A Realistic Route to Disarmament

By Keith Best

This speech was delivered during the Peace Conference on 25th March, 2023 –  organized by Humanity United for Universal Demilitarisation

Wars seldom achieve lasting peace. They leave a legacy of resentment, bereavement and injury as well as devastation (it has been estimated that to rebuild Ukraine will cost at least $1 trillion) and can provide the casus belli for the next conflict. Apart from those directly involved in armaments, people want to live in peace yet we now seem further than ever from that goal with countries increasing their defence expenditure and with tension not only in Europe and the South China Seas but also in other flashpoints. People also want a just as well as a peaceful world and it is unrealistic to think that we can have one without the other. Future wars are just as likely to be fought over water rights, access to energy, rare minerals and forced migration as much as over territorial space and domination. The fair management of our planet and distribution of its resources are a necessary precursor to lasting peace as is the enforcement against individuals and states for breaches of an internationally agreed rule of law. We know what a peaceful world may look like – but how do we get there?

My remarks are about realism in the goal we all seek, namely a de-militarised world, and the first reality is that the current times could not be less propitious. I was in correspondence recently with a former NATO Secretary-General and it will come as no surprise that he feels that in the current political climate, when President Putin has signalled that he will pull out of the last serious arms control Treaty with the USA, the idea of serious disarmament talks seems a distant fantasy.

It is perhaps chilling that we could be closer to a global conflict than arguably at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. As an army officer I have faced across what was called the Inner German Border at the Soviet Third Shock Army when we lived under the suitably named acronym of MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction – in which the understanding was that the launch of nuclear weapons from one side would be met with such massive retaliation that few, if any, would survive. We existed under that sword of Damocles but it somehow projected an uneasy peace that we lived under for most of my young life. Even the First World War, the greatest conflagration in history, was unpredictable at the time as any reader of the excellent chronicle The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark will know.

Yet now we can see clearly how the war in Ukraine could lead to a much greater conflict and suck in other countries. A recent commentary from Tim Willasey-Wilsey CMG of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) entitled “How Close is the World to a Wider Conflict?” statesit is remarkably easy to see how Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine could lead to a wider international conflict.” He suggests that the arming of Ukraine by the West could provoke China into arming Putin (the US Secretary of State has warned China off this course) or taking advantage of the situation by mobilising against Taiwan, he points to the increased ballistic missile launches from North Korea and South Korea’s hint that it needs to possess nuclear weapons and, of course, if things continue to go badly for the Russians in Ukraine, for Putin to escalate the conflict.Mercifully, he points out that, as with previous conflicts, such an outcome is not inevitable.

Yet perhaps what is more disturbing is a longer trend personified by the recent agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, brokered by the Chinese. In his recent book Authoritarian Century: Omens of a Post-Liberal Future Prof Azeem Ibrahim has referred to “multilateral autocratisation” and speaks of dictators of all stripes increasingly bunching up and working together in a more formalised capacity for their own collective ends. It is true that part of this is a sense of disillusion over the USA’s capacity to impose peace by threats and military action and its seeming ability to create chaos by international intervention and spreading its own hegemony. Yet it is also the softer, more surreptitious approach of China which, despite its genocide of the Uighyur, offers a beguiling collective security without any condemnation of human rights abuses of those with whom it engages. The Chinese stress that they are only interested in investment and development – the Belt & Roads initiative has engaged large parts of Africa with infrastructure projects and favourable loans but the darker side, now increasingly realised by the unfortunate recipients, is that when those loans become no longer affordable the Chinese take over the capital assets as well as leaving a legacy of half-finished hospitals and other promises unfulfilled. This is the more subtle Chinese way of taking the long view and embedding itself into those whom they would dominate. It all looks so plausible but forgive a cynic for being sceptical. In February China launched the International Organisation for Mediation to be a self-declared significant force in the settlement of all international disputes. It then issued a Global Security Initiative Concept Paper in order to “eliminate the root causes of international conflicts.” What is there not to like? Yet, as Prof Ibrahim points out, Chinese leaders do not believe in the rule of law or any ordinary concept of diplomacy or arbitration. They have now offered a peace plan for Ukraine but which offers no serious way to end the conflict other than on Russian terms.

