Disarmament was difficult before the pandemic. It’s difficult during the pandemic, and it will still have its challenges afterwards.
– Hine-Wai Loose, Policy Officer and Government Liaison at Control Arms.
The panel event on “Disarmament Decisions in the Time of COVID-19” hosted by the Geneva Center for Security Policy and Control Arms brought together representatives of governments, secretariats, and civil society to explore challenges and lessons learned from disarmament and arms control processes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The drawbacks to virtual meetings are clear, emphasized Ambassador Yann Hwang, Permanent Representative of France to the Conference on Disarmament. He described the current situation as an anthropological breakthrough, challenging the traditional methods of conducting diplomacy and negotiations through shared space and dialogue. Working virtually hinders the trust and relationship-building necessary to make substantive decisions on arms control matters. During COVID-19, this has been reflected in the fact that progress is not being made on substantive issues. Other panelists shared this sentiment. Alonso Martínez Ruiz, Counsellor to the Permanent Mission of Mexico, described the difficulties of addressing complex political issues in virtual spaces, including the digital divide and limited access to translation and interpretation which in-turn limits access for stakeholders to decision-making.
Despite these drawbacks, the panelists also acknowledged the positive impacts of digital diplomacy on the disarmament community. Sheila Mweemba, Director of the Implementation Support Unit for the Convention on Cluster Munitions, noted that COVID-19 has forced delegations to be flexible, creative, collaborative, and empathetic and provided new ways to ensure inclusive participation of stakeholders. These troublesome times have taught delegations that it is possible to include perspectives from those stakeholders that would not otherwise be heard, including survivors or grassroots activists in multilateral meetings, noted Hine-Wai Loose. Operating virtually has also allowed time for direct outreach, bilateral meetings and relationship building outside of formal negotiations.
Despite these unprecedented circumstances, the panelists were clear that it was imperative that disarmament work continues. Sheila Mweemba noted the importance of keeping disarmament conventions moving and trusting their resilience. “Some progress must be made. Let us handle what we can handle,” she noted. In some multilateral processes only procedural progress can be expected, given the sensitive nature of the discussions. While digital diplomacy might not be ideal for substantive and nuanced decisions, virtual communication will inevitably become a part of our “diplomatic toolbox”, said Alonso Martínez Ruiz. Using the tools available to us, it is critical that all stakeholders embrace new, creative and flexible ways of working and utilize these to build solutions towards strengthening human security.