Kazem Bokaei’s entry to the UN Poster for Peace competition (© UNODA https://www.unposterforpeace.org)

On 14 June, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights convened an intersessional workshop on the right to peace, mandated by the Human Rights Council (A/HRC/RES/35/4) to discuss the implementation of the Declaration on the Right to Peace adopted by the UN General Assembly on 19 December 2016 (A/RES/71/189, annex).

Following an inspiring opening statement by Kate Gilmore, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, the first panel of the workshop focused on ‘means to build peace within and between societies, including equality and non-discrimination, justice and the rule of law and freedom from fear and want’ in reference to States duties pursuant to Article 2 of the Declaration on the Right to Peace.

Maya Brehm of Article 36 delivered remarks on disarmament as a means to build peace. This post is based on her presentation.

‘It is uncertain, at this time, whether peace will ever be possible.’

A book published in 1967 that took the form of a report of a secret group of US governmental experts concluded:

“[In 1961] … the idea of a real peace in the world, general disarmament and so on, was looked on as utopian. Or even crack-pot. This is still true, and it’s easy enough to understand when you look at what’s going on in the world today … “ (Report from Iron Mountain: On the Possibility and Desirability of Peace, 1967)

There has been much controversy about whether the book is a satiric hoax or not. Regardless, the quote would seem to hold true even today: peace is still not a contingency that disarmament practitioners prepare for.

Neither the ‘right’ to peace nor ‘peace’ are notions that are frequently encountered in disarmament – a notion used here to refer broadly to multilateral weapons regulation, non-proliferation, arms control and disarmament properly speaking. To overstate it (slightly), peace tends to be confined to the preambles of instruments, final documents of major conferences, and statements by the Holy See and a couple of NGOs.

Also noteworthy is that in these places, ‘peace’ seldom stands alone. It tends to be accompanied by ‘security’. Take the UN Secretary-General (SG)’s recently unveiled Agenda for Disarmament for example: According to this document, the SG’s aspiration is that the agenda ‘will help set our world on a path towards sustainable peace and security for all’. According to the SG, ‘Peace and security are the central reasons why the [UN] pursues disarmament’. The stated goal of the new agenda is to ‘bring disarmament back to the heart of our common efforts for peace and security’.

The UN SG’s new agenda describes disarmament as a tool to do many things:

  • Prevent and end (armed) conflict / prevent armed violence / prevent major inter-State war
  • Mitigate the impacts of conflict
  • Protect civilians
  • Uphold the principles of humanity
  • Prevent the easy resumption of hostilities
  • Ensure / maintain stability
  • Promote sustainable development
  • Maintain / restore international peace and security
  • Preserve / secure / forge and sustain peace

Although the pursuit of peace does not occupy centre-stage in this list, disarmament measures taken by States to achieve any of the other listed goals can contribute to the implementation of Article 2 of the Declaration on the Right to Peace.

Contributing to peace through disarmament

This contribution of disarmament to the realization of ‘peace within and between societies, including equality and non-discrimination, justice and the rule of law and freedom from fear and want’ is not limited to, but is most obvious in relation to so-called ‘humanitarian disarmament’ – multilateral disarmament and weapons control measures grounded in humanitarian principles.

The focus of humanitarian disarmament is on mitigating the impacts of armed conflict, protecting civilians and upholding the principle of humanity. For example, the States parties to the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) are expected to ‘codif[y] and progressive[ly] develop[…]the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict’. In accordance with this commitment, they have adopted restrictions and prohibitions on the use of incendiary weapons and on blinding laser weapons to alleviate the suffering of the victims of war. And over the last couple of years, they have held talks in response to concerns raised by increasing autonomy in weapons systems.

These talks have brought to the fore the role of disarmament in guarding against the erosion of longstanding legal principles for the protection of the human person. How new weapons and evolving practices of armed violence accord with existing norms and shape their future development are key questions in ongoing debates on science & technology and weaponization. Beyond the question of compliance with international humanitarian law (IHL), these debates have encouraged more profound reflection on States’ duty to safeguard human dignity, humanity and act in accordance with the public conscience.

Disarmament practice can also help support the international rule of law. This is perhaps most obvious where the rule of law is under most strain. In their reactions to the use of chemical weapons and recent threats to use nuclear weapons, many States emphatically reaffirmed their commitment to a rules-based international system.

Promoting the rule of law requires respect for human rights. Although IHL remains the dominant legal framework for ‘humanitarian disarmament’, some disarmament instruments explicitly recognize the human rights dimensions of weapons and armed violence. Notably, States increasingly accept a duty to respond to the needs and realize the rights of survivors of anti-personnel landmines, cluster munitions, and the remnants of other explosive weapons. Both the Convention on Cluster Munitions adopted in 2008 and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons adopted last year contain provisions on ‘victim assistance’ under which States assume an obligation to provide to survivors and other affected persons ‘assistance, without discrimination, including medical care, rehabilitation and psychological support, as well as provide for their social and economic inclusion’ in accordance with human rights law. Another example is the Arms Trade Treaty, adopted in 2013, which, among other objectives, aims to prevent arms transfers that could be used to ‘commit or facilitate a serious violation of international human rights law’ (Art 7.1).

