"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Professor of History, Montgomery College
July 1, 2020
UN Battles Over Disarmament Bureaucracy
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Jim Wurst reporting from the United Nations

It is a given that every new UN secretary-general has the right to organize the secretariat to his liking—the secretary-general’s most explicit responsibility in the UN Charter is of “chief administrative officer of the Organization.” However, Ban Ki-moon, who became secretary-general Jan. 1, discovered there are limits to that right. Ban found himself in a diplomatic showdown soon after taking office when he decided to revamp two departments, including the Department for Disarmament Affairs (DDA), without prior consultation with member states. He was ultimately forced to scale back his proposal substantially after protests from developing and European states.

In mid-January, Ban’s office began circulating an informal “nonpaper” describing a major overhaul of the peacekeeping and disarmament departments. Peacekeeping would be split in two, and the DDA would be subsumed into the already sprawling Department of Political Affairs. The proposal would have eliminated the DDA’s undersecretary-general and turned the department into an office, a step down in bureaucratic terms. In short, the DDA would lose its political and budgetary autonomy.

A broad spectrum of governments as well as civil society groups made it clear that they preferred the DDA to remain a department with its own undersecretary-general and specific mandates, the same as peacekeeping and humanitarian affairs.

The DDA had been an office in the Department of Political Affairs under Secretary-General Boutrous Boutrous-Ghali. His successor, Kofi Annan, made the DDA an independent department in 1998, with a mandate specifically designed to deal with post-Cold War realities. Critics of Ban’s plan said Annan’s rationale remained valid, and they saw little reason for another change.

In his original proposal, Ban argued that a change was necessary to place disarmament under his “direct supervision.” But critics said that the secretary general already has direct control of the DDA and other departments.

Ban revamped the proposal within a day of being roundly criticized by the 117-member Nonaligned Movement (NAM), which represents the interests and priorities of developing countries. He proposed to make the DDA a separate, independent office headed by a special representative. He gave more details as to his rationale and spelled out the responsibilities of the office, which would essentially be the same as the existing DDA. Ban said the purpose of the office was to ensure “a greater role and personal involvement of the Secretary-General in the field of disarmament and non-proliferation.”

The NAM countries welcomed these amendments and the consultation, but there were still concerns. In particular, they questioned whether a special representative would have greater access to the secretary-general than an undersecretary-general.

The other problem was that it was not clear where the “high representative”—it was initially a “special representative”—as opposed to an undersecretary-general would fall within the bureaucratic hierarchy, introducing a degree of ambiguity. Meanwhile, some nongovernmental groups argued that downgrading disarmament would send exactly the wrong signal as disarmament and nonproliferation challenges were increasing.

Clearly responding to the criticism, Ban produced a new plan on Feb. 15. This time, instead of an informal nonpaper, Ban sent a formal letter to General Assembly President Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa entitled “Strengthening the Capacity of the Organization to Manage and Sustain Peace Operations.” The explanation of what the office would do was now even more detailed, but there was no clarity as to the rank of the proposed high representative.

At a packed meeting with delegates Feb. 16, Ban laid out the new version. For the first time, he publicly acknowledged his difficulties, saying, “Many of you have expressed concern at the perception that the current disarmament structure would be downgraded as a result of this change. Let me dispel that perception.”

Then, in a major concession, Ban explicitly stated that the high representative would hold the rank of undersecretary-general. This apparently was enough to satisfy most states, whose representatives, in the comment period following Ban’s address, welcomed the clarifications and indicated acceptance of the plan, if not enthusiastic support.

Ban also asked the General Assembly to endorse the plan in “a framework resolution at the earliest possible date.”

At a Feb. 20 news conference, Ambassador Munir Akram of Pakistan, chairman of the Group of 77, a smaller group of developing countries, would not go that far. Although “we are fairly satisfied that the secretary-general has listened to our views,” he said, it was important that any restructuring “does not compromise or change the mandates” of the office as spelled out by the General Assembly.

“We do not wish to see any arbitrary changes in the mandates,” Akram stated, declining to say if he thought the assembly would move quickly on the plan. Other ambassadors later said they did not expect action on the plan until May.