Disarmament Insight


Thursday, 4 November 2010

CD: Breaking the ice

The rules of procedure of the Conference on Disarmament (CD) sometimes take on the appearance of a strait-jacket, tying the hands of member states and taking them hostage. But CD members as sovereign states are masters of their own destiny. Where collective will exists, a way forward will always present itself. And, as we shall see shortly, this has happened in the past.

The rules of procedure that guide the conduct of business of the Conference are a mix of direction and discretion. The central regulations are to be found in rules 18 and 19 (CD/8/Rev.9). Decisions are to be adopted by consensus, rather than by voting (rule 18). But the requirement that the work of the Conference shall be conducted in plenary meetings (rule 19) is coupled with an important discretion. This allows the CD to agree (by consensus) on additional arrangements, such as the holding of informal meetings with or without experts. Indeed, “whenever the Conference deems it advisable” the CD may also establish various types of subsidiary bodies whose rules of procedure do not necessarily have to reflect those of the Conference itself (rules 23 and 24).

These observations are made to reinforce the point that the CD’s rules – applied in good faith - need not tie the body in knots.

An article in the latest edition of UNIDIR’s periodical Disarmament Forum offers an interesting insight into an earlier decision of the Conference relating to the Comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty (CTBT), which, although it dates back to 1976 and to a predecessor of the CD, has lessons for today. On 22 July that year the Conference of the Committee on Disarmament established an Ad Hoc Group of Scientific Experts (GSE) “to consider international co-operative measures to detect and identify seismic events”. The chair of the GSE, Ola Dahlman, describes the open-ended mandate given to the ad hoc group as “unprecedented”.

The open-ended mandate was unprecedented on a number of counts, not least with respect to its very breadth and width. The mandate was groundbreaking also in the sense that until 1976 any ad hoc group more or less automatically had comprised all the members of the Conference. Moreover, ad hoc groups were usually mandated to conduct negotiations rather than to develop and test scientific aspects of a disarmament/non-proliferation measure. It was unprecedented in that, despite the reservations of Nigeria and Mexico of a north/south nature (see CCD/PV.714), there was no entrenched opposition to the idea because in the final analysis there was an acceptance that a workable CTBT would need to be underpinned by the outcome of the (western-dominated) GSE's efforts and expertise.

But the three remaining counts on which the GSE’s mandate are unprecedented are perhaps the most enlightening. The first is that the mandate was not limited in time; the Conference did not have to renew it every year as with other CD activities. Secondly, the GSE had a permanent and not a rotating chair, which meant that the group had a stable leadership and valuable continuity. Thirdly, the mandate – as has historically been the case in the CD – embraced a single, freestanding topic, without linkages to other issues but without precluding the taking up of mandates on other issues.

The work carried out by the GSE - some of it during the height of the Cold War - not only crucially underpinned the political negotiations of the CTBT but facilitated considerable transfer of seismic technology beyond the members of the group.

Curiously, the GSE was never formally disbanded. If there was a will to do so, its mandate could be refreshed by the CD and the Conference could set it to work on one or more core issues on its agenda. In any event, if members want the CD to be productive whether through preparatory phases in expert groups, pre-negotiations or full-scale engagement of any kind, there are ways of doing so other than via the failed approaches of the past decade.

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

Also see this collection of discussion pieces by Tim Caughley on the disarmament machinery, and in particular, the CD. These pieces were first published on this blog.

Photo Credit: "Ice" by Tim Caughley.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Building discourse on explosive weapons

We have a new website you should check out (and bookmark) at: www.ExplosiveWeapons.info.

But hold on, I hear you say, what about Disarmament Insight? Don’t worry, it’s not disappearing. But over the course of 2010 our efforts will be on this new website, with which we’ll be able to do things we can’t with dear old Blogger.

Originally set up in 2007 to accompany our work that year as part of the 'Disarmament as Humanitarian Action' project at UNIDIR, the Disarmament Insight blog you’re reading now continued a lot longer - and achieved a much wider readership - than we ever hoped. In particular, the blog's commentary became one reference for those seeking independent analysis on what was going on during the Oslo process on cluster munitions. However, the DI blog covered all sorts of other issues relevant to humanitarian disarmament work from anti-personnel mines to primate behaviour, evolutionary psychology to explosive violence.

Blog readers will have noticed that over the last few months our blogging has tapered off, with some conspicuous exceptions like Tim Caughley's thought-provoking analysis of the Conference on Disarmament’s Shannon Mandate. That's because toward the end of last year Maya and I completed our project at UNIDIR on a history of international efforts on cluster munitions, which resulted in a book I wrote entitled Unacceptable Harm: A History of How the Treaty to Ban Cluster Munitions Was Won. After that marathon we both took a break from the blinking cursor for a while.

Among the things it covers, ‘Unacceptable Harm’ looks at what lessons banning cluster munitions might hold for future efforts to protect civilians from the effects of explosive weapons. This was also a topic explored over the course of the blog (just type ‘explosive weapons’ into the search box at right to get a list of posts). In that regard, I’m pleased to report that in January of this year we commenced a new project at UNIDIR on Discourse on Explosive Weapons (DEW), with the kind financial support of the Government of Norway.

