From Weapons Bans to Travel Bans: Humanitarian Disarmament Stays Strong during the Pandemic

Bonnie Docherty, Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative

As the world seeks to control and cope with the coronavirus, humanitarian disarmament advocates have applied their distinctive people-centered approach to the pandemic. To overcome greater distances and unexpected delays, they have adopted new ways to advocate for victims of armed conflict and taken extra steps to preserve the well-being of their community. 

Like any global enterprise, humanitarian disarmament has felt the impact of coronavirus.

Health risks have forced organizers to call off key multilateral meetings, and more cancellations will likely follow. Ireland postponed consultations to develop a political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. It seems to be only a matter of time before the United Nations officially delays the start of the long-awaited Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  

Meanwhile, humanitarian disarmament practitioners are quarantined around the world—from Bogota to Belgrade, Addis Ababa to Ottawa, New Delhi to New York. The disease does not distinguish among governments, international organizations, and civil society, and individuals from each sector are facing the same restrictions

Despite these challenges, campaigners have come up with innovative strategies to continue their work.

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) published powerful graphics showing how much medical care could be bought with the money the United States, United Kingdom, and France spend on nuclear weapons. The three countries’ combined annual budgets for nuclear arms could pay for 500,000 beds in intensive care, 75,000 ventilators, 220,000 nurses, and 125,000 doctors.

Reaching Critical Will has highlighted how COVID-19 has sparked greater militarization, an increase in gun sales, and widespread surveillance.

Online events have become the norm. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots in Spain organized “Conversations in Quarantine,” including one on “Technology and the Dynamics of Aggression with the Approach of the Third Revolution in War.” The Forum on the Arms Trade is posting announcements of “virtual meetings” that can be attended remotely.

While the humanitarian disarmament community has not neglected its ongoing efforts to prevent and remediate arms-inflicted human suffering, it has paid extra attention to the health of its members. Travel bans and shelter-in-place orders have created physical separation, but in many ways, the pandemic has drawn the community closer together. 

Quarantined campaigners have flooded coalition listservs with messages of support and solidarity.  “Let us all stay strong, healthy, and perseverant,” Hector Guerro wrote to members of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines-Cluster Munition Coalition (ICBL-CMC).  Ester Martinez from Campaña Colombiana Contra Minas (CCCM) sent “strength, patience, care and love to . . .  all partners around the world to overcome these complex times.” Dalma Biro from the Hungarian Campaign to Ban Killer Robots relayed “timeless love to . . . all my beloved campaign mates from the splendid isolation.”

In the meantime, advocates have ensured that social distancing does not mean the end of socializing. Taking advantage of modern technology, ICAN held an online happy hour in mid-March. ICAN’s executive director, Beatrice Fihn, presented it as a chance to “say hi, see your faces, [and] see how you’re holding up during these extreme circumstances we’re facing.” Others have followed suit, and smaller groups have had Zoom dinners.

Meanwhile, Twitter has displayed the kitchen creations of stuck-at-home chefs, thanks to a bakeoff started by Erin Hunt of Mines Action Canada and Ester Martinez of CCCM. Anyone working the field is encouraged to tweet photos tagged #disarmamentcookoff (for meals) or the #disarmamentbakeoff (for breads, cakes, cookies, and the like). 

Credit: @dboubayedjd and @klawlandICRC, 2020.

The bakeoff has not only showcased civil society’s culinary skills but also highlighted the partnerships essential to humanitarian disarmament’s success. An asparagus strudel entered by Kathleen Lawand of the International Committee of the Red Cross received rave reviews from campaigners across the ocean.

Over the coming months, the Disarmament Dialogue blog will spotlight how humanitarian disarmament has responded to the pandemic. Please share examples of creative advocacy or diplomacy, publications or events influenced by COVID-19, or stories of community-building during quarantine by sending an email to  

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