Disarmament Insight


Friday, 23 November 2007

The Power of the President

What makes for a successful multilateral arms control negotiation? Sufficient political will? Maturity of the issue being negotiated? Pressure from civil society? A critical mass of seasoned diplomats? The list is long and there is no single silver bullet that will ensure success every time.

But what about the role played by the President of such negotiations; the Ambassador chosen by the negotiating parties (usually on the basis of regional rotation) and entrusted with the delicate task of guiding negotiations to a successful conclusion? All other things being equal, does the President have the power to tip the balance and conjure success where none seemed possible?

Observing Pakistan's Ambassador Masood Khan (picture) in action at the 6th Review Conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) at the end of 2006 would lead one to answer this question in the affirmative. The 6th Review Conference was up against formidable challenges. Years-long efforts to negotiate a verification protocol to the Convention had collapsed in 2001 after the United States withdrew its support. As a result, the 5th Review Conference had to be suspended for a whole year to allow tempers to cool. States were heading into the 6th Review Conference having completed some constructive intersessional work but resentments were still raw. Hopes were not high that the meeting could put the BTWC process back on track.

Against the odds, Ambassador Khan guided the conference to a successful conclusion; i.e. a strong final document and a demanding intersessional work programme in the run-up to the 7th Review Conference in 2011. He has gone a long way towards explaining how he did so in an article he published in Disarmament Diplomacy earlier this year, although I have the impression that we may have to wait for his memoirs to get the full story. The article offers a fascinating and rare insight into the internal workings of a multilateral disarmament machine; worn cogs, snapped springs and all. My favourite characterisation, however, of how Ambassador Khan pulled it off was provided by my Disarmament Insight colleague, John Borrie, who described as "diplomatic jujitsu" the way Ambassador Khan kept delegations off balance by shuffling the agenda and tabling proposals.

Masood Khan is not one to rest on his laurels and is already looking for new challenges. He plans to introduce an innovative new way of interacting with NGOs and the biotech industry at next month's BTWC Meeting of States Parties. After that, he will turn his attention to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) - also known as the 'Inhumane Weapons Convention' - where he will preside over the Meeting of States Parties in November 2008.*

That meeting is due to hear a progress report on negotiations by a CCW Group of Governmental Experts on a proposal to address the humanitarian impact of cluster munitions. Given the inability of the CCW over last number of years to address adequately the harm caused to civilians by cluster munitions, and the emergence outside of the CCW of the ambitious Oslo Process on cluster munitions, the challenge facing the CCW on this issue is significant.

Ambassador Khan is undoubtedly a skillful diplomat who domonstrates that diplomacy is an art; abstract and sometimes even martial. The 6th Review Conference of the BTWC was his masterpiece. Helping to get the CCW to agree on an adequate response to the humanitarian impact of cluster munitions would be no less of an achievement.

Patrick Mc Carthy

* An earlier version of this entry stated in error that that Ambassador Khan had been nominated to preside over seven weeks of CCW negotiations in 2008 on the issue of cluster munitions.


Masood Khan, "The 2006 BWC Review Conference: The President's Reflections." Disarmament Diplomacy, issue no. 84, spring 2007.

John Borrie, "The Limits of Modest Progress: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Efforts to Strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention." Arms Control Today, October 2006.

Photo Credit: Photo of H.E. Mr. Masood Khan - Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations and other Specialised Agencies in Geneva - retrieved from the website of the Pakistan Mission to the United Nations Geneva.