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62nd Annual DPI/NGO Conference: For Peace and Development: Disarm Now

The UN Department of Public Information (UN/DPI) held its 62nd Annual Conference for Non-Governmental Organizations in Mexico City from 9-11 September under the theme “For Peace and Development: Disarm Now.” The Conference, jointly organized in partnership with UN/DPI, the NGO/DPI Executive Committee, the Government of Mexico and the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, brought together over 1,000 NGO representatives from over 50 countries working in areas such as women’s rights, maternal health, child welfare, human rights, education, climate change, social justice and disarmament.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in his opening address, stressed, “The world is over-armed and peace is under-funded… More weapons are being produced. They are flooding markets around the world. They are destabilizing societies. They feed the flames of civil wars and terror.

“The end of the cold war has led the world to expect a massive peace dividend. Yet, there are over 20,000 nuclear weapons around the world. Many of them are still on hair-trigger alert, threatening our own survival.”

He urged civil society to continue speaking out that nuclear weapons are immoral and should not be accorded any military value. “The mightiest force for change is the power of people. That is the spirit that infuses your movement. That is the passion that produces real change.”

Jody Williams, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and founder of the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines, noted, “The time has more than come for us to stop accepting such nuclear absurdity. It is well beyond time for us to push with single-minded determination for an international convention that completely bans the use production, trade and stockpiling of nuclear weapons for all time.”

The International Campaign, she said, in cooperation with like-minded governments and international bodies and agencies, had been instrumental in bringing about the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, which effectively banned for the first time a conventional weapon that had been widely used for generations. That success had inspired other civil society organizations to adopt similar partnership models with Governments to effectively address a problem, such as the Cluster Munition Coalition launched in 2003, which, under the Norwegian Government’s leadership, led to the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions banning cluster bombs. Meantime, NGO efforts to stop the proliferation of small arms and light weapons continued unabated.

Over three days participants explored ways in which sustainable disarmament can lead to sustainable peace and development and highlighted effective ways in which civil society can contribute to the advancement of disarmament, peace and development at the international, regional, national and local levels. The conference, which featured keynote addresses from major figures in the disarmament world, included roundtable discussions, breakout sessions, interactive dialogues, regional workshops, daily caucuses and other activities. It sought to allow civil society the opportunity to influence the global discussions and lay the groundwork for the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference and the Treaty’s three pillars: disarmament; non-proliferation; and the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Roundtable 1, held on 9 September, had as a theme “Zero Nuclear Weapons, Zero Weapons of Mass Destruction: Why, How, When?” It emphasized that the massive production and stockpiling of nuclear weapons by a handful of countries is dangerous, costly and wastes economic resources.

Waheguru Pal Singh Sidhu, Vice-President of Programmes of the US-based EastWest Institute, said that in order to truly achieve complete global disarmament, the process of ridding the world of nuclear weapons must be “verifiable, transparent and anchored in international law and the rule of law.” Reaching zero could be achieved through such instruments as the NPT Treaty and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), he said.

Jacqueline Cabasso, Executive Director of the US-based Western States Legal Foundation, recalled that after the end of the cold war, nuclear weapons had diminished considerably and the world had expected a peace dividend. However, scientists had lobbied successfully for nuclear weapons development, on the basis of the notion that they made countries and communities more secure. But that was not true as human security could not be realized through military means or by the threat or actual use of nuclear weapons. That message was particularly important in the United States, where corporate executives, military leaders and the mainstream media shaped public opinion while allowing very little independent thinking.

During the ensuing discussion, NGO representatives asked the panellists to elaborate on the question of transparency and how nations could agree on the language used in that regard. They should also look at ways to strengthen the proposed nuclear weapons convention in terms of international law and implementation, among other issues.

Held on 10 September, roundtable 2, “Removing the Tools of Armed Violence,” examined how armed violence destroys lives and livelihoods; breeds insecurity, fear and terror; and has a profoundly negative impact on human development by imposing enormous costs on States, communities and individuals.

Alfredo Ferrariz Lubang, Regional Representative of the Bangkok-based Nonviolence International South East Asia, said that, in order to understand how weapons threatened security, one must understand the international arms business. A trader of weapons saw governments, guerrilla groups, crime rings and individuals alike as buyers and potential buyers of small arms and light weapons, a fact that strategies to combat armed violence must address comprehensively. The 2006 Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development was a good start, but it was not legally binding. It should be strengthened and linked to the Millennium Development Goals, which at present did not call for reducing armed violence, he stressed.

Strategies to end armed violence must also consider that most of the 740,000 deaths resulting from that violence every year did not take place in war zones, he continued, pointing to a study by the Global Burden of Armed Violence presented during the 2008 Summit on the Geneva Declaration. Many of the victims lived in refugee camps, or were murdered in urban areas or by family members. Only 200,000 of those annual deaths occurred in conflict zones. The study further showed that armed violence in major conflict zones accounted for US$163billion in lost productivity worldwide every year.

Alexander Galvez, Co-founder and Executive Director of the Transitions Foundation of Guatemala, described his first-hand experience of how weapons undermined security. A personal victim of firearms, he said he had been shot and permanently disabled by a gang member in Guatemala in 1996, the very year in which a peace treaty was signed to end that country’s 36-year-long civil war. His personal tragedy was a testament to the widespread use of weapons not just by armies and guerrilla movements, but also by gangs and other non-State actors.

