Image credit: Ivan Ciro Palomino Huamani, first place winner, UN Poster for Peace Contest
In observation of Disarmament Week (24–30 October) and in response to the violence in Gaza, the United Nations (UN) urgently draws attention to the global need for disarmament in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) outlined to protect the world from harm, specifically SDG 16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions).
Amid multiple cases of prolonged armed conflict worldwide, SDG 16 has been significantly derailed from progress, with a record 108.4 million people reportedly displaced from their homes worldwide in 2022 as a result of ineffective institutions, structural injustices and human rights violations. That number has more than doubled since the last decade, pointing to the severe need for global action to achieve SDG 16 by 2030.
UN data states that in 2022, the global population saw more than a 50 per cent increase in civilian deaths related to armed conflict, largely due to the war in Ukraine, which has amassed 21,941 casualties since February 2022 and which continues to break records in Gaza with the recent surge in bloodshed.
Over 10,000 Palestinians were killed during the period 7 October–7 November. In just three weeks, 8,000 Palestinians were killed by Israeli airstrikes that began on 7 October. About 3,500 of the recorded deaths were those of children.
Military occupation of the Gaza Strip began in 1967, but violence has dramatically intensified in the past few weeks following the deadly Hamas terrorist attack in Israel on 7 October, killing roughly 1,400 civilians and taking over 200 hostages.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs (OCHA), there have been 6,540 Palestinian fatalities in the occupied territories since 2008, prior to the Hamas attack. OCHA also reports 155,692 injured Palestinians, mainly from teargas inhalation, which accounts for about 69,579 injuries. Other prominent injury types have been from rubber bullets and live ammunition. In the same period, there have been 309 Israeli deaths and 6,331 injuries.
In 2017, global military spending topped USD 1.7 trillion, 80 times what is needed for worldwide humanitarian aid, according to a UN report. Enforcing the global disarmament of legal and illicit weapons can prevent and end violence while supporting the SDGs.
“Global military spending and arms competition are increasing, particularly in the most dangerous parts of the world,” says UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
“Deadly weapons put us all at risk, and leaders have a responsibility to minimize that risk”.
There are three prioritized categories for action on this matter in the Secretary-General’s Agenda for Disarmament—disarmament that saves lives, disarmament for future generations, and disarmament that saves humanity.
For the first category, conventional weapons are of particular concern. The availability, distribution and global spending on conventional arms and ammunition are overwhelmingly to blame for countless lives lost across the world during armed conflict. Tragically, civilians are disproportionately affected by the devastation caused by such weapons.
“As armed conflict has moved from open fields into cities, explosive weapons are particularly deadly for civilians, and these weapons also have a devastating effect on hospitals, schools and water and electricity supplies,” Guterres says.
On 17 October, the Al-Ali Arab Hospital in Gaza City was struck by a bomb, killing 470 civilians and trapping hundreds more in the decimated building. Although it has been reported that Israel blamed the armed group Palestinian Islamic Jihad for the attack, a UN press release states that the airstrike “reportedly followed two warnings issued by Israel that an attack on the hospital was imminent if people inside were not evacuated”.
The New York Times reports that hospital staff had no way to evacuate because it would mean death for certain sick or injured patients relying on medical equipment. Attacks against hospitals and medical personnel are against international law.
The World Health Organization (WHO) documented over 136 attacks on healthcare services in occupied Palestinian territory, as well as 59 attacks on the Gaza Strip since 7 October. Fifteen UN Refugee Works Agency members were killed, along with four Palestinian Red Crescent paramedics.
As the airstrikes rage on, Gaza is being completely depleted of humanitarian resources, with only a trickle allowed through the Rafah Border Crossing. Drinking water and electricity are sparse, and most supplies have been cut off.
UN experts warn that the denial of access to humanitarian needs is a violation of international humanitarian law and shows the devastating impact of using explosive conventional weapons on populated areas.
Approximately 1.4 million Palestinians have been displaced from their homes and are now refugees as a result of the constant airstrike bombings from which their communities excessively suffer. “The complete siege of Gaza, coupled with unfeasible evacuation orders and forcible population transfers, is a violation of international humanitarian and criminal law. It is also unspeakably cruel,” say UN representatives.
UN experts have since called out Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government for committing international war crimes. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also called on Netanyahu to end the apartheid against Palestinians and be held accountable for his government’s war crimes.
“We are sounding the alarm: There is an ongoing campaign by Israel resulting in crimes against humanity in Gaza,” states a 19 October UN press release.
Canada has announced that it will be providing CAD 10 million in humanitarian aid to those who have been disproportionately affected by the violence.
According to Global Affairs Canada, funding will provide food, water, emergency medical assistance, protection services and other life-saving assistance.
In Toronto, tens of thousands of protestors have taken to the streets to protest the violence and to express support for ending the occupation. Over 2,000 marched on Saturday, 28 October, while on 4 November, it is estimated that over 20,000 people took to the streets in Toronto to demand a ceasefire, CP24 reports.
Nuclear and biological weapons are also of great concern when looking towards the future.
Around 15,000 nuclear weapons are stored across the world. Hundreds of these deadly weapons can be launched in mere minutes, endangering entire regions and causing decades of devastation.
According to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the nine countries in the world that possess nuclear weapons are Russia, the United States, China, France, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea. It should be noted that Israel and North Korea have undisclosed nuclear weapons programs, and the amounts they have in their possession are just estimates.
A single nuclear warhead can kill hundreds of thousands and has only ever been used by the United States in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings at the end of World War II. ICAN estimates that a nuclear warhead over New York City would kill an estimated 583,160 people.
Nuclear disarmament has been a major topic of concern since the UN’s conception. The initiative to end the production of nuclear weapons had strong international support at the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. In addition, the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) has limited the number of nuclear weapon states for nearly 50 years.
However, the rise in chemical and biological weapons is alarming. According to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, white phosphorus bombs were dropped in populated areas in Gaza and Lebanon. White phosphorus is an incendiary weapon, meaning that it attacks using heat instead of chemical toxicity, according to the WHO. However, it is still highly toxic and causes severe second- and third-degree burns with long-term health consequences. Its use is prohibited in civilian areas by international humanitarian law, according to Amnesty International. Although there can be lawful uses of the toxic substance, such as illuminating a battlefield, Protocol III of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCCW), it must never be fired at or in proximity to civilian infrastructure. Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas of the world, and attacking it with white phosphorus is a violation of international humanitarian law, Human Rights Watch states.
Addressing new innovations in weapons technologies and keeping up with the latest developments is of the utmost importance in maintaining a secure world. Advances in science and technology are paving the way for more advanced weapons and artillery.
The need for resolving tensions through political dialogue and negotiations is becoming increasingly necessary. Halting the illicit weapons trade is the first step to disarming the population on a global scale and creating a safer world where political tensions between nations do not endanger hundreds of millions of lives.
Edited by Angel Xing and Ali Shahrukh Pracha