UN meetings and conferences on disarmament and arms control are hugely expensive. Member States spend vast sums of money every year sending delegates to meetings in Geneva, New York and elsewhere and in housing and feeding them while there are there; often for extended periods of time.
By way of illustration, the First Committee of the UN General Assembly (the one that deals with disarmament and international security) meets at UN Headquarters in New York for four whole weeks every autumn. The UN Disarmament Commission meets there every spring for three weeks. This year in Geneva, there will be a total of seven weeks of negotiations on cluster munitions in the framework of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, albeit split into shorter sessions and spread throughout the year. The list goes on (for the full picture, see the Geneva Forum's 2008 disarmament calendar).
On top of travel, room and board expenses, one must also count the high costs associated with translation and interpretation into the UN's six official languages; the cost of printing, copying and distributing countless paper pages; and the expense of paying the salaries of the UN officials who organise these meetings. All of these additional costs are also covered by UN Member States though their assessed contributions to the UN budget and, in some cases, through additional voluntary contributions.
Given the sums expended, it is only natural to ask whether all of these meetings provide value for money. Do they contribute to increasing (or at least maintaining) international and human security? If so, by about how much per dollar spent? (an impossible question to answer, but interesting to ask anyway). The killer question, however, is; could the money needed to organise these meetings be more effectively spent in some other way to achieve the desired outcome? If the answer to this question is affirmative, then the meeting in question carries an opportunity cost rather than security benefit.
It would be overly harsh, in my view, to apply this way of thinking to disarmament and arms control negotiations (or to discussions that are trying to lead to negotiations). Even when unsuccessful, good faith discussions or negotiations on new treaties or agreements are valuable in themselves because they can lay the groundwork for subsequent successful negotiations. The same cannot be said, however, of the discussions that take place among States on monitoring the implementation of agreements that they have already reached through negotiation. It is of these kinds of meetings that the most critical questions need to be asked.
A case in point are the meetings of UN Member States that take place every two years to consider the state of implementation of the UN Programme of Action on the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons, a voluntary agreement dating from 2001 in which States agree to cooperate at the national, regional and global levels to 'prevent, combat and eradicate' the black market trade in guns. So far, two such biennial meetings have taken place (in 2003 and in 2005), each of one week duration at UN Headquarters in New York. Despite the best efforts of their respective Chairs, however, these meeting achieved little more than providing a platform to States to read long, general and, on the whole, self-congratulatory statements on how well they were implementing their commitments. NGOs participating on the margins of these meetings begged to differ. According to civil society, implementation of the small arms programme of action had barely begun and much more work remained to be done if States were to make any dent at all in the illicit small arms trade.
After five years in existence, it is customary for multilateral arms control agreements to undergo what is known as a 'review,' i.e. not just an implementation monitoring exercise but a proper evaluation of the impact the agreement has made in the real world. UN Member States met in the summer of 2006 to review implementation of the UN programme of action on small arms; this time for two weeks in New York. Once again, there were many long, self-congratulatory statements by States, too little focus on identifying and addressing problems with implementation, and similar stinging criticisms from civil society (who, it must be said, also played their part in the downfall of the meeting by consistently pushing issues not included in the original agreement). To cap the whole exercise, States could not agree on a final document and so the meeting ended with nothing concrete to show for two weeks of work carried out by hundreds of people representing over one hundred countries.
It is against this background that we approach a third biennial meeting of States that will take place in New York on July 14-18 of this year. The United States has decided not to participate in this meeting and was alone in the General Assembly last autumn in voting against it being held in the first place. Among its reasons, the U.S. State Department has mentioned that it would prefer to invest the rapidly growing pot of money it has earmarked for international small arms work in more practical endeavors; such as helping countries safely dispose of surplus small arms and light weapons and helping them to manage and account for their stockpiles of these weapons. In other words, one of the reasons the United States has decided to sit this one out is that it perceives the opportunity cost of biennial meetings as being simply too high.
Moves are afoot to do something about this, however. Drawing lessons from the past, the Chair of the forthcoming biennial meeting, Ambassador Dalius Cekuolis of Lithuania, is embarked on an extensive round of consultations with UN Member States with the goal of turning July's meeting into an effective means of advancing implementation of the small arms programme of action. In an address delivered on Thursday to UN Member States in New York, he outlined some possible departures from past practice that would go a long way towards achieving this; including focusing the biennial meeting on a small number of priority issues and setting targets and goals for the future. Ambassador Cekuolis will try out some these ideas in Geneva tomorrow, during informal consultations with States here.
So far, his words seem to be falling on receptive ears. There is a long way to go between now and July, however, and there will doubtless be calls from some quarters to continue doing things as they have been done in the past. Proposing to deviate from precedent in multilateral arms control processes is never an easy undertaking. Doing things differently is sometimes necessary, though, if only to make worthwhile the thing being done.
Patrick Mc Carthy
Photo Credit: "Piggy Homocide" by True Scot on Flickr.