17 February 2007
When an ambassador warns in public that it would be like "putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop", it is as well to listen because ambassadors are not often given to making such statements. This was an ambassador to the United Nations from one of the developing countries, speaking about the world's only superpower. Even more remarkable was the fact that the new UN Secretary-General heeded the warning and changed his plans. What were these plans?
Plan A: In January 2007, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon proposed to downgrade the existing independent Department for Disarmament Affairs (DDA) and to make it a part of the Department for Political Affairs (DPA), which was expected to be headed by the United States.
The UN General Assembly was expected to approve the Secretary-General's plan on February 5, but two of the largest and most powerful political and economic blocs at the United Nations - the 130-member Group of 77 and the 117-member Non-Aligned Movement - both refused to be pushed into making the decision in such a short timescale.
They also questioned the fact that the Department for Political Affairs (DPA) was likely to be headed by a nuclear weapon state, which would be going against the UN's own unwritten rule that the Department for Disarmament Affairs (DDA) should not be headed by any one of the five declared nuclear weapon states - the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia. It was widely expected that an American would take over the powerful Department for Political Affairs (DPA) so, unsurprisingly, the strongest support for Ban Ki-Moon's proposal to subsume the DDA into the DPA came from the US, whose current administration does not place a very high priority on disarmament - either nuclear or non-nuclear!
Into this arena came the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), an organisation founded in 1915, which works for total disarmament among other things. WILPF has a special project called Reaching Critical Will, which is currently spearheading an international campaign to stop the dismantling of the Department for Disarmament Affairs, claiming that the UN must live up to its mandate and prioritise disarmament in the Secretariat, maintaining an independent DDA instead of subordinating it to other agendas.
Disarmament is one of the central tasks of the UN, as evidenced by the UN Charter's vision for “'the least diversion for armaments of the world's human and economic resources” (Article 26). Therefore, it does not seem right that the UN should be planning to reduce the stature of disarmament just when the problems posed by nuclear - and other - weapons of mass destruction, as well as small arms, are increasing.
Plan B: The secretary-general listened to the objections, withdrew his original proposal and put forward his Plan B: instead of moving it into the Department of Political Affairs, he would move the DDA into his own office. It would then become the Office for Disarmament Affairs headed by an assistant-secretary general reporting directly to Ban Ki-Moon himself. Putting a positive 'spin' on this proposal, officials maintained that having a direct line to the secretary general would ensure better access, more frequent interaction and, therefore, would actually strengthen the DDA.
In fact, it would do just the opposite. Changing the department to an Office and demoting its chief still represent a downgrade no matter how you spin it, and would be a move in the wrong direction at a time when challenges to disarmament and non-proliferation are increasing. There is a (bad) precedent too: when the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency was moved into the State Department, the agency's technical expertise and institutional memory was lost and all internal advocacy for disarmament faded quietly away.
Robbing Peter to pay Paul simply won't do, when disarmament has to suffer at the hands of budgetary constraints. The world's disarmament machinery is under threat as never before. Lowering the profile of the principal global agency responsible for implementing UN decisions on disarmament is not the way to go. The final decision has not yet been made so it is still all to play for. Civil Society managed to make its objections felt at the heart of the UN itself. We can continue to do so by writing to the Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon or to Sir Emyr Jones Parry, UK Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN, or to your MP in support of keeping an independent Department for Disarmament Affairs.