The UN Office for Disarmament Affairs continues to actively pursue its mission – a 2021 update on the work of disarmament during the pandemic

A Message from High Representative Izumi Nakamitsu

April 12th, 2021

A new strategy for our changing world

Since my early updates on the implications of COVID-19 for multilateral disarmament, the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) has continued to actively pursue its mission, in close cooperation with governments and partners across disciplines and sectors.

During this past year, we have developed and just launched our first five-year strategic plan. It frames our Office’s vision and priorities within the broader global context, and charts a path for how to effectively support global efforts towards general and complete disarmament.

In this difficult and evolving geopolitical context, new agendas are shaping collective action to mitigate emerging risks. Our strategic plan will orient UNODA’s work and priorities to these global and organizational agendas, while also providing a framework for partnership-building.

In reviewing some recent impacts and developments in our field, I believe there are grounds for optimism and constructive action in the face of our shared challenges.

Promoting and supporting effective disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control measures worldwide

UNODA remains actively engaged in programmatic work of wide geographic and substantive breadth, often with generous support from donors.

I continue to brief the Security Council at its monthly virtual meetings on the implementation of Security Council resolution 2118 (2013) on the elimination of the chemical weapons programme of the Syrian Arab Republic. At the same time, our Office is supporting Council members and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in their efforts to uphold the universal ban on chemical weapons and to hold the perpetrators of chemical weapons use accountable.

We also continue to work with partners to ensure the operational readiness of the Secretary General’s Mechanism for Investigation of Alleged Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons, including through support for training and outreach activities. 

To help prevent non-State actors from acquiring weapons of mass destruction and related materials, UNODA continues to support the Security Council Committee established pursuant to resolution 1540 (2004). We will provide full backing to the Committee and its new Chair in conducting a five-year comprehensive review of the status of the resolution’s implementation, and we continue to assist Member States as they take measures to implement the resolution, in cooperation with colleagues across the United Nations system.

Our Office is also working to promote trust, transparency and confidence among States, and to prevent arms competition. To help prevent armed hostilities from extending to outer space, I am supporting the preparation of a new report to better understand related threats and explore new ideas for developing norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviour. I also remain engaged in efforts to revitalize multilateral approaches to controlling missiles.

To better track global trends in military spending, our Office recently upgraded the database of the United Nations Report on Military Expenditures with a new online system for State reporting, in accordance with a new template adopted by States.

Working closely with the African Union Commission and the Regional Centre on Small Arms in Nairobi, we supported seven States in marking September 2020 as Africa Amnesty Month for the surrender of illicit weapons. As part of the initiative, these States conducted nationwide outreach, including to women and youth, provided training in community-based policing and assisted local authorities in establishing secure systems for weapons collection, storage and record-keeping. The campaign succeeded in collecting 1,500 small arms that participating governments will securely destroy in the coming months. 

The United Nations Trust Facility Supporting Conventional Arms Control (UNSCAR) continues to fund short-term, quick-impact projects in partnership with civil society and regional organizations. This February, our Office announced funding for 12 practical proposals on small arms control and arms transparency to be implemented in 2021, and we are currently elaborating their strategic and budgetary aspects. 

Under the United Nations SaferGuard Programme, our Office proceeded with numerous activities to help protect stockpiled ammunition from diversion and unplanned explosions. With support from the ammunition experts on the Programme’s Technical Review Board, we updated international guidelines for safe ammunition storage and published the material in two additional languages.

Meanwhile, our Office’s three Regional Centres on Peace and Disarmament continue to assist Member States with technical and legal capacity-building; regional and national consultations; development of national action plans on small arms and light weapons; and raising awareness on international legal instruments and cross-cutting issues, such as gender.

Here are some highlights from recent months: 

  • After the tragic and deadly explosions that occurred on 7 March in Bata, Equatorial Guinea, our Centre in Lomé participated in a technical assistance mission under the umbrella of the SaferGuard Programme Quick Response Mechanism. The mission team, composed of the Centre’s Director in Africa and technical experts from the Ammunition Management Advisory Team, visited the site of the explosion and assisted the government in assessing the cause of the accident and in reducing risks of further explosions.
  • Our Centre in Lima facilitated the development and virtual launch of the Caribbean Firearms Roadmap, which aims to accelerate and bolster the efforts of Caribbean States to prevent and combat the illicit proliferation of arms and ammunition in the region.
  • Our Centre in Kathmandu created a webinar series aimed at building the capacity of South Asian States and Mongolia to implement Security Council resolution 1540 (2004).

