What is the Role of Conventional Arms Control in Preventing Conflicts and Building Peace?

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“Violent conflict is on the rise,” said Jake Sherman, Director of IPI’s Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations, adding that the proliferation of small arms is enabling high levels of violence and criminality in post-conflict environments. Mr. Sherman was moderating an October 25th policy forum on the topic of conventional arms control in preventing conflicts and building peace, co-hosted with the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) and the Permanent Mission of Japan to the UN.

Quoting the secretary-general’s Agenda for Disarmament, Mr. Sherman explained that this effort should be “integrated into broader work for prevention and sustainable development.” However, said Mr. Sherman, conventional arms control is rarely integrated into conflict prevention thinking and action. “More can be done both by states and [civil society] outside of the state to integrate conventional arms control into conflict prevention thinking and action.” The Sustainable Development Goals, and specifically goal 16 on “peace, justice, and strong institutions” has added further urgency to the secretary-general’s call for international efforts to control arms.

This event, held during the opening week of the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly’s Committee on Disarmament, aimed to examine approaches to better identify, utilize, and integrate conventional arms control measures and tools to sustain peace.

In opening remarks, Yasuhisa Kawamura, Deputy Permanent Representative of Japan to the UN, said, “It is concerning that every year at least 500,000 people are killed by small arms and light weapons.” He noted this was twice the number of casualties as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs combined. He also lamented weapons falling into the wrong hands, such as those who have committed “countless human rights violations, including sexual violence and the forced recruitment of children.”

He highlighted the need for effective control of small arms and light weapons, which, he said, “could be a potentially effective tool for prevention and sustaining peace.”

Aidan Liddle, the United Kingdom Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, pointed out the difference in thinking between headquarters in New York and Geneva. “In Geneva, we tend to focus on our own structures and processes, oblivious to the significant overlap with what other sectors are doing on conflict prevention. We must improve links with the humanitarian protection community and with agendas such as Women, Peace, and Security and Youth, Peace, and Security,” he said. “We also believe that the UN’s disarmament work needs to be better integrated with the secretary-general’s peace and security pillar particularly in the area of mediation.”

Renata Dwan, Director of UNIDIR, noted, “How we understand peace and security has become much more centered around a bottom-up approach.” However, she asked, “How do we understand grievances to then come to a world where everything is understood from the top-down? From the perspective of state and state stability, we need to meet in the middle somewhere,” she said. “Where do the top-down and the bottom-up meet, and what should be the core of a conflict prevention sensitive arms control approach?”

Allison Pytlak, Program Manager of Reaching Critical Will at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, pointed out the potential role for civil society, “who bear the brunt…of armed violence and armed conflicts,” and therefore should be part of discussions on maintaining peace. Civil society groups have the unique “space to set agendas, create narratives, and be critical, and these are all things that can help to increase accountability, credibility, and the responsiveness of other actors,” she said.

She called for “an integrated approach to security that puts women’s human security over military state security.”

“We really believe that sustaining peace requires consistent and committed political will to move out of the comfort zones that we’re used to and to challenge dominant narratives on gender conflict analysis and power,” she said. To realize this vision, she urged policymakers to consider “a move away from arms control and militarism to disarmament and to addressing the root causes of violence.”

Alexandra Fong, Senior Political Officer in the UN Department of Political Affairs, highlighted a trend of thinking of the “presence of arms as symptoms of conflict, and not as enablers.” Prevention, she said “cannot be done in isolation.”

The secretary-general’s vision requires a “system-wide effort,” she said, and asked the audience, “How can disarmament and conventional arms controls measures be better linked and coordinated to this search for peace? And particularly, how can we link up these efforts with the secretary-general’s envoys in the field?”

Thomas Kontogeorgos of the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Service in the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, emphasized that the presence, proliferation, and illicit flow of small arms and light weapons “is, for us, a key conflict driver and has always been a priority for the Department of Peacekeeping Operations.”

Of the more than one billion firearms in the world, he said that eighty-five percent were in civilian hands.A further “13 percent are with military arsenals, and only two percent are owned by law enforcement agencies.”

Himayu Shiotani, Programme Lead of the Conventional Arms Programme in UNIDIR, said that regulation of arms and ammunition needs to be linked to security, development, and human rights, and that poor regulation allows arms to become “enablers of conflict.” However, he said, arms control measures are “extremely fragmented in nature.”

He made note of the fact that “arms control in dynamic environments are not being tested clearly…Where violence is most prominent, we start to see that we don’t actually have too many answers, in particular, dealing with armed actors.” To best address prevention, he said, “We need to understand risk better.”

In conclusion, Youssef Mahmoud, Senior Adviser at IPI, challenged the audience to question the “powerful” assumption that peace is the absence of conflict. “Our aspirations for peace and security tend to be often depicted negatively,” he said, although “negative peace [is] highly reversible and unstable.”

He went on to explain that, “We have militarized foreign policy, but are not necessarily feeling any safer, so if you therefore think of peace as the order that comes after war, if you think of peace as the reflection or the other side of conflict, then you’re going to be stuck into conflict prevention.”

A more effective approach, he argued, would be to “analyze the root causes of conflict,” defining peace as “the prevalence of a framework of social and political relationships that are free from coercion and where people and groups and individuals can pursue their needs and aspirations without fear with justice and in security.”

Describing the way forward, he offered a call to action. “Treat this particular aspect of arms control as a governance and development function, not a peace and security function, and the SDGs as truly the blueprint of ‘how to live in harmony between people, the states, and the planet’ and you will have a different kind of social contract,” he said. “That contract would be between the people as the equal pen holders of the social contract, but more importantly, a social contract between people and the planet.”