Disarmament Insight


Monday, 27 January 2014

Disarmament and development in Commonwealth states

One publication that's recently come across our desks here at UNIDIR is Vidya Abhayagunawardena's new book Commonwealth States on Disarmament and Development: A Socioeconomic Analysis.

The nature of the multilateral disarmament context in New York and Geneva often results in practitioners like diplomats, civil society advocates and United Nations staff being accustomed to slice-and-dice categorisations of the international community in certain ways  such as Non-Aligned, Eastern Group, Western Group. These categorisations help to shape mindsets. This is also true in the sphere of development work, which has its own typical categorisations. It matters because what we name things, and how we sort them in our minds, has an influence on the way we subsequently think and act.

However, all politics has a cultural substrate. Whatever the political or economic differences between states in the Commonwealth after independence from British colonial rule in the 20th century (and there are many), it's also clear that there is a common bank of institutions, practices and cultural references that has kept the Commonwealth relevant as an idea and an institution. One only has to see the huge popularity of a sport like cricket - a pastime unfathomable to most non-Commonwealth outsiders - in post-colonial entities as diverse as New Zealand, South Africa, the West Indies and Abhayagunawardena's own country, Sri Lanka. Without overstating their decisiveness (after all, India and Pakistan have fought wars on several occasions, despite the popularity of cricket in both countries), such commonalities can, in principle, strengthen cultural, social and business links between nations, and in that way strengthen peace and the rule of law.

So it's refreshing to see an analytical frame like Abhayagunawardena's. His book explores Commonwealth member states' commitment toward and adherence to six international treaties related to disarmament and development: the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the newest one of them all - the Arms Trade Treaty.

Abhayagunawardena argues that adherence to these international legal instruments provides a pathway to peaceful societies and to their greater commitment to human security. Their disarmament treaty commitments are analysed alongside various socioeconomic indicators, including population, GDP per capita income, the Human Development Index, the Millennium Development Goals and so forth.

I'm not sure it's yet possible to declare a verdict on Abhayagunawardena's thesis, especially on the basis of only six legal instruments. It would be interesting to see rates of adherence to human rights treaties in a future edition, for instance, to provide greater context. (The Disabilities Convention is foremost a human rights instrument, although placed in a disarmament and development context here.) And, for all of the steps forward in greater international adherence to the treaties he analyses, there have also been some steps back. These can't really be blamed on economic indices but on political decision making and priorities in those countries. 

In this respect, Abhayagunawardena argues that within the Commonwealth, "Trade and aid should be increased in proportion to the extent developing member states support disarmament." And this is fine in principle, although the politics of military aid aside, it's increasingly difficult in a rules-based international trade system for states to create such preferential trade systems.

Moreover, the author notes that only four Commonwealth countries of the 26 he analyses - Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK - contribute much overseas development aid, and none of them have met the Commonwealth's modest target of 0.7 per cent of their respective GDPs recently. Affecting policy in huge countries such as India or Nigeria through such relatively modest amounts of aid would stretch credulity. And, in Australia and New Zealand's cases, much of the aid these countries give is concentrated on their local neighbourhood in the Pacific. Their difficulties in influencing Fiji's regime over the last two-and-a-half decades underline the limitations aid policies have, even in a region in which Australia and New Zealand are the big fish in economic and development investment.

This just underlines that Commonwealth States on Disarmament and Development raises many interesting questions - far more than any book of this type could reasonably answer. By bringing a wealth of information together in one volume, the author has created a valuable resource for anyone seeking to familiarise themselves with the most internationally significant Commonwealth countries' adherence to recent disarmament law. Abhayagunawardena's recommendation that the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings should begin to hold regular disarmament and development discussions (and maintain a disarmament 'index') is thus intriguing, and might usefully help to focus attention on the dissonance sometimes observed between member states' words and deeds.

John Borrie