Over the past two decades, States have also assumed increasing responsibilities in relation to the after-math of weapons use. Clearance of contaminated land is a key duty assumed by States Parties to the 1997 Anti-personnel Landmine Convention, the 2003 CCW Protocol on Explosive Remnants of War, and the Convention on Cluster Munitions. According to the SG’s Disarmament Agenda, ‘Mine action has played a particularly important role in sustaining peace’. Under the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons States also assume an obligation to take measures for the environmental remediation of contaminated areas. This is consistent with the treaty’s recognition of the ‘grave implications [of nuclear weapons] for human survival, the environment, socioeconomic development, the global economy, food security and the health of current and future generations’.

Beyond measures in relation to particular weapon types, recent humanitarian disarmament talks have also provided an opportunity to engage with more systemic issues that stand in the way of ‘peace within and between societies’. In particular, the gendered aspects of armed violence and the differential impacts of weapons have been problematized, for example, in relation to ‘signature’ drone strikes and other applications of algorithm-based targeting, as well as in relation to the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty accept a duty to ‘take into account the risk’ that an arms export facilitates ‘serious acts of gender-based violence’ (Art 7.4). Victim-assistance under the aforementioned instruments is to be ‘age- and gender-sensitive’. The preamble of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons acknowledges the disproportionate impact of ionizing radiation on women and girls. It also reflects recognition of the disproportionate impact of nuclear-weapon activities on indigenous peoples. Finally, urgent questions have been raised about the lack of inclusiveness and diversity in the forums that deliberate and make decision about disarmament policy.

Taken together, disarmament can contribute to building peace in two key respects:

  • Disarmament processes offer an important chance for transformation towards more peaceful and less violent ways of resolving conflicts. They do so by changing the perception of threats in the relations between actors and by building confidence. The transformative potential of disarmament will, ultimately, depend on its capacity to foster an understanding and a conviction that violence-free relations and peaceful conflict resolution are possible and sustainable.
  • Disarmament mechanisms contribute to the institutionalization of a cooperative security order – a system of collective security. Disarmament institutions can promote multilateralism, uphold the rule of law and develop and maintain norms for the common good. As is well known, however, the multilateral disarmament machinery suffers from critical shortcomings, including in terms of diversity.

Disarmament for peace or security?

Against the backdrop of increasing militarization, resurgent strategic tensions, and eroding respect for international norms and commitments that have motivated the UNSG to launch a new disarmament agenda, deeper reflection is needed about disarmament in relation to peace and security.

As mentioned at the outset, in present disarmament practice, ‘peace and security’ tend to be presented as twins and are understood to be mutually constitutive of each other. Their relationship, however, is ill-defined, and it remains somewhat unclear how disarmament intervenes in it.

Traditionally, arms control and disarmament were focused on preventing the outbreak of war, maintaining international stability, and addressing other threats to the military security of the State. Even today, disarmament is still articulated mainly in State-centric terms and in line with negative conceptions of peace (understood as the absence of organized, military, armed violence involving States or other large collectivities).

New concepts of security that have been adopted into the disarmament vocabulary over the last two decades (including ‘human security’) recognize that we cannot achieve security against each other, but only with each other, that is, through peaceful cooperation. This has enabled disarmament (mostly in the form of ‘humanitarian disarmament’) to contribute to the realization of positive dimensions of peace by addressing threats to the health, safety, wellbeing, socio-economic and human development of individuals and groups of people and promoting the realization of their rights.

Arguably, however, present-day disarmament discourse still does not recognize peace as the goal and the basis for political action. It remains essentially security-oriented and its relationship to security is ambivalent:  both armament and disarmament are pursued in the name of security. Because in political practice, security tends to be construed as the ability to defend one’s own interests against perceived threats – if need be with violence – security primes the maintenance of peace and justifies continued militarization and weapons development.

In addition, the ‘securitization’ that has accompanied the expansion of the notion of security (‘food security’, ‘health security’, ‘environmental security’, etc.) also facilitated the portrayal of social challenges or risks as security ‘threats’, and normalized the use of security policy tools to address them.

As a result, in current disarmament practice, peace is either portrayed as a desirable yet illusive end-goal that is subordinate to one’s own security needs, or as a process, not meant to end conflicts, but to civilize their conduct through increasing regulation. Humanitarian disarmament, through its emphasis on mitigating the effects of the use of particular weapons, tacitly normalizes and legitimizes the use of weapons more generally.

Importantly, therefore, disarmament that promotes security does not necessarily promote peace. Arguably, the security-orientation of disarmament hampers its capacity to effectively address the structural causes of violence, foster more peaceful relations among actors, and institutionalize a preventive, and even precautionary orientation to weapon development and militarization. Unconstrained military spending, the quickening pace of innovation in military research and weapons development, and the near-complete absence of environmental considerations from disarmament debates attest to this.

To promote the conditions of sustainable and positive peace, to break away from the continued cycle of developing new and better weapons, disarmament practitioners and theorists must do more to overcome internalized attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that legitimate the use of force and militarization.

Disarmament must recognize peace as the goal and the basis for political action.

To this end, disarmament practitioners and representatives of other communities of practice should heed the UN SG’s call for strengthening the linkages between disarmament and a broader prevention agenda, sustainable development and peace building.