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The Disarmament Agenda Is Seriously Stalled. The General Assembly Can Revive It.


Unexploded ordnance in and around the Goma-Kibati area of the Democratic Republic of the Congo being cleared. The essayists say that a General Assembly special session on the long-stalled issue of disarmament is an “ideal forum” to push for a strong agenda to reduce and eliminate weapons. SYLVAIN LIECHTI/UN PHOTO 

For the disarmament agenda to progress, its machinery needs to be revisited. Current efforts by the Conference on Disarmament — the United Nations body tasked with negotiating treaties on weapons control — have stalled for almost 30 years because agreement requires consensus and a lack of political will is fed by geopolitical rivalries among member states.

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and during the UN’s 75th anniversary, countries pledged in 2020 to reinvigorate the global governance system. Based on multilateralism, the plan requested the UN secretary-general to recommend ways to respond to current and future challenges facing humanity, including poverty, climate change, pandemics, armed conflicts and threats against international peace and security. In September 2021, António Guterres presented “Our Common Agenda,” a document envisioning the creation of a “New Agenda for Peace” that would build on ideas from member states and civil society as well as recommendations from the “Breakthrough for People and Planet” report produced by the high-level advisory board on effective multilateralism. Everything would culminate in the Summit of the Future in 2024.

Thankfully, the New Agenda for Peace policy brief released in July by Guterres appears to be a forward-thinking document paving the way for a revitalized UN, calling for the implementation of processes more suited to our times. In his recommendations about how to respond to current and future challenges facing humanity, including armed conflicts and threats against international peace and security, the secretary-general makes a clear call to set up a process within the UN to “consider the role, timing and preparations of a special session of the General Assembly on disarmament.”

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UN special sessions on disarmament were held in 1978, 1982 and 1988, but a fourth never occurred. The activation of a fourth one has been the object of a campaign since 2021 by the Strategic Concept for the Removal of Arms and Proliferation (SCRAP Weapons), a project housed at SOAS University of London. It is advocating that a session would be an ideal forum to advance a strong agenda to reduce and eliminate weapons as well as be an important alternative to current disarmament spaces.

One of the greatest problems in disarmament diplomacy, which the “New Agenda for Peace” also recognizes, is that the disarmament machinery being used now dates back to the Cold War. The machinery’s deadlock is due to a lack of adequate country representation at the Conference on Disarmament (only 65 members) and a mechanism based on consensus, which is a de facto veto power. A clear example is the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Dating back to 1996, it is the last agreement negotiated by the Conference on Disarmament — the last in almost 30 years.

A fourth special session on disarmament held by the General Assembly would overcome the blockages of the Conference on Disarmament. It would also be the right venue to consider reforms of the disarmament machinery, which needs to be updated to include contemporary concerns, such as the weaponization of cyber/AI and outer space as well as both the long-term and immediate effects of nuclear and conventional arms (particularly small arms and light weapons) on women and girls, Indigenous groups and vulnerable communities, particularly those living in the global South. Discussions on activating a special session should take place during the 78th session of the UN General Assembly committee meetings, which begin on Oct. 2.

A session on disarmament would significantly enable furthering discussions about issues that have often been sidelined, such as the complex relationship between global development and disarmament, the reduction of investments in the military-industrial complex, prioritizing humanitarian needs and including the voices of women and girls and all marginalized communities. Adopting disarmament measures is also crucial because conflicts are a highly gendered activity. From the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war to enduring any economic burdens, women are always disproportionately affected by conflicts. Disarmament is therefore a key action to tackling the patriarchal structural inequalities that normalize the status of women and girls and people with nonbinary identities as passive recipients of the culture and practice of war.

To ensure a better future for everyone across the world, the effort of the “New Agenda for Peace” to incorporate civil society, regional bodies, academia and the private sector in UN decision-making processes must persevere. Such work will give a voice to marginalized communities while addressing people’s urgent needs to access health care, education, social justice and human security. The effort also means including young people in consultations, so they can express their ideas and suggest proposals to meet the very challenges that they are inheriting from older generations.

A fourth special session on disarmament will be highly useful in carrying out a program of peace and prevention and advancing an agenda of comprehensive disarmament better than the increasingly obsolete Conference on Disarmament. This will allow negotiating countries to not only overcome the barriers of consensus, but to also pave the way to develop a more useful process for weapons control equivalent to the UN Framework on Climate Change. It would be a platform for nations to re-evaluate their disarmament commitments, rekindle multilateral cooperation and reaffirm global dedication to a safer world.

This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on a UN special session on disarmament?

Eloisa Romani

Eloisa Romani is the project coordinator of SOAS University of London’s Strategic Concept for the Removal of Arms and Proliferation (SCRAP Weapons) project.

Zahraa Kapasi

Zahraa Kapasi is the project operations manager at the SOAS University of London’s Strategic Concept for the Removal of Arms and Proliferation (SCRAP Weapons) program.

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The Disarmament Agenda Is Seriously Stalled. The General Assembly Can Revive It.
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