COVID-19: The Threats and Opportunities for Humanitarian Disarmament

Bonnie Docherty, Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative, and Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan, Mines Action Canada

At a virtual town hall, organized by the Forum on the Arms Trade last week, civil society advocates examined pandemic-related threats and opportunities that will inform the course of humanitarian disarmament in the months and years to come.

About 35 experts on humanitarian disarmament and the arms trade joined the online meeting from their homes on at least three continents. The gathering gave participants the chance not only to see friendly faces while social distancing but also to engage in a stimulating discussion of the challenges they will encounter in the COVID-19 context.

Participants voiced concerns about the political, technological, and financial impact of the pandemic. For example, authoritarian governments may use the situation as an excuse to grab more power and stifle opposition voices. Greater dependence on the internet for international communication as well as increased surveillance in the name of tracking the disease could create technological obstacles and privacy problems that inhibit advocates’ speech. In addition, proponents of weaponized artificial intelligence could bolster their case by arguing that the current crisis underlines human vulnerability.

Like businesses and individuals around the world, humanitarian organizations are also likely to feel the financial effects of the global shutdown. That said, one participant noted that government funding for civil society had already decreased in recent years and heightened interest in humanitarian causes could generate new sources of support.

While the human and economic costs of COVID-19 will be enormous, experts at the town hall also identified opportunities that humanitarian disarmament campaigners should seize and tools they can use to respond to the threats mentioned above.

The pandemic strengthens the argument for putting people at the center of disarmament. As one town hall participant observed, it is people, not weapons, who are saving lives in the current crisis. In addition, the suffering caused by the coronavirus shows the importance of prioritizing human over national security. Human security is at the core of humanitarian disarmament, which seeks to reduce arms-inflicted human suffering and environmental harm.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s March 23 appeal for a global ceasefire exemplifies such a people-centered approach to weapons and war. Guterres called for “putting armed conflict on lockdown” and urged combatants to “[e]nd the sickness of war and fight the disease that is ravaging our world. . . . That is what our human family needs, now more than ever.” 

The pandemic may also increase awareness of some of the issues humanitarian disarmament advocates deal with. The crisis has improved understanding and heightened appreciation of public health efforts, which could in turn generate more support for victim assistance measures. The transboundary nature of the outbreak highlights the importance of international cooperation in addressing global problems. In addition, the high-tech responses underscore the need to create rules that ensure emerging technology is used to benefit humanity, a message at the heart of the advocacy of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

Finally, the humanitarian disarmament community is highly experienced with working remotely and coordinating the efforts of advocates dispersed around the world. The strength of its global networks will help counter the threats to the voices of its members.

The Forum’s town hall reflected the community’s abilities to respond thoughtfully to changing circumstances and to connect across borders. A number of organizations, including the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Stimson, Human Rights Watch, and this website’s Disarmament Dialogue blog, have also examined the implications of COVID-19, and future digital meetings are being planned by Forum and others.