Disarmament Insight


Thursday, 18 June 2009

The CD lives again, but let history not repeat itself !

29 May 2009 was a red-letter day in the Conference on Disarmament. The Conference has secured a new lease of life. Its future must be informed by its past.

Just over 30 years ago, the UN General Assembly held a special session devoted to disarmament. It saw the need for a “single multilateral disarmament negotiating forum of limited size taking decisions on the basis of consensus”, i.e., without voting. This Geneva-based body became the Conference on Disarmament (CD) comprised now of 65 states.

Important treaties emerged from the CD, culminating in the Comprehensive Test Ban agreement in 1996. Since then, the CD has failed to agree – with one exception – even on a mandate to negotiate a treaty, let alone a treaty itself. Meanwhile several disarmament treaties have emerged from processes other than the CD. Conventions banning anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions were agreed in negotiations that were purposely conducted by like-minded states outside of another consensus-observing process, the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW).

Until May of this year, the CD’s last decision to negotiate on substance (on a treaty prohibiting the production of fissile material, a key ingredient of nuclear weapons) occurred late in 1998. That decision was short-lived, however. In 1999 the Conference failed to agree to renew that mandate. A decade-long deadlock followed.

In the face of growing concerns about its future, concerted efforts were made to raise the political profile of the Conference. Since the beginning of last year, senior political figures from almost half the CD’s membership have come to Geneva to urge the Conference to resolve entrenched differences over its priorities and get back to work. The UN Secretary-General personally attended twice in that period to reinforce those exhortations. So too has the Russian Foreign Minister whose latest CD address, extraordinarily enough, took place on a Saturday early this March. Something was afoot.

And so it has proved. On 29 May, on his last day as president, Ambassador Idriss Jazaïry of Algeria, gavelled through a decision that ended an empty decade in the Conference. The loud and lingering applause that greeted the decision reflected a range of emotions. Sheer relief that the long drought had been broken. Relief, too, that this institution had seemingly been spared, as the president said, irrelevancy. Delight with the manner in which Amb Jazaïry had so skilfully engineered the breakthrough.

There was more sobering recognition, also, that the taking of this decision (CD/1863) was just the beginning of things. It will require more than a new spirit of multilateralism to make this delicate compromise work. Delegations will have to get used to spending virtually the entire week in the Council Chamber (the CD’s venerable meeting room) rather than the occasional day. They will need to deepen considerably their involvement in the complexities of the issues, calling on extra support where they can from capitals. Many of them will be anxious about tackling a work programme that embodies not just one major issue but four – a fissile material production ban, security assurances, nuclear disarmament and preventing an arms race in outer space.

Throughout these past barren years, CD members have frequently voiced, like a mantra, the Conference’s role as the world’s single disarmament negotiating body. It would seem to follow that the eyes of the international community, if not CD members themselves, will be on the topic of a fissile material production ban, the sole issue amongst the four that enjoys a negotiating mandate.

In any event, the decision of 29 May has raised widespread expectations that the Conference will, in due course, embellish its fine history with a new and vital treaty or treaties of comparable significance to its past products, the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) , and the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It is imperative that the efforts of the Conference to set up and sustain the necessary Working Groups that will implement this decision enjoy universal political and public support from the outset.

Certainly, the decision has attracted international acclaim at the levels both of political leaders and civil society. And in terms of the new political profile of the Conference, it cannot have escaped the notice of all who continued to believe in the CD that amongst those who welcomed the event of 29 May was the US President himself in a press statement that same day heralding what, surely, will be a new beginning for the Conference.

The CD’s decision is entitled “Draft Decision for the establishment of a Programme of Work for the 2009 session”. International disappointment if the decision is literally confined to the CD’s 2009 session will be as palpable as the relief that surrounded the extraordinary breakthrough of 29 May. Will the new political and public profile that the Conference now enjoys insure it against the fate of the short-lived predecessor to CD/1683 almost eleven years ago? Let history not repeat itself.

This is a guest blog by Tim Caughley. Tim is Resident Senior Fellow at UNIDIR.

Photo credit: courtesy of Mary Wareham.