The UN Office for Disarmament Affairs remains active and committed – how the Covid-19 pandemic is affecting the work of disarmament.
A Message from High Representative Izumi Nakamitsu
April 3rd, 2020
The new crisis
Humanity has faced no challenge greater than COVID-19 since the Second World War. As this rapidly developing global health emergency places unprecedented strain on our medical, economic and social systems, we must work hard to prevent new risks for instability, unrest and conflict.
The pandemic arrived as our frameworks to prevent catastrophic confrontation are crumbling. Countries are building faster and more accurate nuclear arms, developing new weapon technologies with unpredictable implications and pouring more resources into militaries than at any point in decades.
In the 75-year history of the United Nations, the folly of seeking security in vast destructive arsenals has never been clearer.
Nor has the need to finally put the brakes on this deadly addiction.
Recognizing this, the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs remains fully active and committed to the important work of disarmament. We are adapting our working methods and substantive activities to continue operations during the COVID-19 crisis. Our staff strives to be nimble and flexible, and we are carrying on work around the world to help people in all States apply every tool of disarmament to build a more peaceful and secure future.
I will explain how the pandemic is affecting each area of our Office’s work. I will also share some of the changes we are making to continue fulfilling our mandates and advancing the Secretary-General’s Agenda for Disarmament.
Working to eliminate all weapons of mass destruction
Our Office is working tirelessly with the States Parties of relevant treaties, instruments and bodies, as well as civil society and other actors, to continue pursuing a world free of all nuclear weapons and secure against threats from biological or chemical weapons.
The largest immediate impact of COVID-19 has been the postponement of the 2020 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which would have been an opportunity to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Treaty’s entry into force and the twenty-fifth year since its indefinite extension. It is important to remember, however, that the Review Conference will take place as soon as circumstances permit, fulfilling its tasks so critical to our collective security. We are working with the president-designate and bureau to make sure this happens.
Likewise, we are working with States and our colleagues across the Secretariat and the United Nations system to explore all options—from virtual meetings to online exercises—to help prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction to non-State actors; support instruments and processes from the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty to the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction; enhance the preparedness of the existing Secretary-General’s Mechanism for the investigation of the use of chemical, biological and toxin weapons; and assist the Security Council in efforts to hold the perpetrators of chemical weapons use accountable.
Tackling threats from conventional weapons
As Member States review plans to hold the Seventh Biennial Meeting of States on the Programme of Action on small arms and light weapons from 15 to 19 June, the Office for Disarmament Affairs is continuing to support the entire process for the meeting, including an elaboration of the Secretary-General’s report on small arms and light weapons.
With regard to the Group of Governmental Experts on “Problems arising from the accumulation of conventional ammunition stockpiles in surplus”, we are facilitating arrangements to hold discussions from 20 to 24 April, as scheduled, in a virtual, informal format. Our staff also continues to support the Chair in bilateral consultations with Experts during the intersessional period.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed some of our practical support for conventional arms-focused projects in beneficiary countries, our Office continues to carry out essential preparatory work to guarantee their successful full implementation when the situation allows. These temporary impacts extend to our European Union-funded project on Gender and Small Arms and Light Weapons, which we are continuing through the development of online training and desk research. The global health emergency is similarly affecting our Office’s support for the African Union’s “Silencing the Guns” initiative through the Africa Amnesty Month Project, but we are carrying on consultations and coordination with national counterparts and key project partners, desk research, and preparation of workshop and sensitization material.
With our new funding mechanism, the Saving Lives Entity (SALIENT), the Office for Disarmament Affairs is collaborating with the United Nations Development Programme and the Peacebuilding Support Office to finalize administrative project documentation and compile terms of reference for field assessment missions in the beneficiary countries. Our Office will also continue to service and update, as appropriate, the databases for our transparency mechanisms, the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms and the United Nations Report on Military Expenditures. Meanwhile, the United Nations SaferGuard Technical Review Board continues to actively engage through an online platform to review the International Ammunition Technical Guidelines. This review is expected to be finalized by the end of 2020, as scheduled.
Addressing emerging weapon technologies
Despite the postponement of the Disarmament Commission’s annual session, my Office continues to work closely with the Office for Outer Space Affairs and the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research to facilitate the next steps in multilateral deliberations to address the disarmament aspects of outer space. These steps will include implementing and further developing transparency and confidence-building measures as well as elaborating effective measures for the prevention of an arms race in outer space. We will also continue to engage on these issues within the framework of the Conference on Disarmament and the General Assembly First Committee.
