“Human-Centered Disarmament” in the New Agenda for Peace

Hina Uddin, Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative

On July 20, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres presented a New Agenda for Peace (the “Agenda”)—a roadmap comprised of twelve sets of proposals aimed at facilitating global peace and security. The Agenda is one in a series of reports aimed at setting the stage for the upcoming Summit of the Future in 2024, where UN member states will convene to address challenges and gaps in international cooperation toward peace.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres announces the release of the New Agenda for Peace in New York. Credit: UN Photo | Manuel Elías, 2023. 

The New Agenda for Peace spans an array of themes including peacekeeping, gender dynamics in peace and security, and conflict prevention through diplomacy. Under the theme of Preventing Conflict and Sustaining Peace, it calls for “reduc[ing] the human cost of weapons” (Action 7) and mentions the concept of “human-centered disarmament.” While the Agenda itself does not explicitly define that term, UN Disarmament Chief Izumi Nakamitsu celebrated the approach as part of a new vision for international disarmament and a “major commitment” of the UN secretary-general “to guarantee human, national, and collective security.”  

The secretary-general’s “human-centered disarmament” has similarities to “humanitarian disarmament,” a people-centered approach to governing weapons that originated in the 1990s with the Mine Ban Treaty. Humanitarian disarmament, which has been widely successful, seeks to prevent and remediate arms-inflicted human suffering and environmental harm through the establishment and implementation of norms. The two approaches both recognize the importance of human security, but humanitarian disarmament makes it a priority over national security and emphasizes the protection of civilians. Humanitarian disarmament’s broad scope is applicable to a range of problems addressed in the Agenda. 

The New Agenda for Peace promotes human-centered disarmament as well as humanitarian disarmament with important recommendations related to conventional weapons, notably explosive weapons, antipersonnel landmines, cluster munitions, and autonomous weapons systems. The Agenda’s lack of discussion of nuclear weapons, the arms trade, and conflict-related environmental initiatives, however, indicates a failure to show concern for human security or the human cost of weapons in those areas. Ahead of the 2024 Summit of the Future, the secretary-general should be guided by humanitarian disarmament, which has a broader scope and an emphasis on addressing human suffering.

Conventional Weapons Disarmament via a Human-Centered Approach

Protections for Civilians: Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas

In its section that addresses human-centered disarmament, the Agenda includes particularly robust recommendations with regard to protecting civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. In his 2018 Agenda for Disarmament, the secretary-general committed to supporting the efforts of member states to develop a political declaration on the topic. Four years later, in November 2022, 83 states signed the Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences Arising from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas. The New Agenda for Peace builds upon the secretary-general’s earlier commitments, recommending that states implement the Political Declaration and establish mechanisms to investigate and mitigate harm to civilians. 

Civil society welcomed the support of the Political Declaration, a recent humanitarian disarmament instrument. In its detailed analysis of the Agenda, Reaching Critical Will praised the recommendations as “excellent.” Further steps to advance civilian protection in conflict, as discussed by Reaching Critical Will, could include expanding on the priorities of “investigation and mitigation of harm” to “provide and facilitate safe, rapid, and unimpeded access for gender-sensitive humanitarian relief” in line with international norms.  

Existing Conventional Weapons Treaties: Landmines and Cluster Munitions

The same section of the New Agenda for Peace promotes existing treaties that reduce the human cost of conventional weapons. The Agenda recommends the universalization of the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons and its Protocols, the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, and the 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines (Mine Ban Treaty). The latter two are core humanitarian disarmament treaties that include both prohibitions to prevent future human suffering and obligations to remediate harm that has occurred by clearing contamination and assisting victims. In examining the impacts of weapons and other issues on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), the Agenda further notes that contamination from landmines and cluster munitions degrades human security and thus affects SDG 15, related to Life on Land.

A New Instrument: Autonomous Weapons Systems

The Agenda calls for new law on emerging technology that is consistent with human-centered as well as humanitarian disarmament. It acknowledges that autonomous weapons systems pose “humanitarian, legal, security, and ethical concerns,” and describes them as “morally repugnant and politically unacceptable.” To address these problems, the Agenda recommends “conclud[ing], by 2026, a new legally binding instrument to prohibit lethal autonomous weapons systems that function without human control or oversight, and which cannot be used in compliance with international humanitarian law.” It also recommends that the new instrument should “regulate all other types of autonomous weapons systems.” 

This proposal draws on but goes further than a 2022 joint statement to the UN General Assembly, signed by 70 states, which emphasized the need for international prohibitions and regulations on autonomous weapons systems. In prior consultations for the Agenda, eleven states raised the issue of autonomous weapons in written submissions to the secretariat. Stop Killer Robots, a global coalition of non-governmental organizations working for a treaty on autonomous weapons systems, highlighted the “serious risks these weapons pose to all of humanity” in its submission to the open call for recommendations to the Agenda, and thus welcomed the clear timeline for a new instrument. The coalition said it hoped that the secretary-general’s effort would help states “move beyond procedural deadlock,” a characteristic of the Convention on Conventional Weapons discussions which have been dominated by major military powers. 

