Disarmament Insight


Monday, 4 February 2008

The Opportunity Cost of Arms Control Meetings

UN meetings and conferences on disarmament and arms control are hugely expensive. Member States spend vast sums of money every year sending delegates to meetings in Geneva, New York and elsewhere and in housing and feeding them while there are there; often for extended periods of time.

By way of illustration, the First Committee of the UN General Assembly (the one that deals with disarmament and international security) meets at UN Headquarters in New York for four whole weeks every autumn. The UN Disarmament Commission meets there every spring for three weeks. This year in Geneva, there will be a total of seven weeks of negotiations on cluster munitions in the framework of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, albeit split into shorter sessions and spread throughout the year. The list goes on (for the full picture, see the Geneva Forum's 2008 disarmament calendar).

On top of travel, room and board expenses, one must also count the high costs associated with translation and interpretation into the UN's six official languages; the cost of printing, copying and distributing countless paper pages; and the expense of paying the salaries of the UN officials who organise these meetings. All of these additional costs are also covered by UN Member States though their assessed contributions to the UN budget and, in some cases, through additional voluntary contributions.

Given the sums expended, it is only natural to ask whether all of these meetings provide value for money. Do they contribute to increasing (or at least maintaining) international and human security? If so, by about how much per dollar spent? (an impossible question to answer, but interesting to ask anyway). The killer question, however, is; could the money needed to organise these meetings be more effectively spent in some other way to achieve the desired outcome? If the answer to this question is affirmative, then the meeting in question carries an opportunity cost rather than security benefit.

It would be overly harsh, in my view, to apply this way of thinking to disarmament and arms control negotiations (or to discussions that are trying to lead to negotiations). Even when unsuccessful, good faith discussions or negotiations on new treaties or agreements are valuable in themselves because they can lay the groundwork for subsequent successful negotiations. The same cannot be said, however, of the discussions that take place among States on monitoring the implementation of agreements that they have already reached through negotiation. It is of these kinds of meetings that the most critical questions need to be asked.

A case in point are the meetings of UN Member States that take place every two years to consider the state of implementation of the UN Programme of Action on the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons, a voluntary agreement dating from 2001 in which States agree to cooperate at the national, regional and global levels to 'prevent, combat and eradicate' the black market trade in guns. So far, two such biennial meetings have taken place (in 2003 and in 2005), each of one week duration at UN Headquarters in New York. Despite the best efforts of their respective Chairs, however, these meeting achieved little more than providing a platform to States to read long, general and, on the whole, self-congratulatory statements on how well they were implementing their commitments. NGOs participating on the margins of these meetings begged to differ. According to civil society, implementation of the small arms programme of action had barely begun and much more work remained to be done if States were to make any dent at all in the illicit small arms trade.

After five years in existence, it is customary for multilateral arms control agreements to undergo what is known as a 'review,' i.e. not just an implementation monitoring exercise but a proper evaluation of the impact the agreement has made in the real world. UN Member States met in the summer of 2006 to review implementation of the UN programme of action on small arms; this time for two weeks in New York. Once again, there were many long, self-congratulatory statements by States, too little focus on identifying and addressing problems with implementation, and similar stinging criticisms from civil society (who, it must be said, also played their part in the downfall of the meeting by consistently pushing issues not included in the original agreement). To cap the whole exercise, States could not agree on a final document and so the meeting ended with nothing concrete to show for two weeks of work carried out by hundreds of people representing over one hundred countries.

It is against this background that we approach a third biennial meeting of States that will take place in New York on July 14-18 of this year. The United States has decided not to participate in this meeting and was alone in the General Assembly last autumn in voting against it being held in the first place. Among its reasons, the U.S. State Department has mentioned that it would prefer to invest the rapidly growing pot of money it has earmarked for international small arms work in more practical endeavors; such as helping countries safely dispose of surplus small arms and light weapons and helping them to manage and account for their stockpiles of these weapons. In other words, one of the reasons the United States has decided to sit this one out is that it perceives the opportunity cost of biennial meetings as being simply too high.

Moves are afoot to do something about this, however. Drawing lessons from the past, the Chair of the forthcoming biennial meeting, Ambassador Dalius Cekuolis of Lithuania, is embarked on an extensive round of consultations with UN Member States with the goal of turning July's meeting into an effective means of advancing implementation of the small arms programme of action. In an address delivered on Thursday to UN Member States in New York, he outlined some possible departures from past practice that would go a long way towards achieving this; including focusing the biennial meeting on a small number of priority issues and setting targets and goals for the future. Ambassador Cekuolis will try out some these ideas in Geneva tomorrow, during informal consultations with States here.

