Humanitarian disarmament: Putting people first

Branka Marijan Armed Conflicts, Featured, Nuclear Weapons

The Humanitarian Disarmament Forum, which began in 2012, has become an annual gathering, conducted on the margins of the UN General Assembly First Committee. The 2017 Forum, organized by Human Rights Watch, PAX, and the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic, was held at the UN Church Center from October 13-15. In attendance were some 90 participants from 50 organizations (including Project Ploughshares), who exchanged views and provided updates on various campaigns from arms control and nuclear weapons to autonomous weapons systems.

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 38 Issue 4 Winter 2017 by Branka Marijan

Stephen Goose, director of the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch, opened the Forum by acknowledging that “these are challenging times.” He reflected on ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen and the ever-present dangers of nuclear weapons. Technological developments, largely unregulated, have brought new concerns about the weaponization of artificial intelligence and the transformation of warfare.

However, Goose also noted several important developments that have revitalized disarmament activities. Awarding the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has been a galvanizing force for disarmament work by civil society organizations.

 ICAN and the role of civil society in disarmament

The Forum is set up to allow for the exchange of views, with much discussion occurring in smaller groups. Among the themes discussed this year were the role of civil society, the need to put humanitarian concerns front-and-centre in international discussions, and the role of champion countries, such as Canada.

ICAN’s efforts to rally support for a treaty that many doubted would happen were, of course, applauded. Many attending organizations, including Project Ploughshares, contribute to and champion ICAN’s work. ICAN’s widespread support demonstrates the ability of ordinary people to meaningfully contribute to global issues. Evan Cinq-Mars, from Center for Civilians in Conflict, described ICAN’s accomplishments as a “testament to the power of civil society.”

According to Tim Wright, ICAN’s Asia-Pacific Director, ICAN learned from such previous campaigns as the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), which won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. Individuals who had worked on and still contribute to the ICBL noted that over the last two decades civil society has become a key player in disarmament. While it was once difficult to obtain access to UN conferences, civil society is now a regular participant.

ICAN members stressed the importance of the civil-society voice in the wider disarmament discussion. Wright, in particular, wanted engaged citizens to know that “the civil society voice is credible.” Individuals should not doubt their power in speaking out on disarmament issues, even the technical ones. Citizens must encourage states to meet high international regulatory standards and should not accept watered-down regulations that might appeal to more countries.

 People first

The credibility of voices of ordinary people was central to Forum discussions. The mantra of humanitarian disarmament approaches is “People first!” Sometimes civilian impact is not directly addressed at international discussions and should be emphasized more.

Civilians bear the brunt of violent conflict. Already disadvantaged groups such as minorities, women, and children are particularly hard hit. In the first six months of 2017, 1,662 civilians, many women and children, were killed in Afghanistan (Bendix 2017). In Yemen, war, famine, and disease are killing as many as 130 children a day (Kasinof 2017). This information must be at the heart of UN discussions on disarmament and be clearly heard in countries that have the ability to ease the suffering and address the violence. Countries that can choose not to arm regimes, such as the government of Saudi Arabia, which cause the violence and suffering.

 Champion countries and the missing Canadian voice

The Forum highlighted the role of champion countries in supporting humanitarian disarmament work by civil society. Countries such as Ireland have led the way in calling for more civil society involvement and have been crucial partners for civil society organizations.

In his remarks to the UN General Assembly on September 23, Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Simon Coveney (2017) said, “The UN Charter does not begin ‘We the Member States’, but rather ‘We the Peoples’. Our policies and actions must reflect this, the inherent equality of humanity at the core of our multilateral system. In practice this means listening to and heeding the voices of women, the voices of young people, the voices of the marginalized.”

The question of Canada’s approach to disarmament came up several times in discussions. Coincidentally, the Forum was founded on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the ICBL and 2017 marks the 20 years of the Ottawa Treaty, for which Canadian diplomats and civil society received much praise. Now, Canada seems to have taken a step back.

As Erin Hunt (2017), Program Coordinator at Mines Action Canada, wrote ahead of the 2017 UN General Assembly, “Canada has a long history of leading on disarmament issues but that reputation is on shaky ground.” Hunt pointed to Canada’s boycott of the negotiations of the treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons and the lack of attention to the anniversary of the Ottawa Treaty and its implementation. Jennifer Wiebe (2017), director of Mennonite Central Committee Ottawa, concurred: “Far from ‘being back’, Canada seems to be inching backwards on disarmament.”

At least one international campaigner said, “We really need Canada back as a champion; it is surprising to see their current approach.” If for no other reason, the Canadian government should be motivated by the understanding that it will be competing for the 2021 UN Security Council seat against countries such as Ireland and Norway.

 An important reminder

Disarmament is not currently a priority, even in leading international civil society organizations. The disarmament machinery at the United Nations is slow and often deadlocked.

But ICAN’s Nobel Prize, symbolically shared with Forum participants in the form of chocolate Nobel coins, is an important reminder that, although the odds are often stacked against those of us pushing for more humanitarian approaches to disarmament, we can have an impact on the global stage. As one ICAN campaigner noted, many will say that something cannot be done, particularly without the powerful states. But the reality is different. Much can be done if concerned citizens speak up and place civilians at the core of their advocacy.

Countries such as Canada could show real leadership in taking up this banner.


Bendix, Aria. 2017. Civilian deaths in Afghanistan reach a record high. The Atlantic, July 17.

Coveney, Simon. 2017. Address to the United Nations General Assembly, New York, 23 September 2017.

Hunt, Erin. 2017. As UN General Assembly kicks off, all eyes on Canada’s disarmament stance. Open Canada, September 13.

Kasinof, Laura. 2017. The deep roots of Yemen’s Famine. Slate, November 20.

Wiebe, Jennifer. 2017. Out of step on nuclear disarmament. MCC Ottawa Office Notebook, October 25.

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