Together with partners across the United Nations system, our Office is working to ensure that the Organization as a whole can facilitate comprehensive approaches to controlling small arms and reducing armed violence. Through the Saving Lives Entity (SALIENT)—a trust facility established within the Peacebuilding Fund and undertaken jointly by our Office and the United Nations Development Programme—we are launching two pilot projects in the first half of 2021 aimed at operationalizing and mainstreaming sustainable small arms control at the country level. In taking this work forward, we are coordinating closely with United Nations Country Teams and prioritizing national-level ownership and objectives.

My Office also continues to advocate for concrete efforts to address the humanitarian harm resulting from the use of explosive weapons with wide-area impacts in populated areas, including through the Ireland-led consultative process to develop a political declaration.

Pursuing new forms of capacity-building and outreach

Through our Office’s youth outreach initiative, #Youth4Disarmament, we are working to connect geographically diverse young people with experts to learn about current international security challenges, the work of the United Nations and how young people can actively participate in these issues. Our recent activities have included launching of a dedicated website for youth engagement on disarmament; holding a worldwide contest, called the “75 Words for Disarmament Youth Challenge”; and conducting a first-of-its-kind training programme with 10 United Nations “Youth Champions”. 

Ahead of the nineteenth Republic of Korea-United Nations Joint Conference on Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Issues from 2 to 4 December, UNODA and our Korean partners invited young representatives to participate in a youth special session and attend a closed-door meeting with senior officials where the discussion focused on the security implications of emerging technologies.

In December, the #Youth4Disarmament initiative was recognized as the Best Coalition Building Project of 2020 by the Billion Acts of Peace Award, an initiative of the Peace Jam Foundation and 14 Nobel Peace Prize winners.

I also was heartened, in January, to see our Office honoured by the International Section of the New York State Bar Association for our “vital role in the effort to reduce the risks that nuclear weapons present to the very existence of life on earth.”

Our Office has also continued to develop online disarmament education materials for all age groups, including new short courses on outer space and the Secretary-General’s Agenda for Disarmament. Under our new “Disarmament4Educators” project for South and Southeast Asia, we are working to foster dialogue among post-secondary learning institutions and assist university professors in developing or upgrading their disarmament education programmes.

Additionally, as part of our Office’s “responsible innovation” portfolio, we are partnering with the University of Tokyo, Singapore University of Technology and Design, National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foundation, as well as the private company SAP, to offer workshops on the security implications of artificial intelligence and data to students in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

Promoting equal representation and gender equality

In December 2020, the General Assembly adopted its seventh resolution on women, disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control, recognizing the negative impact of COVID-19 on gender equality. Regrettably, the move to more virtual or “hybrid” meeting formats over the previous year has failed to improve women’s full and effective participation and broader inclusion in disarmament processes. I reiterate my call to accelerate progress on this issue by setting standards for representation and ensuring accountability in reaching parity targets, in disarmament decision-making as well as in my own Office

Responding to what the Secretary-General called “horrifying global surge” in violence against women and girls during the pandemic, our Centre in Lima developed new recommendations in 2020 on the use of arms control to help prevent violence against women in Latin America and the Caribbean. In recent months, we have also conducted a global social media campaign, held a regional webinar and launched a dedicated webpage to draw further attention this important issue.

Our Office is continuing to implement its European Union-funded project on gender and small arms and light weapons, including through virtual and in-person trainings in Africa, Asia and the Pacific and Latin America. Recognizing the key role of ammunition management in prevention and reduction of violence, we are developing new training materials with a specific focus on gender dimensions and the role of ammunition management in United Nations Peace Operations.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted critical investment gaps in social services and protections, particularly for women and girls. Building on the pandemic’s lessons, our Office will prioritize the Secretary-General’s call to reverse the upward trend in global military spending in favor of greater investment in social protection systems that buttress human security.

Communicating with stakeholders

To promote the disarmament goals of the United Nations and encourage supportive action by Member States and the public, I joined other senior officials to publish op-eds and other articles on a range of disarmament-related topics. Last May, for instance, I published an article with the heads of United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the International Committee of the Red Cross on the deadly combination of armed conflict and COVID-19. 

Over the coming year, my Office and I will continue our strong and frequent engagement with diverse audiences through a broad spectrum of global media and civil society organizations. To this end, we will continue using a targeted social media approach and web presence to facilitate dynamic online events and promote our latest publications on current and substantive topics.

Supporting intergovernmental disarmament meetings 

Our Office has continued its practical and substantive support for multilateral meetings and processes related to disarmament. We are facilitating new methods of virtual engagement, even as we undertake preparations to resume in-person meetings as soon as it is safe. Below is an update on a number of intergovernmental discussions planned for 2021, including several rescheduled from last year.

The First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly held its annual session from 6 October to 10 November 2020. By convening only 15 formal in-person meetings and addressing thematic issues in the framework of its general debate, the Committee successfully adopted 71 resolutions and decisions on disarmament and international security while prioritizing the health and safety of delegates. In another innovation, the Committee for the first time used a virtual format to hold informal meetings for thematic discussions, as well as interactive dialogues with civil society representatives located around the world.