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 to change its meeting schedule. To date, the Chair of the Open-ended Working Group has had to cancel a round of intersessional consultations scheduled for 30 and 31 March on the pre-draft of the Group’s report, requesting written contributions from delegations instead. Possible impacts on the other meetings of the two processes will be reviewed on an ongoing basis.
Ensuring continuity in Geneva-based disarmament processes
In Geneva, where the core business is to support meetings of disarmament conventions and bodies, COVID-19 is likely to impact meeting plans throughout the year.
So far, the Conference on Disarmament could not hold plenary meetings from 16 to 27 March as planned. With its session scheduled to resume on 25 May, our Office is supporting the current President in holding virtual consultations with the other Presidents of the 2020 session as well as regional coordinators.
The pandemic is also affecting planned consultations of other Geneva-based disarmament conventions. Our staff in Geneva is undertaking extensive consultations with office holders, States Parties and stakeholders to identify options ranging from cancellation to postponement to virtual alternatives. We are also continuing our substantive support to these disarmament processes to the fullest extent possible.
Our Office is also pushing ahead in efforts to strengthen the financial sustainability of Geneva-based conventions. We are working closely with States to promote tools and platforms to address structural challenges across Conventions, while also increasing accountability, ownership and transparency. Our projects in support of the Biological Weapons Convention and a prospective fissile material cut-off treaty are largely ongoing. We are also preparing strategic communications to mark the forty-fifth anniversary of the Biological Weapons Convention entering into force and the fortieth anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.
Advancing disarmament education
In Vienna, the Office for Disarmament Affairs is continuing preparations to implement the online portion of the joint project on disarmament education it is undertaking with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Recently, this programme finished selecting 150 participants from a competitive field of more than 1,000 candidates. While the project’s eight-week online portion will commence on 6 April as planned, both organizations have agreed to postpone its in-person segment in Vienna.
We are also working with our partners to explore further development of our online disarmament education materials.
Promoting women’s empowerment and equal representation in disarmament
In a year that held much promise for celebrating and further accelerating progress and partnerships for gender equality and women’s empowerment, including in disarmament processes and forums, the COVID-19 crisis creates added uncertainty around the ability to advance this agenda amidst the competing priorities of Governments. Our Office remains committed 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
The three regional centres of the Office for Disarmament Affairs continue to operate and maintain regular contact with donors and beneficiary States. Although the pandemic has forced the postponement of in-person programmatic activities in Africa, in Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Asia and the Pacific, the centres continue to undertake related efforts that do not entail travel and operations on the ground. In this regard, they are elaborating substantive notes, supporting the drafting of national action plans and carrying out other, similar functions. Meanwhile, ongoing preparations for meetings and workshops by our Office will allow the centres to rapidly resume their full operations at the soonest opportunity. In addition, the regional centres continue to engage with donors on new projects.
Communicating with stakeholders
Our Office remains committed to providing Member States, the diplomatic community, non-governmental organizations and the public at large with unbiased, up-to-date and relevant information on multilateral disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control through our website and social media channels. We are also continuing our work on upcoming publications, including the forty-fourth annual edition of the United Nations Disarmament Yearbook.
As States continue to finalize arrangements for upcoming meetings, we will keep interested stakeholders informed of their status regarding cancellations, postponements or virtual arrangements. Our Office is also continuing its efforts to engage, educate and empower young people through online resources, including e-newsletters and the development of a dedicated youth website.
The COVID-19 pandemic will test us all, and like World War II, it will transform our world in ways that are unforeseeable.
But let’s remember, unlike the trials of that horrific world war, we all face this crisis together.
This pandemic has the potential to unite societies, institutions and individuals, just as the hard lessons of the Second World War laid the foundation for deeper international cooperation and stronger institutions to support our common security.
The Office for Disarmament Affairs will remain a steady partner in our collective effort to prevent this global health emergency from breeding conflict.
And I sincerely hope that in our solidarity through this crisis, we will realize we can transcend our entrenched divisions to pursue our highest collective aspirations.
These include ensuring healthy lives, promoting the well-being of every citizen across the planet, and striving to build a peaceful and secure world for all. Let us put humanity at the centre of our security.