Gaps in Aligning with a Humanitarian Disarmament Approach

Nuclear Weapons 

The New Agenda for Peace places the elimination of nuclear weapons as its first recommendation for action, but treats it as a matter of “addressing strategic risks” rather than “reduc[ing] the human costs of weapons.” While the eventual goal is total elimination of nuclear weapons, in the interim, the Agenda advocates for UN member states to never use nuclear weapons, and to ensure compliance with non-proliferation regimes. Further, the Agenda states that it is the responsibility of states possessing nuclear arsenals to negotiate limits on nuclear weapons proliferation and use. Finally, the Agenda recommends that the Security Council impose punitive measures for the threat and use of nuclear weapons. 

In discussing the vision for nuclear disarmament, the Agenda recalls commitments to the  1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but fails to mention the more human-centered 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which is the most recent humanitarian disarmament treaty. The TPNW was drafted to reinforce and build upon the NPT yet remains compatible with it. While the NPT limits the transfer and manufacturing of nuclear weapons, the TPNW takes a comprehensive approach to preventing the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences” of nuclear weapons. The TPNW prohibits the use of and other activities involving nuclear weapons, establishes a legal framework for the elimination of nuclear weapons, and requires victim assistance and environmental remediation to address harm caused by nuclear weapons use and testing. In many ways, the Agenda’s goals of eliminating nuclear weapons for “the existential threat that [they] pose to humanity” and reducing the human costs of weapons are furthered by the TPNW, making it all the more disappointing that the secretary-general failed to support universalization of—or even reference—the 2017 UN treaty.

Arms Trade

The Agenda recommends the nonproliferation and control of small arms, light weapons, and their ammunition in its section dealing with human-centered disarmament, but stops short of calling for universalization of the 2013 Arms Trade Treaty. The Arms Trade Treaty reflects important goals of humanitarian disarmament such as the reduction of human suffering, international cooperation, and transparency by regulating the transfer of conventional arms and obligating states parties to assess the risks of arms transfers. Recommending that states join and implement the Arms Trade Treaty would fit squarely in the goals of the Agenda by reducing the human cost of weapons through facilitating, as the Agenda itself encourages, “progress toward the implementation of regulatory frameworks.” 

Conflict and the Environment

The New Agenda for Peace addresses the interlinkages between climate, peace, and security, but fails to extend its recommendations to the protection of humans from the harmful effects of a conflict-affected environment. The Agenda focuses on recommendations to ensure that “climate protection and peacebuilding activities reinforce each other” and offers that climate action may act as an opportunity for peacebuilding. It further notes that armed conflict can hinder environmental protection efforts and undermine SDGs 14 and 15 on Life below Water and Life on Land, respectively. The Agenda does not account, however, for the extensive harm that conflict and arms can inflict on the environment, such as contamination from certain types of weapons, shelled or bombed industrial facilities, or abandoned military equipment. 

The New Agenda for Peace also misses an important opportunity to highlight the Principles on the Protection of the Environment in Relation to Armed Conflict (PERAC), which were adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2022. This set of 27 principles aims to protect the environment before, during, and after conflict. They apply rules of international humanitarian law to the environmental context and address such topics as human displacement, protection of the environment of indigenous peoples, remedial measures, and relief and assistance. Linking environmental and human concerns, the PERAC Principles’ preamble recognizes the “importance of the environment for livelihoods, food and water security, maintenance of traditions and cultures, and the enjoyment of human rights.” In future discussions, and particularly at the Summit of the Future, the secretary-general should afford significant attention to environmental protection from armed conflict to achieve an approach to disarmament that truly addresses the human costs of weapons. 

Pathways Ahead 

The New Agenda for Peace takes commendable strides towards advancing human-centered and humanitarian disarmament. Its comprehensive framework, with recommendations to investigate and mitigate harm from explosive weapons in populated areas, universalize conventional weapons treaties, and negotiate a new legally binding lethal autonomous weapons systems instrument, signals a commitment to prioritizing disarmament that promotes human security. The Agenda’s omission of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and the Arms Trade Treaty, as well as its limited attention to the environmental impacts of armed conflict, however, underscore areas for improvement. Humanitarian disarmament offers a roadmap to address these shortcomings. As we look ahead to the Summit of the Future, it will be important for the secretary-general to broaden the application of his human-centered disarmament approach and increase its emphasis on reducing the human cost of weapons to progress toward a safer, more just world.

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