The Conference on Disarmament has employed a “hybrid” format to hold eight plenary meetings since June 2020, including a dedicated meeting on emerging technologies. It began its 2021 session in a fully virtual manner, drawing more high-level speakers for its High-Level Segment than in recent years.

Member States made a concerted effort, with the support of our Office, to facilitate the holding of the 2021 substantive session of the United Nations Disarmament Commission from 5 to 23 April, as originally scheduled. Unfortunately, the Commission has thus far been unable to resolve a number of organizational issues, and Member States subsequently decided to postpone the session until a later time to be decided by the General Assembly. Whenever the meeting will be held, our Office along with the Department of General Assembly Affairs and Conference Management stand ready to provide all needed substantive and secretarial support.

States parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons agreed to postpone their tenth Review Conference a second time, until August 2021. As they prepare to take a final decision in April on its new tentative dates, our Office is supporting outreach by the President-designate to ensure success for this vital pillar of international peace and security.

Our Office has been tasked to support the States that have joined the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the first multilateral nuclear disarmament treaty in over two decades, in fully implementing the Treaty, including the convening of the first meeting of States parties within 12 months of its entry-into-force on 22 January.

States parties to the Biological Weapons Convention have postponed their 2020 meetings until the second half of 2021. They continue to discuss arrangements for the Convention’s ninth Review Conference, originally scheduled for this year. The pandemic has also raised awareness of the need for better prevention and responses to potential biological emergencies. To this end, UNODA is a co-lead on the United Nations internal system-wide Biorisk Working Group established by the Secretary-General.

After a successful inaugural session of the Conference on the establishment of a Nuclear-Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone in the Middle East in 2019 and postponement of the 2020 session, the second session is scheduled to be convened by the Secretary-General from November 29 November to 3 December. In the meantime, our Office continues to support the participating States in their ongoing efforts to pursue such a zone, in an open and inclusive manner. To that end, we have organized intersessional informal workshops for these States to draw experience and lessons learned from existing nuclear-weapon-free zones.

As part of our Office’s ongoing support for the Programme of Action on small arms and light weapons, we are facilitating preparations for its seventh Biennial Meeting of States, now rescheduled for 26-30 July 2021. We are helping the Chair-designate to administer informal consultations ahead of the Meeting, where countries will consider ways to step up action against the diversion and illicit international transfer of small arms and light weapons.

In the area of safe and secure ammunition management, the General Assembly has extended the mandate of the Group of Governmental Experts on “Problems arising from the accumulation of conventional ammunition stockpiles in surplus” through 2021, enabling the Group to complete its work. With support from our Office, it aims to resume deliberations and submit a final report to the Assembly during its seventy-sixth session.

The Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters is also continuing discussions under a two-year programme of work, exploring possible paths to reinvigorate and revitalize nuclear disarmament and arms control. In February 2021, our Office assisted the Board in holding a new round of virtual, substantive discussions.

Meanwhile, States parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions opened their second Review Conference in a fully virtual format from 25 to 27 November 2020. They chose to postpone the Conference’s second part until 2021.

To tackle questions on lethal autonomous weapons systems under the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, our Office joined the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research to co-organize several webinars on the topic in October 2020. These were followed, in January, by an expert discussion on other emerging and cross-cutting issues related to the Convention ahead of its sixth Review Conference.

States parties to the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention met virtually in 2020 for the eighteenth Meeting of States Parties. They also carried out a number of intersessional activities, including a virtual high-level pledging conference.

The sixth Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty also took place in 2020, using a written format. Participants agreed that they would use virtual means to conduct activities of the Treaty’s working groups and preparations for its seventh Conference.

Few technologies have been as powerful as information and communications technologies in reshaping economies, societies and international relations. I would like to commend Member States on the successful adoption of a consensus report at the Open-ended Working Group on information and telecommunications in the context of international security in March this year. My Office is committed to continuing its support for the other First Committee intergovernmental processes on this issue, namely the ongoing Group of Governmental Experts and the new Open-ended Working Group which will begin its work in the coming months.

Supporting the Secretary-General in building our common agenda

Last year, to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, the General Assembly asked the Secretary-General to develop recommendations to advance our common agenda and to respond to current and future challenges.

Member States pointed out that “the COVID-19 pandemic caught us off guard. It has served as a wake-up call for improving our preparedness for not only health-related crises but also other challenges and crises.”

This virus, for all the loss and hardship it has caused, is bringing remarkable new focus to the most important elements of our daily security—elements that no number of weapons can strengthen.

Now and in the years ahead, let us pursue an agenda that prioritizes sustainable peace and development over arms, with our common security at its centre.