So we seem faced by a stark polarisation of a Western rules based system of the rule of law backed by some vehicles for international and disinterested arbitration but with the big stick of the American military as its guarantor or a Chinese dominated system of arbitrary power exercising commercial and financial control over some of the less savoury regimes in the world which oppress their own citizens. Perhaps we have had a foretaste of where the battle-lines are being drawn. In the recent resolution at the UN General Assembly condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine those countries which voted against the UNGA resolution were Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, Mali, Nicaragua, Russia and Syria. Countries which abstained were Algeria, Angola, Armenia, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Burundi, Central African Republic, China, Congo, Cuba, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Gabon, Guinea, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Mongolia, Mozambique, Namibia, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tajikistan, Togo, Uganda, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Zimbabwe.

I had written to the former NATO Secretary-General, to which I referred earlier, about an exciting discovery that we have made in the One World Trust of a manuscript, written in the late 1980s, long hidden and in need of completion, by Brendon Sewill, a former Chair. We have taken it under our wing: it is a book entitled The Armed Dove and is about to be published. Brendon Sewill CBE is a former Director of the Conservative Research Department and adviser to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.  He was a member of the Council of the National Trust, Vice-President of the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, a member of the CPRE National Executive. The book translates us into a future new World Calendar and a happier globally unified existence in what he describes as the Great Peace under the aegis of the World Peace Authority. This may be fanciful but it is not so far-fetched as to challenge a sense of reality and, indeed, matches the hopes of millions of world citizens in the present age “when at last there are no nuclear weapons left anywhere on earth.” This book is about the reduction and elimination of nuclear weapons rather than conventional ones but is a credible narrative.

With great accuracy he asserts “The need for an all-powerful but impartial authority to keep world peace now seems so obvious that it is difficult to believe that in the age of fear it was not even under consideration anywhere in the world. At that time it seemed impossible that the hostile nations of the world could ever agree to live in peace.”  He shows how the evolution of humanity and the wisdom of philosophers all point to a central authority and unity bringing peace. The book is written in the first person as though Sewill himself is one of the sixteen so-called “architects” that constituted the Commission on World Peace. Perhaps he was thinking of the famous Margaret Mead quotation “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. What is interesting is that he refers to the identity and deliberations of the “architects” being and remaining anonymous and out of the glare of publicity so that they had a better chance of success and acceptance without any baggage – perhaps a useful corollary to Margaret Mead’s message! The emphasis, also, was on a conciliatory approach towards consensus.

He declares “For the first time in history, war is prohibited. For the first time there is the Peace Force to act as policeman for the world. For the first time we can claim that the world is fully civilised. For the first time we, and our children, and our grandchildren can look forward to a world at peace.”

Since this book was written in the 1980s, of course, we have seen the creation and development of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and, in recent times, the addition of the crime of aggression to its Rome Statute’s panoply of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. A crime of ecocide (which was intended originally to be part of the Rome Statute but was dropped due to opposition of both UK and USA which could have jeopardised the whole institution of the ICC) has been drafted by Philippe Sands KC. The 2008 EU Directive on protection of the environment through criminal law is currently being revised.  In the current draft, ecocide is mentioned in the preamble but not in the main operative part where offences are listed.  In the coming weeks the Committee on Legal Affairs (JURI) will be voting on whether or not to include the crime of ecocide in the revised directive. This is an historic opportunity.

Why do I mention international criminal law in the context of disarmament? It is because if we are to have an umbrella of enforceable law governing the actions of states as well as individuals we need that enforced by courts not only against individuals but treaties binding states which have their own enforcement mechanism through recourse to a court. Those treaties we see disregarded by states, despite their ratification, are the ones that do not have a jurisdictional court attached to them such as the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. The plight of the Rohingya, persecuted by the Myanmar junta, demonstrates how inventive the international community can be if it wishes. As the ICC statute applies only to states signatories in which either the perpetrator is located or the crime was committed and Myanmar has not ratified the Rome Statute it was felt originally that the ICC jurisdiction could not apply. Yet an inventive process enabled the Chief Prosecutor to initiate an investigation on the basis that the persecution was still continuing after the Rohingya had fled to neighbouring Bangladesh which has ratified the Statute. On top of that the Gambia in 2019 initiated proceedings in the World Court (the ICJ) alleging that Myanmar has carried out genocide involving mass murder, rape and destruction of communities in Rakhine state. This is on the basis that member states can bring actions against other member states over disputes alleging breaches of international law – in this case the 1948 convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide. The case is in the course of trial. Yet even more inventively, two years later, Argentina’s courts commenced investigating allegations of genocide under the principle of universal jurisdiction in which exceptionally grave crimes can be tried anywhere. This last is most important because it does not require a state to have declared that it is bound by an international norm for it to be subject to it. It is akin to the concept of customary law, namely the international obligations that may not be formally written in conventions and treaties but still exist as a part of usual international practices.

