By Branka Marijan
Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 40 Issue 4 Winter 2019
The latest Humanitarian Disarmament Forum was held October 19 and 20 in New York City. In attendance were civil-society groups, such as Project Ploughshares, which work on arms control and disarmament concerns that fall under the umbrella of “humanitarian disarmament.” According to the Harvard Law School Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative, humanitarian disarmament “seeks to prevent and remediate the human and environmental harm inflicted by arms through the establishment and implementation of norms.”
The now-annual Forum, which began in 2012, is usually held around the time of the United Nations (UN) First Committee, which deals with disarmament and international security issues. The Forum reflects on the UN discussions and provides updates on the work being done by different disarmament networks. This year’s event, hosted by the Colombian Campaign to Ban Landmines, adopted the theme “A more active citizenship, given the global imbalance.”
The somber tone of First Committee discussions, the apparent disintegration of some arms-control agreements, and serious questions on the stability of the multilateral order affected the mood at the Forum. But attendees were urged not to become disheartened. As several observers including a disarmament diplomat noted, civil-society organizations are critical to progress on disarmament.
Here are four key messages that emerged from the 2019 Forum:
1. Citizens everywhere need to know about the impacts of weapons on civilians
At the Forum, a landmine survivor shared his impactful story. Survivors and victims of weapons use must be given a prominent role in efforts to prevent and mitigate such harm and suffering. Several participants assist those in conflict zones who are harmed by weapons; they also need to bear prominent public witness to that suffering.
Many organizations are involved in important efforts to mobilize and engage the public. For example, on September 26, Humanity & Inclusion unveiled the world’s first monument to the Unnamed Civilian to draw attention to the devastating reality that 90 per cent of those killed by explosive weapons in urban areas are civilians.
Member organizations of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) have organized many public events and marches. PAX from the Netherlands updates the annual report, Don’t Bank on the Bomb, which tracks private companies involved in and supporting nuclear weapons. Project Ploughshares hosts public events, writes accessible articles, and produces information on disarmament issues for the Canadian public.
But more must be done. High school, college, and university students need information, through lectures, workshops, and other means, so that they can understand the effects of weapons on people, communities, and the environment. This is particularly important in countries like the United States, in which arms manufacturing and exports are increasing. Last year, for example, U.S. foreign military sales were close to $70-billion.
2. New ways to gather and share data should be embraced
Social media and new technologies make research more accessible. Some organizations use open-source data to track shipments of weapons and weapons use, as well as more humanitarian concerns, such as tracking movements of populations. Satellite imagery, for example, has revealed the destruction of Rohingya villages in Myanmar. To use these new sources effectively, research staff must be trained on how to find data, verify its accuracy, and store information securely.
Data collection is critical if we are to hold countries accountable for their actions. For example, nongovernmental organizations that monitor treaty compliance use data to strengthen the case for greater compliance. While a number of organizations collect data, better methods to exchange data among these groups is needed. This gets tricky when the information is sensitive or related to vulnerable populations.
Private-sector organizations have technology and information that could be useful to humanitarian organizations. However, industry also has its own uses for such information and humanitarian organizations are wary of having their activities coopted by the private sector or by the military. There is a real concern that humanitarian actions not be confused with security applications—or be perceived to have a common aim.
3. Multilateral and domestic forums on disarmament and arms control need closer ties with the wider civil society
Disarmament and arms control are often viewed in isolation from other issues, even in advocacy and civil-society circles. However, weapons and their use have a significant impact on local, national, and global security. Organizations working on disarmament need to connect with health advocates and environmental groups, for example, as well as with community-level organizations. When multiple organizations work together on promoting an issue, it receives more policy space.
Disarmament issues are generally discussed at multilateral and national levels. But there is a need to work at local levels, too. ICAN’s Cities Appeal, for example, calls on cities and towns to show support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons; such activity can put pressure on national governments.
4. Disarmament advocacy must include diverse individuals and groups in decision-making
Diversity and inclusivity produce more dynamic advocacy. But getting more, and more diverse, people involved in civil-society organizations can be a challenge. It costs money and takes effort and significant resources to bring campaigners from different countries to rallies and forums and other events.
And not all countries are receptive to civil-society organizing. One analyst noted that, in some countries, “NGOs are not prohibited, but are not appreciated.” Under these circumstances, it can be difficult to share information and to engage the public and government institutions. Groups and individuals operating in these conditions need more support.