Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 14 October 2009

The Conference on Disarmament: Getting Underway in 2010

On 29 May the Conference on Disarmament (CD) adopted its programme of work for 2009 after a 10-year gestation period (as recorded on this site on 18 June). That heady moment of four months ago is not easily forgotten despite the ensuing anti-climax.

The work programme (CD/1864) wasn’t, it turned out, quite still-born. But unfortunately it expired when the CD’s annual session came to an end in mid-September. “Expired” might be too strong a word to describe the fate of the decision. It certainly lay dormant on the table while CD Members sought to give it life by agreeing on the seven individuals who would co-ordinate work on seven major issues and on a timetable that would fairly reflect the hierarchy of treatment accorded to those issues in the programme of work. Their efforts, however, were in vain. But this outcome need not mean that CD/1864 has entirely expired.

There is no disputing that agreeing the work programme is an annual event. (What is actually contemplated by the term “programme of work” is another question, and will be addressed shortly.) For better or worse, the rules of procedure require both the agenda and the programme of work to be adopted at the beginning of each yearly session. More accurately and significantly, the Conference shall “establish” its programme of work (rule 28) rather than “adopt” it (as is the case of the agenda according to rule 27). The agenda is regularly rolled over or renewed from year to year, and it is similarly open to the CD to accept that, with an obvious change of date, the work programme established in 2009 can be refreshed in its entirety for 2010.

Such an outcome is devoutly to be desired if the CD is really serious about pursuing a comprehensive programme embracing a range of issues of central importance to improving international peace and security. The only circumstances in which a Member might require the 2010 version of CD/1864 to be revisited would be if some sea-change in the international security environment were to occur before the next session of the Conference.

Pakistan made it clear two years ago (on 3 August, 2007) that it saw the US-India Nuclear Agreement as having implications on strategic stability in enabling India to produce quantities of fissile material and nuclear weapons from un-safeguarded nuclear reactors. Hence Pakistan’s ability to join in the consensus on the work programme on 29 May this year was clearly not without reservations. Those reservations, although not pursued to the point of an objection to the adoption of the work programme, were expressed instead in the context of the mere procedure - determination of timetable and chairs - by which that programme would be given life. (Curiously, Pakistan’s procedural arguments went largely unchallenged.)

This outcome served to cast a further cloud over the operation of the CD’s consensus rule (rule 18 of the Rules of Procedure), and it would be equally disturbing were Pakistan’s reservations to be revived next year and pressed to the point of objecting to what would effectively be an extension to the life of CD/1864. A question, however, that the membership of the Conference needs to ask itself in the meantime is why it has acquiesced in elevating matters of implementation of a formal decision to the same level of decision-making that it chose to apply to the work programme itself.

As each week passed without resolution of the proposed timetable, it was very painful to witness the CD having to lop another five working days off its schedule, running it down until the opportunity to give effect to CD/1864 was lost altogether. The burden of negotiating a way forward via a further formal decision was placed heavily – and unfairly so – on the Conference’s Presidents shuttling ever industriously between the nay-sayers and representatives of the overwhelming majority of the CD for whom substantive work cannot begin soon enough.

On the face of it, the task of implementing CD/1864 was not complicated. Indeed there seemed to be no difficulty with any of the proposed chairs and co-ordinators, at least not until the appointment of the seven individuals was linked with the timetable by which those office-bearers would carry out their work. Had the office-bearers been appointed first, the meeting time for their subsidiary bodies could have been divided equally, pending future adjustments based on the pace of the progress in their work, if warranted.

Unfortunately, the timetable became a battleground on which attempts were made to re-litigate the very decision that was in the process of being implemented. This strenuous rearguard action, in other words, had as its objective a re-jigging of the subtle hierarchy of treatment of issues so carefully crafted in the May work programme by Ambassador Jazairy and his fellow Presidential colleagues.

The dispute over how to fairly reflect - or “balance” - that hierarchy in the timetable warrants close analysis as Members gear themselves up to getting the CD underway in 2010. Several matters arise for debate. First, in the case of a comprehensive series of mandates or programme of work such as CD/1864, is it wise, or even feasible, to prescribe in advance a detailed timetable that can anticipate every eventuality? Changes along the way will be required whether they are brought about by the need to accommodate a visiting dignitary or to reflect qualitative changes in the intensity of the activities of any one or more of the Working Groups.

Secondly, there is nothing in the Rules of Procedure that requires the CD to take a formal decision on either the office bearers or the daily conduct of the activities of the Conference. These matters should be left in the hands of the President in the certain knowledge that no President would be rash enough to proceed to announce the way ahead on either front unless his or her consultations had established that all Members could agree with, or tolerate, the proposed timetable and list of office-bearers. The mandates of subsidiary bodies must, however, be formally agreed, but that rule was clearly met in CD/1864.

Thirdly, why does the CD allow itself to be held hostage to matters of procedure when the mandates for dealing with substance have already been agreed? In the Conference, it is true that matters of procedure are inextricably linked with substance, and this is certainly the case when it comes to developing an appropriately balanced timetable to implement the mandates set out in the work programme. But the balance that is being sought must be responsive to the qualitative differences in the mandates contained in CD/1864, and above all, to the progress achieved in the subsidiary bodies, rather than to the notion of “equal and balanced allocation of time” in CD/1873 tabled by Pakistan almost 3 months after the breakthrough on the work programme.

In reality, the CD has allowed confusion among various procedural requirements to dominate its existence. Current practice is surely not what was intended by the Rules of Procedure. Why would one want to handicap the CD by having it take formal decisions on its agenda, its programme of work, the mandates of its Working Groups, its timetable and its office bearers before it can actually conduct substantive work? The tail is wagging the dog.

The Rules of Procedure, as well as CD/1036 (the decision on the “Improved and Effective Functioning” of the Conference adopted on 21 August 1990), envisage a much more streamlined and sensible process whereby the programme of work would be no more than that which its literal interpretation suggests, that is, a mere programme rather than an overarching mandate. CD/1036 led to the current rule on the work programme, rule 28, with its emphasis on establishing rather than adopting. This is not a matter of semantics. It contemplates that mandates such as those contained in CD/1864 could be given effect through the efforts that a President would undertake in establishing through his or her consultations that no reasonable objection exists to the proposed manner of implementing the decision on the Working Groups’ mandates.

No-one underestimates the complexity of the substantive work facing the Conference. But surely that challenge will be less debilitating and damaging for the CD as an institution - and for the standing of its Members - than any prolongation of the charade of elevating the implementation of a formal decision to the same level of decision-making as for the work programme (i.e., mandate) itself. The immediate way ahead requires a greater readiness among Members to address the CD’s current problems on the floor of the Council Chamber rather than leaving it to successive Presidents to work miracles behind the scenes.

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

Image Credit: "wag the dog" by Linda Silvestri from her blog "sketched out - drawing on my perspective".


PMC said...

Excellent analysis Tim. This article should be made available during next week's debate on "disarmament machinery" at the UNGA First Committee...