Photo: The “Non-Violence” (or “Knotted Gun”) sculpture by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd on display at the UN Visitors' Plaza. Credit: UN - Photo: 2018

A Call To ‘Action Now’ On United Nations Disarmament Agenda

By A.L.A. Azeez

The writer is Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the UN in Geneva. While analysing the UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ new disarmament agenda entitled, Securing Our Common Future, Ambassador Azeez calls for” the increased availability of disarmament education and fellowship opportunities” to make up for the loss of a generation of professionals and experts in many countries, resulting from “the inaction or lack of progress in disarmament over two decades.

GENEVA (IDN) – Progress in disarmament has been held up for over 20 years, especially since the UN Conference on Disarmament last adopted the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996. All efforts and initiatives aimed at making the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons possible, including by adopting a programme of work, followed by negotiations within the Conference on Disarmament (CD), have since failed.

Procedural wrangling and substantive disorientation have consistently marked the functioning of the CD, making it a testing ground of a different sort. Political will and commitment, which are among the foremost drivers of forward movement, are in short supply, and the inequalities inherent to the nuclear disarmament discourse have only accentuated the differences among its membership. Diverse aspects of national security policies, military concepts and strategic security approaches of states have made consensus building beyond reach.

In his address to the students of the University of Geneva launching his disarmament agenda entitled, Securing Our Common Future on May 24, 2018, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres graphically captured the dilemma that humanity as a whole faces today, in a language that keepers of the world’s conscience have not spoken so resolutely before. He bemoaned the multiple challenges to the survival of humanity, emphatically stating “we are living in a dangerous time” and “the world is going backwards”.

The Secretary-General’s description of a “world going backwards” meant a lot more than just the reversal of norms, its centrality being the failure of disarmament – not nuclear alone. His sweep was broader, but it struck at the crux of the problem of insecurity, arising from a lack of progress in disarmament in a broader sense, including lapses in implementation of obligations under the Convention on Chemical Weapons or other treaties.

What constituted the core thread running through the fabric of the disarmament agenda was the elimination of all types of weapons, including weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

Human security

One cannot but hope that the Secretary-General’s disarmament agenda would be taken seriously and acted upon seriously, as he very pithily put; it not just impacts national security and global security, but human security in particular, calling them “indivisible”.

It is evident that the UN Secretary-General has given a new depth to the concept of human security by defining it in terms of both individual and collective survival that faces a potential threat from existing as well as emerging possibilities of the use of WMDs.

The dimension of human security, in the disarmament and non-proliferation context, is a refreshing addition to the notion of human security, as thus far known in other areas of UN agenda.

What is the take-home message from the Secretary-General’s disarmament agenda? How is it going to translate into reality in the most logic-defying and consensus-evasive field of nuclear disarmament?

The use of nuclear weapons, as many have called it in the recent past, is only “a human error away”, even leaving aside other possibilities of their compulsive or impulsive use. But if one would count them in as well, the impression would be inescapable that humanity is just sitting pretty at the tip of a nuclear volcano waiting to happen anytime, in the absence of a prevention or prohibition regime.

The blurring of lines between familiar arguments advanced by states and the varied understanding of the nature and scope of confidence building measures from one end of the spectrum to the other – one might call them negative security assurances – has befuddled the pursuit of general and complete disarmament.

It is all but clear that the take-home message from the Secretary-General’s disarmament agenda is “Action Now”. Work on general and complete disarmament cannot be left pending any longer while the reversal of norms has become real.


Disarmament to save humanity, disarmament to save lives, and disarmament for future generations is the clarion call that should be heeded to if the world were to survive as one. Meaningful and practical implementation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) calls for such vision in the first place.

The work now has to proceed at multiple levels. The CD has a mandated role to negotiate and produce an outcome that would have, at its heart, ensuring human security in the form it was articulated in the UN Secretary-General’s disarmament agenda.

Dialogue needs as well to commence in regions and cross-regions to evolve arms control mechanisms, or more accurately zones of peace free from WMDs, thereby contributing to durable international peace and security while strengthening regional stability. Negative security assurances should be given unambiguous and unqualified expression as an integral aspect of the goal of eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.

Translating all aspects of UN Secretary-General’s disarmament agenda into reality calls for the active summoning of the political will, accompanied by a clear “commitment to move forward” – something that is currently in short supply.

In the CD, where inaction had almost become a ‘new normal’, the first reality test has been provided by Decision 2119 adopted in February 2018. Complemented by Decision 2126, this has led to the establishment of five Subsidiary Bodies to discuss and build consensus on the varied areas of what could possibly constitute the work programme and agenda, if agreed.

Today is no time to haggle over procedural aspects, particularly when we have abandoned substance for far too long, under one pretext or the other. The need for innovative and creative approaches is now pronounced. The call for disarmament is urgent, and the effect of inaction will only be far too exacting.

One certain thing that the inaction or lack of progress in disarmament has achieved over two decades is the loss of a generation of professionals and experts in many countries, who could understand the nuances and subtleties and navigate the CD effectively to achieving negotiated outcomes.

This means that the increased availability of disarmament education and fellowship opportunities – a matter that the UN Secretary-General has not spoken of as a part of his disarmament agenda – needs to receive the attention that it deserves. [IDN-InDepthNews – 18 June 2018]

Note: This article first appeared in UN Special, the internal magazine of the international civil servants of the United Nations at Geneva.

Related IDN article > UN Chief’s Disarmament Agenda Faces Rough Waters

Photo: The “Non-Violence” (or “Knotted Gun”) sculpture by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd on display at the UN Visitors’ Plaza. Credit: UN

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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