Global Policy Forum

Activists Warn UN on Downgrading Disarmament


By Thalif Deen

Inter Press Service
February 7, 2007

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who last month acknowledged the positive role of civil society in the peace process in Africa, is facing the wrath of a formidable coalition of non-governmental organisations opposing his plans to restructure one of the politically sensitive departments in the world body: the Department for Disarmament Affairs (DDA).

Turning to U.N. member states for help to block the controversial proposal, the 12 groups say stripping DDA of its departmental status may undermine its capacity to fulfill its present functions and most certainly prevent it from realising its potential. "A demoted DDA would lack the flexibility, mandate, and resources to play a significant role in emerging issues on the arms control agenda," the coalition argued in a letter sent Wednesday to all 192 U.N. missions in New York.

The coalition includes the Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy; the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom; Hague Appeal for Peace; Global Action to Prevent War; Global Policy Forum; International Action Network on Small Arms; and the NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace and Security. Representing mostly New York-based civil society organisations, the members of the coalition traditionally work on issues relating to disarmament and security in the U.N. context.

Addressing a closed-door meeting of the General Assembly Monday, Ban formally introduced his proposal to change the status of DDA into an "Office for Disarmament Affairs" -- "with a direct line to me, thus ensuring access and more frequent interaction." He also proposed that the new office would be headed by a Special Representative of the Secretary-General or a High Representative. But he gave no indication of rank, triggering speculation about the possibility of a downgraded DDA. The existing DDA is headed by an Under-Secretary-General (USG), the third highest rank in the Secretariat, after the secretary-general and his deputy. The proposed new office is likely to he headed by an Assistant Secretary-General, lower in rank to USGs.

Asked whether the United States is behind the effort to demote DDA, John Burroughs, executive director of the New York-based Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, told IPS: "I don't know." But Ban's proposal, he said, is reminiscent of the successful campaign of U.S. Senator Jesse Helms and other conservatives in the U.S. Congress in the 1990s to dismantle the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. "That laid the groundwork for the retrograde U.S. positions on disarmament in this decade," Burroughs said. "It should be recognised that the influence of the anti-multilateralist neo-conservatives is on the decline in the United States; their agenda should not be imitated at the United Nations."

Last week, the 117-member Non-Aligned Movement expressed reservations over the proposal to downgrade DDA. So have Western nations such as Ireland, Sweden, Norway, Austria and New Zealand. In its letter to member states, the coalition said that DDA, as an independent department, is shielded to some extent from the intense political pressures that disarmament/non-proliferation issues generate. "If DDA is more closely associated with the secretary-general, inevitably political pressures from all quarters would impede achievement of objectives," the coalition pointed out. Further, the secretary-general himself could be harmed by failure to meet heightened expectations. The secretary-general can find other ways to strategically intervene on important matters where his influence could make a difference, the coalition noted.

In a separate letter to member states, Jonathan Granoff, president of the Global Security Institute, points out that downgrading the head of Disarmament Affairs -- regardless of the title -- places this person in a position junior to many of the principal officers with whom he or she must work. This includes the chief U.N. official servicing the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, as are the heads of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the verification bodies for the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. "All these officials have the rank of USG," said Granoff, "How this person is to exercise any authority when he or she is in fact junior to all other officials (dealing with disarmament) is not explained."

Burroughs told IPS putting a Disarmament Affairs office directly under the secretary-general would expose disarmament matters to political pressure from the Permanent Five (the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia), and also from groups like the Non-Aligned Movement. Further, he said, the secretary-general would run the risk of failing to meet heightened expectations. "It is better to have an independent DDA, somewhat shielded from these pressures, and for the secretary-general to intervene strategically when he can make a difference."

Burroughs said the mission of DDA is too important to play politics with restructuring. Member states should work with the secretary-general, as he has invited them to do, to create an outcome that preserves DDA's status as an independent department. Non-aligned countries should refrain from seeing the head of Disarmament Affairs as a position for one of their nationals or as a platform to pursue particular issues, Burroughs said.

The secretary-general's proposal affirms that the office would continue to implement existing directives. But in practice it might be different. "In short, we do not want DDA's mandate and chief to change from being part of the U.N. secretariat's institutional framework to being personally linked to changing secretaries-general," he said.

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