During the ensuing question-and-answer period, several NGO representatives stressed that governments in major weapons-producing and weapons-selling countries must show the political will to curb the manufacture and sale of arms, and divert the funds of that US$1 trillion-plus annual trade into poverty eradication and sustainable development initiatives. Illegal arms holders must be sanctioned because, as long as their crimes went unpunished, the bloodshed would continue and innocent people would die. The representatives asked how NGOs could work with governments to ensure that offenders were brought to justice.

Roundtable 3, “Human Development is Global Security,” was also held on 10 September. Frida Berrigan, Senior Programme Associate of the US-based Arms and Security Initiative, said that in the last decade, global military spending had increased by 45%. While the world economy had collapsed, environmental devastation had spread and poverty had widened, governments had chosen to invest in arms instead of people. It took considerable political will to cut global military spending, and some would argue that building up the military actually delivered national security. But military overspending came at the expense of other essential forms of security such as the need for adequate food, water and jobs. A nation was in fact only secure when its people had clean water, food, health care and schools, not weapons.

During the ensuing question-and-answer period, one participant asked if the US was ready to reduce military spending as a precondition for increased security, peace and development, as called for in Article 26 of the UN Charter. Stressing that human security could only be achieved through human development, civil society representatives called on governments worldwide to cut defence budgets in favour of poverty reduction and sustainable development strategies.

On 11 September, roundtable 4 was held on the theme “New Challenges and Perspectives for Global Development and Security for the 21st Century.”

Hiro Sakurai, NGO Representative of the Japan-based Soka Gakkai International (SGI), said empowering people to act on their own behalf or the behalf of others was crucial for human security. The threat of nuclear weapons did not drive up food or gas prices or immediately impact daily life. The consequences of climate change were already apparent in warmer and drier weather everywhere, while decisions on nuclear weapons were made by people in distant places, and seemed abstract. The lack of awareness about the impact of armaments must change in order to achieve a nuclear-weapons-free world. But it was difficult to motivate people in support of disarmament and the 2010-2020 International Decade for Disarmament, he noted.

Addressing the issue of human security for children, Carolina Owens, Chief of Office, Special Assistant to the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, said humanitarian NGOs and civil society groups were vital to the work of protecting children in conflict zones. Since the Second World War, conflicts had increasingly occurred within States rather than between them. Small groups were also taking control of areas for assets or resources, blurring the lines between organized criminal gangs and armed groups. Civil society was increasingly a target. Ninety per cent of global conflict-related deaths were civilian casualties, 80% of them women and children. There had been a surge in the use of children as combatants, particularly as weapons had become lighter and easier for children to carry. More disturbing, was the fact that a growing number of children were becoming suicide bombers.

In the last 20 years, two million children had been killed in conflict zones, six million had been left permanently disabled and countless more had been uprooted from their homes and communities with severe long-term repercussions on the development of their societies, she said. Two thirds of children in conflict, some 60 million, were not going to school. The Secretary-General’s annual thematic report on the situation of children in armed conflict aimed to take stock of and rectify the plight of those children. It documented in 20 conflict situations grave violations against children including recruitment as child soldiers, killing and maiming, abduction for trafficking, rape or sexual exploitation, attacks on schools and hospitals and denial of access to humanitarian aid as well as a “name and shame” list of parties to conflicts that had committed such violations to guide the international community.

During the ensuing discussion, several participants made comments and posed questions to Ms. Owens about ways to better protect children. One participant asked about policies in place to teach children about the dangers of war and violence, which were often glorified in the media. A representative of an association representing school teachers asked for guidance on how to assist students grappling with the social and emotional consequences of having been exposed to situations of armed conflict. One participant asked how to coordinate civil society action to help indigenous children in the Mexican states of Michoacan, Chiapas and Guerrero, who were being killed, maimed and orphaned, due to violent confrontations there.

Others stressed the need to find a healthy balance between development and peace in order to erase nuclear threats. Disarmament was important, but development was what brought about true change in society, many emphasized.

The conference concluded with the adoption of the “Disarming for Peace and Development” Declaration. Through it, conference participants called for strict government regulation over the sale, trade, possession and use of small arms, as well as strong support for an effective arms trade treaty for all types of conventional weapons.

They also called on governments and international organizations to obtain the necessary signatures and ratifications to bring the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty into force without further delay or conditions. They also urged them to propose disarmament strategies and programmes as provided by the UN Charter, during the upcoming Security Council summit on disarmament, and called for reform of the Council to make it more representative and accountable, thus better able to respond to violations of disarmament and non-proliferation obligations.

“The purpose of this declaration is simple,” they stated. “Its aim is to save lives and to reduce injuries, and in the case of nuclear weapons, to prevent the destruction of civilization. The benefits of peace and security far outweigh whatever short-term benefits the trade in arms may promise.”

Several speakers addressing the Conference’s closing ceremony agreed with that assessment and the need for stronger global regulation to rid the world of armaments in favour of peace and development.

Further information, as well as conference press releases, are available on the DPI/NGO Conference webpage.