told IPS: "It is most unfortunate that the new secretary-general has made this a priority move -- to decimate the most important raison d'etre of the United Nations and to repeat Boutros Ghali's mistake." She said it is pretty difficult to "prevent the scourge of war" with a world awash in weapons. "Removing (the existing) under-secretary-general from DDA removes a direct voice to the secretary-general, and also undermines the DDA to the department of political affairs, presumably under a U.S. designated chief."

Weiss said such a move also removes the organisation's independence to pursue work on elimination of nuclear weapons; fighting the illicit trade in small arms; and providing support for the implementation of so many international disarmament treaties and agreements that the United States once supported and now eschews. "It's a disaster," said Weiss, adding that "naming some fine women for high posts, although a good move, does not compensate for this most unfortunate move."

Since he assumed office on Jan. 2, Ban has been praised by women's groups for appointing two women to high-level posts in the Secretariat: Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro of Tanzania and Under-Secretary-General for Management Alicia Barcena of Mexico.

"How can the secretary-general promote the UN's Millennium Development Goals (aimed primarily at eliminating poverty and hunger) -- which will cost lots of money -- while the world spends well over a trillion dollars a year on war and preparation for war?" Weiss asked. "We can't have it both ways. Keeping the DDA is a reminder of the need to reduce military budgets," she noted.

Burroughs said DDA also houses technical and policy expertise and institutional memory built up over many years. All of this is invaluable to governments and civil society. But this legacy and DDA's potential to do much more could be damaged or lost if DDA is subsumed in DPA. The proposal is similar to the actual absorption of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency into the State Department in the late 1990s, he added.

Technical expertise and institutional memory has been lost since then, as has advocacy within the U.S. government for disarmament. Meanwhile, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, which has launched a project called "Reaching Critical Will", is already spearheading an NGO campaign to stop the dismantling of DDA.

"The Department for Disarmament Affairs (DDA) is the United Nation's institutional memory and stronghold of expertise on disarmament at the international level," says a statement on its website. "Several countries have a shameful record on disarmament and would like to see the department and its institutional memory and activity downgraded."

Disarmament was recognised from the outset of the United Nations as an essential condition for global peace and security. The UN Charter recognised that an armed peace was not going to be a just peace, and that preparation for war was not going to bring peace. In fact military budgets are soaring, wars are being fought over weapons and new treaty processes are forming. The disarmament agenda remains unfinished, which lies at the core of today's security challenges.

"Putting the issue of disarmament into the Department of Political Affairs is unhelpful and unnecessary, both in terms of the United Nations fulfilling its mandate, and servicing inter-governmental meetings and treaty bodies," the statement continued. The world's disarmament machinery, norms and regime are embattled right now, and reducing the stature of the primary global institution responsible for implementation of UN decisions is the wrong course, the League added.

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