Focusing on the human impact: Humanitarian community meets in New York to discuss next steps

October 19, 2015

By Arielle Denis, ICAN Regional Director, Europe and Africa

“It’s been great to put humanitarian disarmament advocacy work in perspective and relate it to real conflicts”, commented a participant at the end of the 4th Humanitarian Disarmament Campaigns Forum. Almost one hundred NGO representatives attended the forum in the margins of the UNGA First Committee meeting in New York this weekend. This annual forum was organised by Oxfam and Save the Children at Pace University and focused on exploring the role of disarmament and related advocacy campaigns in sudden onset and protracted conflicts, recognizing the unprecedented number of humanitarian emergencies in recent years.

Testimony from survivors and humanitarian workers alternated with broader perspectives. The participants heard about daily life in Gaza, lacking clean water and electricity, and how children learn too quickly how to identify an AK-47 from an M-16.

In front of these crying needs, how can we better combine the political work to end the conflict with the daily humanitarian work? How can NGOs be more efficient and eventually join their efforts to heal some of the people’s suffering in Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, and other crisis areas to contribute to de-escalating the conflict? Where is the right balance between working on the protection of people in crisis situations and advocating for new disarmament treaties? These were among the many questions discussed, as participants highlighted the crucial need to empower civil society in all aspects of their work, to make the voices of the victims clearly heard, and to promote the demilitarisation of conflicts.

The role of survivors has also been emphasized as a critical contribution to all disarmament campaigns, including nuclear disarmament. This year on the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the testimonies of Hibakusha have been especially powerful in recalling the tragedy and advocating for banning and eliminating nuclear weapons. “Some military experts and politicians are crumbling like cookies in front of survivors” said Alma from Handicap International, underlining the need to anchor the advocacy against weapons in the cruel reality of their impact.

From weapons to come, like killer robots, to nuclear weapons, from weapons already banned like landmines, to brand new treaties like the ATT, most NGOs working to prohibit and eliminate weapons were represented and shared experiences as well as their expectations in relation to the UNGA First Committee. In her workshop on nuclear weapons, Beatrice Fihn, ICAN Executive Director, said that she was “particularly interested in the collective reflection about the way these weapons are related to actual conflicts and a part of power dynamics, even if rarely mentioned.”

By the end of the two days work, one of the organisers, Martin Butcher from OXFAM, concluded that these meetings were very helpful in many ways as a “unique place for disarmament campaigns and humanitarian NGOs to meet and discuss and get inspired from the success in the humanitarian disarmament field”.

Indeed, although facing immense challenges in fighting the arms trade, the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, the old and the new unacceptable weapons, and all the terrible consequences of the dominant misconception that wars and weapons can bring peace, the humanitarian disarmament community has managed to stigmatize and ban landmines and cluster munitions, to place women at the forefront of disarmament talks, and change the game in many areas, including in the discourse on nuclear weapons.

The need to do more and better is obvious, but the decisions are in the government’s hands. During this First Committee, states’ good faith on disarmament will be tested. ICAN will remain vigilant and will not settle for anything less than a strong and unequivocal prohibition of nuclear weapons.


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