What are the hallmarks of a cohesive and stable society at peace within itself and with its neighbours? In his magnum opus The Shield of Achilles (which I commend to you although it is 919 pages long) Philip Bobbitt, the internationally renowned American author, academic, and lawyer, best known for work on U.S. constitutional law and theory, sets out three criteria and their relationship for the creation, legitimacy and sustaining of the state: law, strategy and history.

We all need to be governed by the rule of law and that needs to be enforceable and adjudicated fairly in disinterested courts. I would add that the fount of this law should be the will of the people created though a democratic process. If that is true of a society within a state then it should also be applicable to the world as a whole – which is why the organisation of which I was privileged to be the Executive Committee Chair for some thirty years, the World Federalist Movement-Institute for Global Policy, has as its main aim democratic global governance with a Parliamentary chamber at the UN giving reality to the Preamble in the Charter “We the peoples of the united nations.”

So, we have the theory which I believe to be sound and tried and tested but how to translate that into a global reality?

Thankfully, even if it looks bad at present, the history of attempts to demilitarise has not been all doom and gloom. We must acknowledge, however, what Humanity United For Universal Demilitarisation and other organisations such as Vijay Mehta’s Uniting for Peace have always stressed, namely the power of the military-industrial complex, a term first used by U.S. Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower in his Farewell Address on 17 January 1961. He cautioned that the federal government’s collaboration with an alliance of military and industrial leaders, though necessary, was vulnerable to abuse of power. This was the same Pres. Eisenhower who stated “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron” and “I like to believe that people in the long run are going to do more to promote peace than our governments. Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it.”

The respected academic Margaret MacMillan with whom I spoke only recently has written “If we accept, however, that government can be the exercise of power over the peoples of a particular area with or without their consent then, yes, it is possible to imagine some hegemonic power or a collection of powers governing the world, perhaps even benevolently. The Roman empire controlled its known world for centuries. Chinese emperors claimed the “mandate of heaven”, which, they assumed, gave them authority to maintain order on Earth. After the Napoleonic wars, the great powers formed the Concert of Europe to settle disputes peacefully and maintain a largely conservative order.” She added “You have to be an optimist at the moment to believe in a world government built on cooperation and shared values. If Hobbes and his followers are right, a state of anarchy among nations is all we can hope for. Or does the future hold one of those other models? A Concert of Great Powers, or something else?”

In his book Sewill analyses carefully the reasons why previous attempts to limit and even abolish armaments failed – in particular the 1961 McCloy-Zorin pact which was not only agreed between Moscow and Washington but was approved unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly. The crisis in Berlin, however, and the building of the Wall saw the end of this initiative and the subsequent allegations that it was a smoke screen and that neither side had been serious – a sentiment which Sewill concludes was not evidenced by the history of the negotiations.

The rationale and progress of this imaginary détente is entirely plausible including “Among the themes running through all the disarmament negotiations the most contentious was the question of verification.”  Indeed, that has been a real issue throughout arms reduction talks. I recall going with the late Frank Barnaby, nuclear physicist, and others in the early 1980s to Moscow at the invitation of the Soviet Academy of Sciences to discuss with them the possibility of mutual inspection of nuclear weapons’ tests. I was a Conservative MP at the time and accused by many of my colleagues as naïve and being used as a tool of Soviet propaganda yet I found a genuine interest in the Russian academicians such as Nikolai Plate (who died in 2007) to engage seriously on the subject – it is only by talking to one’s adversary that any breakthrough can be accomplished. Maybe Sewill stretches credibility with the contention, worthy as it is, that “All weapons of war would be banned, except for those produced specifically for the Peace Force. To verify this ban, the Peace Inspectors would act solely as observers, and would be free to go anywhere and see everything. The all-female composition of this corps would emphasise the essentially peaceful purpose of verification.” Clearly, he was an early advocate of female advancement and recognition of the role that women can have in an overall peace process.

How would a World Peace Authority, working alongside the UN but with considerable powers of its own, be administered so that all might have confidence in its governance? Sewill applies the Gromyko proposal of 1961 during the McCloy-Zorin negotiations, namely that the control of the international disarmament agency should be split into three parts consisting of representatives (“Trustees”) of socialist countries, representatives of states belonging to Western military and political alliances and representatives of neutral states – so that none could dominate the others. Sewill is skilful in articulating all the objections that could be raised to these proposals and dealing with them in the text rather than merely asserting propositions without scrutiny. He deals extensively with what he describes as false fears and hopes. He also defers to the authority of the UN by the provision that all or any of the Trustees can be dismissed by the United Nations General Assembly (if there is more than a 75% majority for doing so) and a further safeguard of a provision which allows any nation that feels it has been treated unjustly to ask the International Court of Justice to rule whether the Authority has acted within the terms of the Peace Treaty.

