Covid-19 triggers disarmament platform closure

Russian military helicopters fly over the Neva River during the general rehearsal of the Victory Day parade in St. Petersburg, Russia, 07 May 2020. EPA/ANATOLY MALTSEV

After three and a half years of activity, the Geneva Disarmament Platform (GDP) closed down on 30 April 2020. «Unfortunately, like other NGOs in the disarmament field, the Platform has faced serious funding challenges. This already difficult situation was compounded by the Covid-19 crisis», says CEO Richard Lennane, criticizing Switzerland for cutting funds to the organization, which employed only two people.

What did the GDP do?

Launched in October 2016 the GDP:

  • developed and managed an online resource center compiling information on all disarmament-related events;

  • organized events to enhance expertise and dialogue among actors within and outside the sector;

  • designed specific activities to raise awareness among a younger audience of disarmament processes and their relevance in addressing global issues.

Slumping interest in disarmament. While at the core of states’ national interests, the disarmament sector is often plagued by a siloed mentality and resistance to change. Lennane:

«Disarmament is a very important pillar of multilateral cooperation and one of the main purpose of the United Nations. But over the past two decades it’s gradually been forgotten. Lot of things were blocked or not making progress with a lot of political disagreement globally. More and more governments are investing in armament and the military as a way of protecting security.»

The Conference of Disarmament in Geneva, the main multilateral organ dealing with disarmament, has been paralyzed for the past 20 years. According to Lennane, all of the Geneva actors - now shrunken to eight NGOs - suffer from lack of political interest and public funding. «Even ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) which won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, is under financial pressure», he said.

The end of a Swiss initiative In 2016, the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs seed funded the platform and pledged an annual budget of CHF 300'000 up until 2020. «These platforms are a key element of our strategy as a host country but unfortunately GDP did not meet all expectations,» said Félix Baumann, head of the multilateral division of the Swiss Mission in Geneva. Other contributors included the Stockholm-based Global Challenges Foundation. Said Lennane of the budget shortfalls encountered:

«It’s an indication that there is no commitment to multilateral disarmament generally and I have to include the Swiss government in this. It’s bad for international security and for peace. It’s also bad for the Genève Internationale and I was surprised that Switzerland was ready to cut its funding at this point…..The platform fell victim to the same problems that it was created to try to solve.».

The Covid-19 accelerator Generally, all actors in the Geneva International community are suffering from operational restrictions linked to Covid-19, particularly with regards to organizing field visits or convening big meetings in Geneva. Said Lennane:

« The virus was the straw that broke the camel’s back and accelerated the end. Without the pandemic, maybe we would have succeeded in keep on going but it’s unlikely.»

According to Baumann, Geneva International’s institutions are still very well-positioned as actors, and have rapidly adapted during the lockdown with virtual modes of operation that can set a precedent for the longer-term, with new hybrid model of conferencing, combining physical presence and remote virtual interlocutors:

«Geneva is well placed with its rich ecosystem of actors in new technologies in the broadest sense. But multilateral diplomacy remains about relationships of trust and contact between negotiators and delegations. There will always be face-to-face meetings, this is the heart of multilateralism.»

Still, in light of the Covid-19 emergency, other Geneva-based NGOs also have concerns about sustainability in coming weeks or months, some of them serious, acknowledged Olivier Coutau, the Geneva Canton’s Delegate for International Geneva:

«It is certain that the pandemic is not, and will not be, without effect on the functioning of international cooperation actors. For small entities with limited cash reserves, this may mean difficulties, especially if the needs in their sector are increasing.»