Working Towards a UN Special Session on Disarmament
Project Coordinator, SCRAP Weapons
The first time I heard about UN Special Sessions on Disarmament (SSOD) was in December 2021. The SCRAP Weapons team and the student body had made the umpteenth effort to present the proposal of a Framework on a Draft Treaty on General and Complete Disarmament to numerous UN delegations in New York, without success. The prospect of finding a country that would present the Draft Treaty at the next NPT Review Conference was very little. Then, Prof. Dan Plesch proposed to focus our efforts towards requesting the UN to re-activate the mechanism of Special Sessions on Disarmament.
As it would soon become clear, there was little if no consideration among the diplomatic and activists communities about the utility of this UN instrument. Yet, an SSOD seemed to be the last viable option to push forward an agenda of general and complete disarmament (GCD) at institutional level.
Before starting what would become a global campaign, I searched for documentation on UN websites about previous special sessions on disarmament. I was surprised to see how much global activism there had been in the past to accomplish the first SSOD in 1978, through to the last one in 1988. In the arch of ten years, the world community had worked together and managed to convene three SSODs. The first one was particularly successful, with its Final Document providing a new commitment to GCD and a mandate for following special sessions.
Then, in 2016 an Open-Ended Working Group was established to set the objectives and agenda of a fourth SSOD. This devoted a total of 28 meetings between 2016 and 2017 to this task, eventually producing a final Report, adopted by consensus for submission to the UN General Assembly. Yet, this concerted effort did not produce any results. What comes to mind is that the Cold War age was a more fertile milieu for global cooperation than the present time. Quite astonishing is also the fact that Indonesia, traditionally the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and a proponent of SSODs, has of late downsized its commitment to pursuing GCD, preferring instead a role as emerging broker in Asia among nuclear and non-nuclear powers.
SCRAP work towards the activation of a fourth SSOD started in March 2022. I was in charge of reaching out to the main disarmament stakeholder organisations and to delegations both in Geneva and New York, of about twenty countries, as well as Embassies in London. At the same time, we contacted representatives of religious institutions worldwide. It was an intense process. Drafting customised letters to each contact, possibly leading to a meeting to discuss the scope of joint work, took the most part of about five months. When there was a positive return, it was very rewarding.
A milestone included organising a conference at SOAS University of London, on 6 September 2022. The preceding weeks required continuous and intense work to prepare logistic aspects, graphic material and flyers, managing the schedule with speakers, arranging the hybrid format via the Zoom platform, etc. Our partner, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, provided live translation to French, helping to increase our audience global. Finally, the outcome paid off and it marked a stepping stone towards reframing the debate about SSODs. Leaders of various supporting organisations and even the ambassadors and counsellors of four countries, including Guatemala, the Holy See (representatives of two Vatican dicasteries), Indonesia and Uruguay came to London to speak at the SCRAP Conference. On that occasion, Izumi Nakamitsu, UN Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, published a video-statement endorsing Prof. Plesch’ and SCRAP Weapons’ work.
In December 2022, we got in contact with the Embassy of Brazil at the Conference on Disarmament, and found out that in the First Committee session of the 2022 UN General Assembly they made a call to work towards the establishment of a Preparatory Committee to convene a fourth SSOD. This was a big surprise, and gave us further hope. In January 2023, it came to our attention that the UN Secretariat was requesting contributions from civil society towards drafting the Secretary-General’s recommendation for a New Agenda for Peace. We immediately submitted our input, explaining the case for a SSOD. Between January and February we reached out to many policy-makers in New Zealand, only to learn that shortly afterwards the government changed after the Prime Minister’s resignation. That sounded like an unfortunate strike of bad luck. However, our collaboration with Brazil carried on and in March we were able to jointly convene an online round-table with several high-level policy-makers, disarmament experts and UN Ambassadors, to discuss forming a global constituency that would work towards setting up a Preparatory Committee for a fourth SSOD.
To accomplish this, the next milestone for SCRAP Weapons will include having a presence on the ground in New York to convene side-events at the UN General Assembly First Committee in October 2023. As preparations move forward, we just received news that the newly published New Agenda for Peace (July 2023) presents an explicit recommendation by Secretary-General António Guterres to hold a fourth Special Session on Disarmament. There could not have been better validation of our efforts in a climate where fear of further conflict escalation in Europe and worldwide is predominant, and hopes in global disarmament are shunned away as utopian. The old saying that a tree that falls make more sound than an entire forest that grows quite describes our belief in the possibilities of beginning a new global movement towards general and complete disarmament – even when mainstream concerns are limited to nuclear disarmament. The results we are reaping show that change actually starts from small steps.
Project Coordinator, SCRAP Weapons