New weapon technologies are intensifying risks in ways we do not yet understand and cannot even imagine.
António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations

Developments and trends, 2019

In 2019, the international community sought through various international processes and new initiatives to keep ahead of emerging challenges, especially those related to developments in science and technology and their implications for international peace and security.

Governments encountered mixed results in efforts to develop new measures for ensuring the security and the non-weaponization of outer space. The Group of Governmental Experts on Further Practical Measures for the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space concluded its work without agreeing on a substantive report, despite achieving important convergences in its efforts to elaborate elements of a legally binding instrument. As the United Nations Disarmament Commission could not convene its substantive session, Member States were able to pursue only informal work on the preparation of recommendations for the practical implementation of transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space activities with the goal of preventing an arms race in outer space. In addition, the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space addressed issues relevant to international security in the guidelines that it had adopted for the long-term sustainability of outer space activities.

Work also commenced within two intergovernmental processes, established by the seventy-second session of the General Assembly, on information and communications technologies in the context of international security. One took place in the framework of the Open-ended Working Group on Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security, which held its first substantive session in September with a general debate and exchange on all substantive items on its agenda. It also held an informal intersessional consultative meeting in December with participation by businesses, non-governmental organizations and academia. The second process was led by the Group of Governmental Experts on Advancing Responsible State Behaviour in Cyberspace in the Context of International Security, which held its first substantive session in December.

A view of the panellists at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research 2019 Innovations Dialogue, themed “Digital Technologies and International Security”, which was held in Geneva on 19 August.

Photo credit: UN Photo/Violaine Martin

The Group of Governmental Experts on Emerging Technologies in the Area of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems—initially convened in 2016 under the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons—recommended endorsing 11 guiding principles. It also agreed to a new two-year mandate, which is expected to serve as a basis for the clarification, consideration and development of aspects of the normative and operational framework on those matters. Member States and the Secretary-General also continued to draw attention to concerns about developing such systems.

In the area of missiles, various actors undertook new efforts to seek multilateral approaches in response to several developments—including the demise of the Treaty between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Elimination of Their Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty) of 1987, the testing and deployment of advanced new missile types, and the continued proliferation and use of conventional ballistic missiles. In that connection, Germany launched the Missile Dialogue Initiative, intended to facilitate expert discussions on possible arms-control approaches. The Office for Disarmament Affairs and the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research also continued work to facilitate greater understanding of the peace and security implications of hypersonic weapons.

The work of the United Nations also extended to other emerging-weapons challenges. With regard to armed uncrewed aerial vehicles, the Office for Disarmament Affairs engaged in informal dialogue aimed in part at exploring various means to take forward multilateral efforts to enhance relevant transparency, accountability and oversight. Separately, to address concerns raised by recent developments in manufacturing, technology and design of small arms and light weapons, the Secretary-General made a recommendation on elements that could be provided in a supplementary annex to the International Tracing Instrument.

With respect to cross-cutting issues, the Office for Disarmament Affairs continued efforts in support of the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Those included the commencement of data collection under Sustainable Development Goal Indicator 16.4.2, which is the “Proportion of seized, found or surrendered arms whose illicit origin or context has been traced or established by a competent authority in line with international instruments”. The Office also contributed towards the finalization of a methodology for Indicator 16.1.2, “Conflict-related deaths per 100,000 population, by sex, age and cause”, by providing input for the collection of data on arms used.

Military spending cuts can help achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

Despite a clear, global commitment in the Charter of the United Nations for the “least diversion of the world’s economic and human resources to armaments”, world military expenditure is rising and arms competition remains a largely unchecked global problem. In 2019, military expenditure worldwide rose to $1.9 trillion, the highest level since the end of the cold war.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development acknowledges the link between peace and development: achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals requires a substantial financial investment, and redirecting funds from militaries to economic and social development can make a key contribution. It has been estimated that the cost of achieving quality universal primary and early secondary education for all (Goal 4) would be just over 3 per cent of global annual military spending. Eliminating extreme poverty and hunger (Goals 1 and 2) would cost about 13 per cent of annual military spending, and extending basic water, sanitation and hygiene (Goal 6) to unserved populations would cost less than 2 per cent of annual military spending.

Sources: SIPRI, UN Food and Agriculture Organization and UNESCO.