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COVID-19 and the impact on conventional arms control

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Adedeji Ebo, Chief of the Conventional Arms Branch, UNODA

Our final policy blog of 2020 is guest written by Mr. Adedeji Ebo, Chief of the Conventional Arms Branch at the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA). We invited Mr. Ebo to reflect on how COVID-19 has affected conventional arms control and to share his views on what 2021 has in store for this sector.

The UNODA Conventional Arms Branch is the part of the UN Secretariat that guides all aspects of conventional arms control, including small arms and light weapons, ammunition management, transparency in armaments and military confidence-building. As I took over the role of Chief of this Branch in March, just as we went into lockdown, I could not have predicted, nor could indeed have any of us, how much the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) was going to change our lives, both at home and at work.

In the face of the challenges posed by the pandemic, we have all had to adjust to new ways of working to ensure that progress in 2020 is not stalled. The UN system is necessarily associated more with bureaucracy than agility, but the speed at which the whole system transitioned to fully-remote modalities was little short of fantastic. UNODA has continued to fulfil its mandates while supporting Member States as they respond to the rapidly evolving global health emergency.

We managed to deliver the UNSCAR programme—an important funding mechanism for weapons control delivered in partnership with civil society organizations. I am pleased that UNSCAR has continued to support The HALO Trust’s work in stockpile management in Bosnia and Herzegovina to address illicit small arms and light weapons. Next year, another HALO-implemented stockpile management project, focused on Somaliland, will be funded through UNSCAR. The HALO Trust possesses unique technical expertise and strong field presence and has thus been an important multi-year partner for UNSCAR.

"August’s devastating explosion in Beirut was a stark reminder of the importance of our work in the area of ammunition and explosives management."

The horrific images of the port illustrate that ineffectual handling of explosive materials can have disastrous consequences for communities—from loss of life to tremendous financial hardship and environmental damage.

Effectively storing and managing ammunition and explosives can help prevent avoidable damage and loss of life. That’s why UN Member States have supported the development of the International Ammunition Technical Guidelines (IATG), which form a frame of reference to achieve and demonstrate effective levels of safety and security of ammunition stockpiles. They are based on sound science and allow for progressive, integrated improvements.

As the custodian of the IATG, UNODA provides tools to promote application of the Guidelines – not only by States, but also in the context of UN peace operations. The IATG are currently available in Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish with some modules also translated to German. The IATG save lives and it is my hope that 2021 sees an increase in States drawing on them.

2021 will see the culmination of the ongoing work of a ‘Group of Governmental Experts’, mandated by the General Assembly to address the challenges posed by ammunition stockpiles in surplus. It is critical that the international community keeps momentum so that the dual risks of unintended explosions and diversion are mitigated. That means momentum in policy, but also an increase in technical assistance at the national and regional levels underpinned by a strong commitment of national ownership.

Next year, we also look forward to the convening of the postponed seventh Biennial Meeting of States to consider the implementation of the Programme of Action on the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. The meeting is slated to discuss preventing and combating the diversion and the illicit international transfer of small arms and light weapons to unauthorized recipients.

Illicit small arms and light weapons continue to kill and maim, destabilize regions and prolong conflict. Work to address these challenges at all levels, including at the United Nations through the Programme of Action, must remain a priority.

In particular, small arms are one of the leading types of weapon implicated in acts of gender-based violence, especially in intimate partner violence and femicides. As violence against women and girls has been heightened by COVID-19, States and the international community should integrate small arms control into their COVID-19 response frameworks. UNODA will continue to apply a gender lens to all its work, especially in the area of small arms and light weapons.

"As we transition to 2021, recovery from COVID-19 will be everyone’s top priority. It would be easy to forget about, or deprioritise, disarmament and arms control. But that would be a mistake."

Rather, conventional arms control must remain a key tool in the disarmament toolbox that supports the prevention and resolution of armed conflict.

Conflict and the humanitarian harm caused by illicit weapons, and the ammunition employed to render them lethal, have not stopped due to COVID-19. In fact, the urgency to reign in conflict in the face of the global public health emergency has been regularly underlined, including by UN Secretary-General Guterres who called for an immediate, global ceasefire in March 2020.

Keeping disarmament high on the political agenda will require a concerted effort by all States, the United Nations, expert organizations and civil society. Partnerships within our sector have been fundamental to the work of UNODA for many years. It continues to be a priority for the UN Secretary-General and the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs.

"When I first met The HALO Trust, they put forward their view that our sector’s success will increase through greater partnerships, and, in this regard, we share a common vision."

2021 must see us all show how disarmament is relevant to other global issues, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and sustaining peace.

It is in this spirit that we have worked over this past year, in partnership with the UN Development Programme and the UN’s Peacebuilding Support Office, to establish the Saving Lives Entity (SALIENT) fund within the Peacebuilding Fund. SALIENT will support national initiatives in a holistic and transformative approach, through a gender lens, in furtherance of catalytic activities in operationalizing and mainstreaming small-arms control in development efforts and policies. Civil society organizations are envisioned as critical implementing partners as SALIENT begins its pilot phase of activities in 2021.

It is vital to remember that disarmament is not just about the weapons themselves, but it is first and foremost about people. That is why the Secretary General’s Agenda for Disarmament has prioritized “Disarmament that Saves Lives” as one of its key pillars.

Disarmament can be political, but it is fundamentally practical. Disarmament saves lives. And it is more important and urgent than ever.