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SIPRI's 40th anniversary

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Commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI

United Nations Building, New York. 3 October 2006
Remarks by Alyson JK Bailes, Director of SIPRI 2002-2007

I am bringing greetings from SIPRI—the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute—which this year celebrates its 40th anniversary, to the United Nations which last year celebrated its 60th. Hugely different though our two institutions are, that places us both roughly in the region of middle age, at a time in history when being middle-aged is not as easy and honourable a status as it ought to be. The world is changing, and opinions are changing, so fast that the wisdom and experience of several decades do not necessarily supply us with the right answers for challenges arising today: and unfortunately they do not give us any guarantee of respect from the kinds of actors that are now driving security developments. Instead of settling down to a kind of cruise control based on our accumulated habits, we find ourselves forced to examine and re-justify just about everything that we have brought with us from history.

The history of SIPRI started with the enlightened decision of a group of Swedish leaders, who were also great internationalists, to set up an international research organ for the gathering, analysis and spreading of both facts and ideas on everything related to peace and security. It was a very difficult balance they tried to strike between endowing us with high principles—starting from the propositions that peace is good and the truth is powerful—and on the other hand, forcing us to look the real facts in the face and to make sure that any positive ideas we put forward are ones that have a chance of working in the real world. In terms of areas of work and study we are actually doing much the same three things as we did 40 years ago, namely

  • analysing data on military expenditure and arms transactions,
  • working on every aspect of arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation, and
  • looking at the main strategic and institutional relationships and the main sources and kinds of conflict in the international system.

But I could remind you of that old joke where two professors are talking about their examination plans and the professor of economics says: ‘Oh, in my department we set exactly the same exam questions each year, we only change the correct answers’. At SIPRI too, we are very aware of the need both to constantly update the methods and technical tools that we apply to essentially the same tasks, and to look constantly for new answers adapted to the new environment.

If this sounds rather vague and generalized, you will shortly be hearing from any colleague and SIPRI’s Research Coordinator, Ian Anthony, about specific ideas that we are pursuing in fields related to the specific agenda of the UN First Committee. But to prepare the broader setting for his remarks, I’d like to say a few words about one of the obvious and much-discussed challenges of the current agenda of peace and security which is the growing importance and salience of non-state actors.

As bad news always catches the most attention, the most familiar aspects of this issue are the negative ones. We know that the picture of armed conflict today is almost exclusively an intra-state picture and is increasingly dominated by non-state actors in the shape not just of fighting factions but of arms smugglers, war profiteers, and private suppliers of defence and security services. We know that terrorist networks even when they are not backed by irresponsible states can cause massive damage both to poorer and to more powerful societies. We know that the nightmare of mass destruction techniques getting into terrorist (or other hostile non-state hands) is a real one, because of what Mohammed El Baradei called the Wal-Mart of nuclear smuggling; but also because private laboratories and industries today are producing—in a context that may be originally quite legitimate—so many materials and techniques that could be turned to destructive uses against people, animals or crops when they get into the wrong hands. In the nuclear context we are familiar with the problem of the ‘firewall’ between peaceful energy production and weapons proliferation; but in the chemical and biological fields it’s hard to draw any line at all between what is safe and potentially dangerous, or indeed between the impact of a deliberate human attack and what could happen to us as the result of a chemical accident or natural bio-epidemic.

Against all this bad news, however, it’s important to note another side of the story: namely the positive roles that various kinds of non-state actors can do play of their own accord, and the scope for drawing them into positive partnership with official attempts for conflict management, arms control and non-proliferation if only the right goals and methods can be found. Modern ideas on DDR and SSR in post-conflict countries are not (and could not be!) directed to getting rid of non-state players but rather towards redirecting their energies into more peaceful and productive paths. Companies - both international and local - who behave with a proper consciousness of security and humanitarian norms can have a vital role to play not just in rebuilding and normalization after conflict, but possibly in supporting economic progress that will make conflict less likely in the first place. NGOs and individuals are a powerful source of charitable and humanitarian activity, and indeed you could argue that the whole drive for democracy is a matter of putting states more under the control of legitimate non-state constituencies right down to the level of the individual citizen.

The question is what instruments can and should be used by the more traditional players in global relations—states and organisations of states—to grip both parts of the non-state challenge, that is: controlling the bad and mobilizing the good. In the last few years there has been a great emphasis on using military methods and other methods of compulsion and deterrence against threats such as terrorism and proliferation. This has led to a number of well-known problems but it is also a method that doesn’t lend itself to working positively with non-state actors, Indeed, it risks having deliberate or accidental side-effects that make life harder for legitimate businesses, scientists, students and tourists, and that particularly curtail the global mobility and interactions of people belonging to certain nations and beliefs. The new UN Peacebuilding Commission is very welcome in this context since it can hopefully look at the scope for integrating positive non-state contributions, both native and external, at all the stages of national and regional recovery.

The other kind of instrument that the world has developed for achieving control of threats and promotion of synergy at state-to-state level is the instrument of regulation, including the establishment of rules and principles at global level often through the UN’s own machinery, and often in the form of legally binding conventions and treaties. It is almost beyond a cliché now to note that most of the instruments of this kind that were created in the twentieth century for goals of arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation are not well adapted for dealing with non-state actors at any stage: in terms of definition and coverage of the problems they may pose, in giving warning of and hopefully stopping actual abuses, or in co-opting non-state resources for successful monitoring and implementation.

Recognizing that truth leaves us two options: to give up the regulatory method, or to adapt and reform it. In our own process of self-examination and adaptation at SIPRI, we have concluded that giving up the attempt at universal and inclusive global security regulation would not only be ethically undesirable, but foolish in very practical terms. Within our own societies, order is maintained for the most part not by the use of force against every citizen but by laws which are known and understood and which help to facilitate good conduct just as they penalize the bad. It is not without reason that we now pay attention to rebuilding the systems of law, police and justice as soon as we can in post-conflict societies. Again, businesses are used to operating within a framework of law and generally prefer clear universal rules, which can be built into their business plans, rather than being pushed one way and another by unpredictable executive decisions that may also distort free competition. In short, regulation should actually be one of our strongest tools for reaching down between and inside modern societies to cope with all relevant non-state factors, as the nature of modern threats to security demands. The issue facing us in many areas of modern security policy, and not least here in the United Nations Organization and in the First Committee, is how to find new and effective ways to develop the traditional art of rule-making in a environment that demands from us perpetual change, and forces us to improve our skills of change management - even if it should not make us forget all the lessons of our middle-aged experience.