Among a comprehensive history of attempts at nuclear arms control Sewill mentions that “in1985, the leaders of Argentina, Greece, India, Mexico, Spain and Sweden, in the Five Continent Initiative.” Having been personally involved in this as Chair of Parliamentarians Global Action that convened the six non-aligned countries I can attest to not only the problems in getting six foreign ministries to agree to any joint statement but also the frustration that, despite the diplomacy in Moscow and Washington, little was achieved.

He advocates a strong international peace-keeping force – an idea that has been circulating in world federalist circles for many years but with inherent difficulties such as permanent location, training and financing – a kind of Foreign Legion but owing its allegiance to the UN Military Staff Committee. Crucially, he sees this as a mechanism for bringing all nuclear weapons under international control and, rather than being answerable to the UN Military Staff Committee, it would be responsible to a new body the World Peace Authority with no veto on peace-keeping.

It will be disappointing to some world federalist readers that, while acknowledging this would be a small step towards world government “The power of the new body would be strictly confined by the Treaty. There would be no “world parliament” and no power to make new laws.”

So what are my conclusions on how we can achieve a realistic route to disarmament taking account of not only historic precedent and previous attempts but also the current climate and real-politik?

First, any such talks in the current climate must be all inclusive and not exclude certain countries because of their human rights record or current belligerency – however unpalatable that may be to some other participants. Secondly, the objectives of such talks must be modest and realistic with clear benefits to all in terms of lessening of tension, savings on defence expenditure, increased security etc. They should be seen as potentially cumulative but with modest steps – McCloy-Zorin established a foundation or “roadmap” for all future negotiations and international treaties with regard to nuclear and general and complete disarmament under effective international control and was unanimously passed by the UN General Assembly on 20 December 1961. It is worthwhile reminding ourselves of how comprehensive these proposals were. The McCloy–Zorin Accords provided far-reaching measures. The Agreed Principles for General and Complete Disarmament, as they were also known, emphatically declared that war should “no longer [be] an instrument for settling international problems;” “general and complete disarmament” was to be “accompanied by the establishment of reliable procedures for the peaceful settlement of disputes.” The agreement also called for the “dismantling of military establishments … cessation of the production of armaments … elimination of all stockpiles of nuclearchemicalbacteriological and other weapons of mass destructions [and] … discontinuance of military expenditures.” Member States were expected to make “agreed manpower” available to the United Nations, such as would be “necessary for an international peace force.” Thirdly, there needs to be enforceability by consent, by neutral inspection, reporting and adjudication preferably before an international tribunal.

Could all this be reinvigorated and happen again? Frankly, in our current global political climate with a war going on and a retreat from multilateralism and globalisation of trade into narrow nationalist bunkers it must seem unlikely. Yet that does not mean we should not try. Should we suggest, as Sewill does in his book, that the first objective should be to establish a World Peace Authority? Both the Americans and the Chinese might have very different ideas about how it might work but they both might just buy into the concept.

Yet, as with the Five Continents Peace Initiative with which I was closely involved and with the group of countries led by Mexico in the UN General Assembly seeking to limit the threatened use and actual exercise of the veto among the P5 in the Security Council we should first think of building a coalition among the non-nuclear and smaller states that are most at risk from the arms race and have less invested in the military-industrial complex. Civil society coalitions can be remarkably successful – several international lawyers have been kind enough to tell me that in their opinion if my organisation WFM-IGP had not organised the Coalition for the International Criminal Court (which encompassed some 2,500 NGOs worldwide) then we would still not now have an International Criminal Court at all. Civil society was the catalyst that held the feet of the nations to the fire and insisted that progress be made.

Perhaps we can do this again. Perhaps we can start to assemble a body of different NGOs worldwide and a group of interested states to come together to talk seriously about peace and disarmament and the need for a World Peace Authority or something of that ilk. The generation that achieves this will overturn thousands of years of war being seen as a solution when we all know that it is not. No situation was ever resolved by military conflict as any general will tell you. Everything needs a political resolution and history teaches us that so often the result of one conflict in which there is a victor and vanquished is the source of the next conflict. We must ask ourselves and our global political leaders why that generation cannot be ours.