We've had a very interesting start to the week on the disarmament front here in Geneva.
On Monday, the Geneva Centre for Security Policy organised a Negotiation Day to analyse the state of the art of multilateral negotiation with the help of the PIN Group (PIN stands for 'Processes of International Negotiation').
Today, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, made a statement formally presenting the Conference on Disarmament with a draft treaty on the 'Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects' (PPWT).
The same question ran through my mind at both events: How can multilateral negotiation processes best deal with deadlock when it occurs? In other words, when parties to a multilateral negotiation find themselves in a mutually hurting stalemate but cannot find an obvious way out, what options are open to them?
Moday's negotiation day offered a number of mostly theoretical answers that focused mainly on diluting or re-interpreting the consensus rule in order to allow for more fluid decision-making. This may seem like a good idea but, unfortunately, is not always practicable.
In the case of the Conference on Disarmament, for example, this strategy simply won't work since the consensus rule is formally enshrined in the Conference's rules of procedure. Changing these rules to allow for majority decision-making would itself require consensus; an impossible prospect given that the States likely to be marginalised by such a development would never support it.
In any case, the consensus rule in the Conference on Disarmament did not come about by accident. It is similar in some respects to the veto power of permanent members of the UN Security Council insofar as it reassures the larger powers that the Conference cannot agree disarmament or arms control measures against their respective wills. Whereas only 5 States wield vetoes in the Security Council, however, in the Conference on Disarmament all 65 member States do so.
The presence of Mr. Lavrov in the Conference on Disarmament today provided a more practical illustration of another strategy that may be used to overcome deadlock in multilateral negotiations - bringing in the big guns to apply a high-voltage defibrillator to what some describe as a moribund body (clear!).
Mr. Lavrov is just the latest in a stream of top-level officials to have passed through Geneva in recent weeks in an attempt to revive the Conference. Last week it was the UK Defence Minister, Des Browne, and the Administrator of the US National Nuclear Security Administration, Thomas D'Agostino. The week before that it was UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who delivered a particularly frank call for the Conference finally to begin negotiating. Nor is Mr. Lavrov likely to be the last high-level official to stop by Geneva in an attempt to get things moving again.
But there is also a third strategy for dealing with deadlock in multilateral disarmament negotiations and that is changing the forum in which the negotiations take place. This strategy may not always work, but there is evidence for its effectiveness in some cases.
The most obvious example is the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention. When the best that States Parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) could do in 1996 was to agree to regulate, not ban, the use of anti-personnel mines, this led a small group of States and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines to take the negotiations out of the United Nations. By the following year, this stand-alone process produced a treaty banning anti-personnel mines that today has 156 States Parties.
A similar thing has recently happened with cluster munitions. Again, it was the inability of States Parties to the CCW to agree a negotiating mandate that would address the humanitarian impact of cluster munitions that led Norway at the end of 2006 to invite interested States to Oslo to begin a stand-alone process to negotiate a treaty banning cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians. Over 80 States now subscribe to the Oslo Process, over 110 are registered to participate in its next meeting in Wellington, New Zealand (next week) and a diplomatic conference in Dublin at the end of May will negotiate a new Cluster Munitions Convention. In the meantime, the CCW has also been spurred into action and has agreed a negotiating mandate, albeit a vague one, on cluster munitions with the result that, from nothing, we now have two parallel negotiating processes on this issue.
Interestingly, a similar strategy of changing the venue of negotiations has also been tried out on the Conference on Disarmament. In 2005 at the UN General Assembly's First Committee on disarmament and international security, a group of States proposed to create ad-hoc committees in the General Assembly that would essentially do the Conference on Disarmament's work until such time that the Conference was in a position to do so itself. Unsurprisingly, the idea did not go down well with the Permanent Members of the Security Council and the proposal was withdrawn, albeit with the proviso that it might be re-introduced at a later date if there was still no progress in the Conference on Disarmament.
That was over two years ago and the Conference on Disarmament is still deadlocked. Time to try another strategy perhaps? Any bright ideas out there?
Patrick Mc Carthy
Photo Credit: 'Locked' by Pedro Da Silva on Flickr