Arms control diplomacy a worrying casualty of COVID-19

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On January 23—weeks before the World Health Organization labelled COVID-19 a pandemic—the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced that its Doomsday Clock had been set at 100 seconds, the closest ever, to midnight. The time, which represents the threat of global nuclear catastrophe (midnight), is determined by the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board, in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which includes 13 Nobel laureates.

The announcement underscored the precariousness of the nuclear security landscape and the need for prompt progress on nuclear disarmament. But a related announcement two months later dimmed prospects for such progress: as a precaution against COVID-19, states parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) decided to postpone the 2020 NPT Review Conference, the key multilateral forum in the global nuclear disarmament regime, which was to start the last week of April.

Unresolved issues

The NPT is only one of several arms-control processes affected by the COVID-19 crisis. Indeed the 2020 diplomatic calendar for matters of international security, like so many facets of human activity, has been severely upended. And even though multilateral arms control and disarmament efforts are of critical importance every year, the international security landscape was at a particularly troubling juncture just before the pandemic, not least because of risks associated with nuclear weapons.

Countries best able to manage the pandemic might see that protection is best achieved through investments in science, healthcare, and social welfare, rather than in a large military and expensive weapons systems.

The NPT Review Conference is held just once every five years, and the 2020 gathering was seen to be especially critical. The breakdown in the strategic relationship between Russia and the United States, exacerbated by the demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019 and the imminent expiration of the New START Treaty in 2021—both key bilateral arms-control agreements—was perhaps the main backdrop to the NPT meeting.

The urgent need for a forum to address not just the U.S.-Russia relationship, but other critical issues—such as the uncertain fate of the Iran nuclear deal, the unresolved situation around North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, and the growing impatience by non-nuclear-weapon states over the lack of credible progress toward nuclear disarmament—make the postponement of the NPT, however necessary, a direct and serious casualty of the COVID-19 crisis.

Stalled opportunities

Efforts to better protect civilians in armed conflict have also been affected by the spread of the coronavirus. Last October, the Government of Austria launched a historic multilateral process specifically aimed at achieving an international political commitment to address the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA). The use of EWIPA has devastating humanitarian effects and results in tens of thousands of civilian deaths each year.

The multilateral conference was held in Vienna and attended by more than 130 states. Then Ireland picked up the torch from Austria and convened negotiations on the text of the political declaration, with a view to adopting it in Dublin this May. However, the last round of consultations, which was to be held in the last week of March, was postponed due to the pandemic. Given the uncertainty around the pandemic Ireland has yet to set new dates for the delayed consultations, and the development of robust new standards that protect the lives and livelihoods of civilians will now be delayed.

As well, meetings of working groups Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) states parties, scheduled to take place in Geneva in mid-April, have now been cancelled, at a time when global scrutiny of unscrupulous and irresponsible arms transfers is desperately needed. The ATT acknowledges that many types of military exports—from armoured combat vehicles to attack helicopters—can be used to fuel armed conflict, support human-rights violations, and sustain autocratic regimes.

The five-year anniversary of the conflict in Yemen, with its widely documented use of Western arms, is a somber reminder of the need for strict compliance with international norms around the arms trade. The now-cancelled April meetings would have allowed states to assess the effectiveness of their export-control systems to ensure that arms exports are are not diverted and do not contribute to breaches of international human-rights and humanitarian law.

Several other arms control and disarmament processes and related forums, big and small, have been or will be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The German foreign ministry was to host a forum on 18-19 March in Berlin on challenges posed by the emergence of lethal autonomous weapons systems—also known as killer robots. The forum, which was open to states parties to the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), was cancelled.

At the same time, significant advances in artificial intelligence and robotics have made the emergence of weapons systems with the ability to select targets and employ lethal force with no human involvement is a real possibility. Thus, the need for negotiations on a robust regulatory regime is pressing. Meetings of the CCW on this issue are still on the calendar for June, but they too may become a casualty of the COVID-19 disruption.

The 64th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, which has profound and direct implications for peace and security, was one of the first multilateral casualties of the pandemic. Scheduled to take place in New York from 9-20 March, it was severely downscaled to a procedural meeting on the first day and all side events were cancelled.

Intersessional consultations on a draft report prepared by an Open-Ended Working Group established by the UN General Assembly to consider issues related to cybersecurity were scheduled for the end of March and were cancelled. Similarly, the Legal Subcommittee of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space has cancelled its 2020 March session.

Looking for a silver lining

And so, arms-control diplomacy constitutes a distinct casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic, at least in 2020. But could there be a silver lining for international security to this unforeseen crisis? Could the postponements and cancellations of crucial international security discussions be offset to some extent by the emergence of conditions more conducive to disarmament and international security?

The magnitude of the COVID-19 challenge is creating a global sense of shared vulnerability. It is becoming clear that international collaboration is not only desired, but essential for an effective response to this sort of threat. If collaboration works against a pandemic, perhaps some collaborative efforts could spill into other areas, yielding unintended peace dividends.

If collaboration works against a pandemic, perhaps some collaborative efforts could spill into other areas, yielding unintended peace dividends.

Perhaps.

Much depends on how the pandemic evolves and on how countries, individually and collectively, respond. Collaboration and coordination could, under certain scenarios, quickly turn into isolationism and competition.

It is also possible that the nature and effectiveness of national responses to the pandemic could potentially have positive implications for arms control. The approaches used by national governments could challenge certain assumptions of what constitutes national security and effective preparedness to protect citizens.

Questions could arise about what constitutes the sound allocation of resources. Countries that are best able to manage the COVID-19 pandemic might see that protection is best achieved through investments in science, healthcare, and social welfare, rather than in a large military and expensive weapons systems.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called for a global ceasefire so that the world can focus on responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. His appeal has been echoed by many, including Pope Francis and at least 53 countries. In addition to the immediate benefits for international security, a ceasefire would allow emergency relief to reach populations affected by the virus, which is key to any effective measure to curb its spread.

Arms-control, disarmament and international security processes will require concerted attention after the pandemic. In the meantime, communications channels must remain open and alternative methods of multilateral engagement on these critical areas must be pursued. Parallel to this—and as a complementary measure—the international community would do well to heed the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire.

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