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Rising military budgets and the UN mechanism to curb them: Mission impossible?


Briefing for MPs on UN processes N. 6

09:00 – 10:00 (New York) - In English and French

Global military expenditures are at an all-time high at nearly US$ 2 trillion in 2020.

Despite exceedingly slow progress toward the SDGs, a once-in-a century pandemic, and out-of‑control climate change, important public resources continue to be diverted to military budgets that do nothing to meet the urgent needs of the people.

At least since 1978, with the Final Document of the Tenth Special Session of the General Assembly on disarmament, the UN has called for a “Gradual reduction of military budgets on a mutually agreed basis, for example, in absolute figures or in terms of percentage points …. that would contribute to the curbing of the arms race and would increase the possibilities of reallocation of resources now being used for military purposes to economic and social development, particularly for the benefit of developing countries.”  A 1980 resolution of the General Assembly (35/142) further called for “international agreements to freeze, reduce or otherwise restrain military expenditures”.

Further to several such pronouncements over the years, the UN has instituted a mechanism to track national military expenditures with the aim of raising public awareness, incentivizing transparency, and building trust among nations. Key to this mechanism is a reporting system in which each government is invited to report annually and publicly to the UN on its military expenditures.

While this reporting system has helped generate awareness of the issue, generally it has not delivered on its other objectives of transparency and trust. This is due to a number of reasons including:

  • The purely voluntary nature of the reporting exercise which, in recent years, results in only 30 to 40 reports being filed annually with the UN.
  • Voluntary adherence to the UN reporting guidelines which results in many reports being incomplete or misleading.
  • The absence of an agreed international definition of what constitutes “excessive” military spending.

With only partial data on global military budgets to go by, the UN must rely on data that the authoritative Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and other similar institutions are able to obtain directly by researching national budgets, cross-border military sales and other such sources.

  1. How can the UN reporting mechanism be strengthened to put more pressure on countries to provide complete and accurate information?
  2. Given the trend in global military spending so far, will Member States of the UN ever agree to participate in a more rigorous reporting mechanism?
  3. Is reporting alone a sufficient approach to reducing “excessive” military spending?
  4. Can the UN help broker any agreement “to freeze, reduce or otherwise restrain military expenditures” as called for by the 1980 resolution?

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