So far, his words seem to be falling on receptive ears. There is a long way to go between now and July, however, and there will doubtless be calls from some quarters to continue doing things as they have been done in the past. Proposing to deviate from precedent in multilateral arms control processes is never an easy undertaking. Doing things differently is sometimes necessary, though, if only to make worthwhile the thing being done.

Patrick Mc Carthy

Photo Credit: "Piggy Homocide" by True Scot on Flickr.


Piers said...

I like this concept of balancing cost and advantages for meetings such as those discussed in this post. There can be no doubt that large international meetings come with a considerable cost. We must have some way to ensure that they continue to provide real benefits (when taken from the widest perspective). It would also seem that some international meetings become bogged down in the process rather than outputs – this is one of the major dangers of institutionalisation.

I agree with the author that such a concept cannot be easily applied to this field. International institutionalisation happens not only to meetings but to ideas as well. Whilst the concept of finding some way of measuring the practical utility of meeting is attractive, it would require concerted effort to stop it slipping down the same Teflon-coated slope to precedent and 'this is how things are done because this is how we did it last time".

The thought of another layer of bureaucracy, so inflexible and generic as to miss the nuances of the actual process or its outcomes -- one that translates guesses at what might happen into gospel-like doctrine on what must happen -- makes me shudder. The whole problem with institutionalisation is that such mechanisms become exercises in futility. They often find themselves looking at the wrong things.

Not many of the benefits of international meetings are easily quantifiable. As a result their true value often falls outside the mechanisms developed to assess their worth (at least the ones I have seen used by such institutions). Assessments tend to focus on easily numerated things (such as how many countries came, how many statements were made, how many pages of text were processed, etc). As a result really practical (but elusive to define) benefits are lost.

Many of the bonuses of international processes are qualitative, making them difficult to assess using standardised techniques. Such benefits are often subjective. Whilst it is possible to take multiple-choice exams in physics and maths (which commonly deal with the quantifiable), could they be used in, say, history to examine a students nuanced understanding of context or their ability to construct and carry out a balanced argument looking at competing opinions? Simple tick box approaches are often unsuitable for assessing complex events. How then are we to assess the benefits or success of a meeting: This raises more questions than it answers: Are fewer but better presentations preferable to more numerous but more general contributions? What is a better presentation? How do we assess it? Who should assess it?, etc..

Luckily for us, when it comes to deciding whether something works or it doesn’t, as humans our subconscious takes over and does the hard work for us. We can simply ‘know’ when something works. (As Malcolm Gladwell has argued, trying to analyse how we make such decisions often significantly undermines our ability to make them.) Clear examples of this do exist. Whilst some of the meetings mentioned in this post do seem to be viewed “in a rut” (see the comments by the UN Secretary-General to the Disarmament Committee last year - http://www.undpi.org/index.php?name=News&file=article&sid=170), others enjoy almost universal recognition of their continuing value.

Since the early years of this century, the Biological Weapons Convention has succeeded in re-inventing itself to better fit the current security environment. Fruitless negotiations have evolved into a process designed to enable the exchange of practical information, tips and experiences. These have allowed the states that attend to improve how they individually and collectively tackle these weapons. Slowly but surely, progress has been made in bringing all relevant stakeholders (including those outside of governments!) together in one place at one time and with a common agenda. Such meetings demonstrate that international processes can have real-world benefits. However, even as somebody closely involved with them - I would hate to have to definitively put down on paper what they were!

PMC said...

Excellent points Piers. I certainly agree with you that the Biological Weapons Convention has achieved a remarkable turn-around since the doldrums of 2001/02 and that its intersessional work programme is doing good work in building confidence in the treaty and in encouraging States Parties to implement its provisions.

There are a few simple measurements available to us to judge the success of this process; for example, how many more States have become party to the BTWC, how many have enacted national legislation to implement BTWC provisions, how many have submitted Confidence Building Measures (and of what quality), etc. These are mostly quantitative indicators but there are of course the qualitative ones your refer to, including the 'feeling' of those most closely engaged in the process that the work being done is reducing the chances that disease will be used as a weapon.

For your information, Piers, you should know that the BTWC intersessional work programme is now being cited as a model for the follow up process on implementation of the small arms programme of action. We can be reasonably happy (and very relieved) about how the BTWC process is going (although rapid developments in the life sciences continue to present challenges). We can be less happy (and even downright disappointed) about how work is proceeding on implementing the small arms programme of action.