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Disarmament during Ethnic and Religious War: The United Nations Perspective

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It gives me great pleasure to be here this morning to speak to you about the work of the United Nations, in particular, that of the United Nations Office on Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) and its endeavors to address all sources of armed conflict from the perspective of disarmament.

Thank you to the International Center for Ethnic and Religious  Mediation (ICERM) for organizing this important conference. It comes as we mark the 70th anniversary of the United Nations which has been at the forefront of peacebuilding and conflict prevention efforts throughout the world for seven decades. We, therefore, applaud the tireless work of civil society organizations such as yours to develop alternative methods of preventing and resolving armed conflict and educating people about the dangers of interethnic and interreligious conflict.

Civil society organizations have made major contributions to the field of disarmament as well, and the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs is particularly grateful for their work in this regard.

As a veteran of six United Nations peacekeeping missions, I have witnessed and know all too well, the long-lasting societal, environmental, and economic damage that armed conflicts have caused in many parts of the globe. As we all know, such conflicts have several root causes, religion and ethnicity being only two of them. Conflicts can also be triggered by a number of other causes that must be addressed with appropriate measures that directly address specific root causes, including those of religious and ethnic origin.

My colleagues in the Department of Political Affairs, in particular, those in the Mediation Support Unit, have a mandate to find appropriate measures to address the root causes of conflict of all kinds and have deployed a wide range of resources in many areas of conflict with great efficacy. These efforts, while very effective in some cases, are by themselves insufficient to fully address armed conflicts of all kinds. To effectively deal with armed conflict including addressing their root causes and their devastating aftermaths, the UN draws on a wide range of expertise.

In this regard, the various departments within the United Nations system collaborate to bring their specialized resources and manpower to bear on the problem of armed conflict. These departments include the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, the Department of Political Affairs, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), the Department of Field Service (DFS) and many others.

This brings me to the work of the Office for Disarmament Affairs and its role in the prevention and resolution of armed conflict. Our role in what is essentially a collaborative effort, is to reduce the availability of arms and ammunition that fuel conflict. The topic of this panel discussion: “Disarmament during Ethnic and Religious War” seems to suggest that there might be a special approach to disarmament in the context of religious and ethnic conflict. Let me be clear at the outset: the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs does not distinguish between the various kinds of armed conflict and adopts a uniform approach in carrying out its disarmament mandate. Through disarmament, we hope to reduce the availability of all types of weapons that currently fuel religious, ethnic, and other conflicts throughout the world.

Disarmament, in the context of all conflicts, be they ethnic, religious, or otherwise involves the collection, documentation, control and disposal of small arms, ammunition, explosives and light and heavy weapons from combatants. The objective is to reduce and ultimately eliminate the unregulated availability of weapons and thereby lower the chances for furthering conflict of any kind.

Our Office works to support and promote arms control agreements as these agreements have played crucial roles in defusing conflicts throughout the history of disarmament. They have acted as confidence-building measures, providing both an avenue and an opportunity for bringing opposing forces to the negotiation table.

The Arms Trade Treaty and the Programme of Action, for example, are two very important tools that the international community can deploy as safeguards against the illicit transfer, destabilizing accumulation and misuse of conventional weapons that are, so often, utilised to further ethnic, religious, and other conflicts.

The ATT recently adopted by the UN General Assembly aims to establish the highest possible common international standards for regulating the international trade in conventional arms, and to prevent and eradicate the illicit trade in conventional arms and their diversion. The hope is that with the increased regulation of the arms trade a greater measure of peace in areas of conflict will be realized.

As the Secretary-General has said most recently, “the Arms Trade Treaty offers the promise of a more peaceful world and eliminate a glaring moral gap in international law.

Apart from its role in supporting the adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty, The UN Office for Disarmament Affairs oversees the Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects. It is an important United Nations supported initiative established in the 1990s to reduce the availability of small arms and light weapons by promoting various arms control regimes in participating countries.

The UN Security Council also plays an instrumental role in disarmament with a view to eliminating ethnic, religious, and other conflicts. In August 2014, the Security Council adopted a resolution on threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts[1], with a specific reference to the threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters. Significantly, the Council reaffirmed its decision that States should prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale, or transfer of arms to Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Al Nusrah Front (ANF) and all individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with Al-Qaida.

To conclude, I have sought to throw some light on the work of the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs and the critical role of disarmament in resolving ethnic, religious, and other conflicts. Disarmament, as you may have gathered by now, is, only part of the equation. Our work at the United Nations to end ethnic, religious, and other forms of conflict is a collective effort of many parts of the UN system. It is only by harnessing the specialized expertise of various sectors of the UN system that we are best able to address the root causes of religious, ethnic, and other conflicts in an effective manner.

* Presentation at the Second International Conference on Ethnic and Religious Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding, International Center for Ethno-Religious Mediation (ICERM), Yonkers, New York, 11 November 2015.

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