Illuminating Global Interests: The UN and Arms Control

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An Interview With UN Undersecretary-General Jayantha Dhanapala

In January 1998, Jayantha Dhanapala was appointed United Nations undersecretarygeneral for disarmament affairs. A career diplomat with extensive arms control experience, Dhanapala is perhaps best known for his skillful handling of the 1995 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review and extension conference, at which he was able to secure unanimous support for indefinite extension of the treaty.

Dhanapala joined the Sri Lankan foreign service in 1965 after spending several years in the private sector. He held diplomatic posts in London, Beijing, Washington and New Delhi until 1984, when he was appointed ambassador and permanent representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations. In 1987 Javier Perez de Cuellar named him director of the Geneva-based United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR). Dhanapala returned to Sri Lanka in 1992, where he served as additional foreign secretary and then as ambassador to the United States.

When he retired from the foreign service in 1997, Dhanapala joined the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies as diplomat-in-residence, a post he held until his current appointment. He attended the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka and received a master's degree in international studies from American University in Washington, D.C.

On September 28, Arms Control Today editor J. Peter Scoblic met with Dhanapala at UN headquarters in New York to discuss the United Nations' involvement in a wide range of arms control issues, including the future of the Conference on Disarmament, the prospects for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the disarming of Iraq and the regulation of the conventional arms trade. The following is an edited version of their conversation.

Readers should note that this interview was conducted before both the October 6-8 Vienna conference on the CTBT's entry into force and the U.S. Senate's October 13 rejection of the test ban. However, following the Senate vote, Dhanapala submitted a brief statement to Arms Control Today, which can be found in the box on page 6.

ACT. How broad is the scope of current UN arms control activities?

Dhanapala: The United Nations has been involved in disarmament from its very inception. The first General Assembly resolution adopted by the UN was on disarmament, and since 1945 the UN has covered the entire gamut of disarmament issues-weapons of mass destruction, conventional arms, confidence-building measures, regional disarmament. In doing so, it has attempted to develop a consensus among its membership so that there could be commonly agreed goals and action toward the achievement of those goals.

The three special sessions of the General Assembly that have been convened have been able to achieve this consensus, and following the first special session on disarmament in 1978, we have developed a machinery for the UN to work on disarmament that is divided basically into two arms: the deliberative machinery, which consists of the First Committee of the General Assembly and the Disarmament Commission; and the negotiating machinery, which consists of the Conference on Disarmament [CD], which has recently been expanded to 66 members.

In addition, there is the Department of Disarmament Affairs, recently re-established as part of Kofi Annan's reforms; the Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters, a group of eminent persons in the field of disarmament that advises the secretary-general; and the UN Institute for Disarmament Research. All these elements in the UN system contribute toward not only advising the secretarygeneral himself on disarmament issues, but also providing assistance to member states on disarmament issues in terms of information and objective data.

We also work in the area of outreach activities with the general public through our regional centers in Katmandu, in Lima, and in Lome, as well as through our headquarters here in New York. …