The U.N. Disarmament and Development Conference

By Simon Rosenblum

THE FIRST THING I SAW IN NEW YORK WAS A newsstand copy of the once-liberal The New Republic with a cover story, "Let it Sink: The Overdue Demise of the United Nations." I had come to attend the United Nations International Conference on the Relationship Between Disarmament and Development (Aug. 24-Sept 11).

The United States boycotted the conference because it considers disarmament and development separate issues and rejects any suggestion that developing nations have an automatic call on monies that might be freed by cuts in Western defence spending. The ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation had graciously distributed a document throughout the U.N. announcing that the conference would unfold according to a hidden Soviet agenda. An auspicious beginning indeed!

Canada, on the other hand, promoted the conference and Mexican Ambassador Miguel Marin-Bosch predicted cautiously, "You will have a very modest program of action and a rather high-sounding declaration. The important thing is that at the end we shouldn't break up and forget about it. So we have to have a follow-up mechanism to ensure that this is pursued."

What sort of mechanism? Over the years the United Nations has passed numerous resolutions calling for the diversion of scarce resources from military expenditures to other uses, particularly for the economic and social development of developing countries. Researchers have noted that it would take only a fifth of the monies the world spends yearly on armaments to end world hunger by the year 2000 -- yet no action has resulted.

The Soviet Union, France, and a number of nonaligned countries proposed to the conference that the U.N. establish a new financial mechanism to transfer some of the savings resulting from disarmament to international development. Their idea was vigorously opposed by many Western countries, including Canada. Given that the price the Third World paid for this conference was to agree to consensus, the West clearly had an informal veto over it and made it known from the beginning that it would exercise this veto regarding such a fund.

IT IS TRUE THAT THERE IS NO "QUICK FIX" IN THE disarmament/ development relationship; the link is not automatic. Nations that disarm will be under strong domestic pressures to spend the savings at home. Also, Third World development is not simply increased development assistance.

The benefits of disarmament to developing countries will be indirect. Lower interest rates, increased trade, technological transfers, and other ingredients of a so-called disarmament dividend represent potential gains that could be transferred to the South as a result of increased economic activity in the North. Even so, the solution to the problems of the developing world will not be solved or even much improved simply by increased economic integration with industrialized nations.

In the Final Document, the nations committed themselves to consider reallocating "resources released through disarmament for socioeconomic development, particularly in developing countries." The hungry of this planet will not sleep easily on such hollow promises. While the proposal of a new disarmament and development financial mechanism may have been premature, surely the conference could have recommended that existing U.N. programs (e.g. its Development Fund) seek funds released through disarmament. The document was not, however, without its virtues. A whole new dimension was featured in its discussion of the non-military threats to security. Socio-economic tensions arising from underdevelopment clearly constitute non-military threats to security and add to local instability, thereby creating conditions for military conflicts. As the European Economic Community put it, "The world cannot be regarded as secure when so many people live in extreme poverty, in fear of invasion, loss of liberty, or other basic human rights." Also recognized were the security implications of environmental degradation and resource scarcities.

Time will tell how the nations act on this heightened awareness of the non-military threats to security. Efforts to strengthen international security have long been constrained by two premises: that only national governments can provide security and that they can do so only through efficient weaponry. Yet security remains an elusive goal. In the final conference document the bottom line remains: "The judgment as to the level of arms and military expenditures essential for its security rests with each nation." No qualifications are offered, such as the importance of restructuring national military forces to pose less threat to others (i.e. what is becoming known as "non-provocative defence").

NOR DID THE DOCUMENT'S ACTION PROGRAM discuss arms transfers to and within the Third World. The complicity of both buyers and sellers results in a conspiracy of silence, even though the commercial arms trade fuels regional conflicts and bankrupts developing nations. However, the conference made a token gesture on economic conversion, asking nations to undertake studies of converting military to civilian production.

How should one assess the conference? Much depends on one's expectations. Jan Martenson, the Secretary-General of the Conference, remarked that in pursuit of a consensus, "we have to cruise between Scylla and Charybdis: between coming out with platitudes and watered-down statements and asking for too much." Barbara Adams, of the Quaker U.N. Office, put it another way: "The final document can reflect the present state of the art -- a lowest common denominator arrived at through protective/defensive negotiations. Or it can be a statement of where we want to go, a statement against which no government policy shines, but which shows the direction in which we could be moving." Martenson is probably pleased with the conference outcome, while Barbara Adams may have had her worst fears confirmed. Everyone will assess the balance differently. I found some new thinking on the functional linking of disarmament and development, but almost none on specific action recommendations. Yet for the first time, the world community has taken a common position on the relationship between disarmament and development. This may be a useful stepping stone in fashioning international opinion on the subject. As the saying goes, "a thousand-mile journey begins with the first step."

Peace Magazine Dec 1987-Jan 1988

Peace Magazine Dec 1987-Jan 1988, page 11. Some rights reserved.

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