The effects of explosive weapons on civilians represent a distinct humanitarian problem—one recognized by the UN Secretary-General in his 2009 report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict (S/2009/277).

Explosive weapons range from unitary bombs, cluster munitions, rockets and missiles to grenades, shells, improvised explosive devices and mines. The blast wave created by the detonation, projection of fragments, and sometimes the collapse of structures in the surrounding area is a major cause of civilian harm. Explosive weapons also cause damage to infrastructure vital to the civilian population and leave behind unexploded explosive ordnance, which poses a post-conflict health risk and negatively affects reconstruction and long-term development.

Representatives of States seem to find it difficult to engage in substantive dialogue on how to address the concerns raised by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Policy practitioners lack a common vocabulary and conceptual tools to enable them to productively frame these issues.

Meanwhile, the process leading to the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions provides an example of how the international debate on a weapon category was re-framed to put the protection of civilians at its centre. In addition, a 2009 report by Landmine Action (now re-branded Action on Armed Violence) on Explosive Violence showed that States already tacitly recognize explosive weapons as a single category from a technological and ethical standpoint.

Greater focus on the humanitarian effects of explosive weapons could enhance civilian protection, support the effectiveness of legal norms applicable in armed conflict, contribute to reducing the global burden of armed violence and represent a further step toward creating the conditions for general and complete disarmament. Practical ways to achieve that is what the DEW project is exploring.

As part of the project’s work, alongside symposia and the generation of resource materials, we’ve set up the explosive weapons website. This is where news and resources related to our explosive weapons work will appear during the course of 2010 including background papers, podcasts and summary reports from our symposia. There’s even a Twitter feed… (We also have a project page at UNIDIR here.) We invite you to follow our work and avail yourself of the stuff we’re producing.

As always, thanks to all of our readers and please keep following our work!

John Borrie

Picture: 'Explosion, Abkhazia' (Simon Conway, Landmine Action).

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Shannon Mandate , aged 15

On 24 March 2010, fifteen years will have elapsed since the “Shannon Mandate” was first tabled in the Conference on Disarmament (CD). That proposal for the negotiation of a ban on the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons became the basis for programmes of work adopted by the CD in 1998 and again in 2009. But neither of those heady moments of consensus flourished.

Last year’s short-lived success was the subject of comment on this blog on 14 October. Since then, the procedural stalling tactics have continued. The Conference is held hostage not only in relation to fissile material negotiations. Core issues such as nuclear disarmament in general, negative security assurances and preventing an arms race in outer space are similarly on hold.

It is tempting to attribute a death wish to the Conference on Disarmament. Alternative forums or parallel processes in which real work can be undertaken on these topics, without the constraints of the CD’s rules of procedure, are now under active consideration.

The need to foster a favourable atmosphere for multilateral disarmament efforts in the next few weeks in the lead-up to a major, month-long review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in May this year is just one consideration driving the idea of developing an alternative forum to the Conference on Disarmament.

Governments frustrated by the endless procedural wrangles in the CD have been reminded once again that the problems with the Conference’s rules of procedure are not confined to the frequency with which the consensus rule is misused. Rotating the presidency every four weeks (Rule 9) has been exposed repeatedly as an endemic weakness, eroding leadership and continuity especially where presidents are little known in the Council Chamber. The recent practice of encouraging the six presidents for the year to act collegially works only to the extent that the individuals concerned are able to participate in a sustained manner throughout the year.

More worrying is the fact that, notwithstanding this weakness, the bulk of the membership seems content to have the delicate consensus-forming activities devolved almost entirely to the presidency, seldom seeking detailed accounts of the endless consultations carried out behind the scenes on their behalf. The informal Plenary on 11 February represents a new and welcome departure in this regard, narrowing the scope for a tiny minority to draw things out behind the scenes. Even greater accountability would be achieved if civil society were allowed to be present.

Finally, persistence with a literal interpretation of the rule that the Conference shall establish its programme of work annually (Rule 28) is perhaps the most damning indictment of the CD’s faltering existence. Without repeating the discussion of that provision on this blog, the CD’s inability to place this requirement into context is puzzling to say the least.

No international conference that wants to work has ever been prevented from doing so by its rules of procedure – such an outcome would demean everybody. If the CD’s rules cannot be amended or applied sensibly, maybe a more radical approach should be taken. Perhaps, the rule or rules in question should be made to work, rather than written off.

In the case of Rule 28, let’s accept that the work programme has a limited life. Because it has only a limited life, let’s not try to invest it with complex mandates with which its working groups would be tasked. Short and simple. Let’s bring back into its rightful place Rule 19 according to which the “work of the Conference shall be conducted in plenary meetings”. If any additional arrangements are needed, e.g., subsidiary bodies, they can be agreed by the Conference (Rule 19 also).

What will the plenary meetings do? Just what the members want, i.e., a focused engagement, intensifying – if engagement is sustained – into negotiations. If engagement on a given topic cannot be sustained, then obviously no instrument, binding or otherwise, will emerge.

But what about continuity, given Rule 9 (see above)? As soon as continuity becomes important for any of the topics – that is, as soon as the focused engagement intensifies to the point of becoming a negotiation – it will be time to form a subsidiary body and select a chair.

What exactly will the programme of work say? The programme would allocate specified periods of time (perhaps a week) for dealing with each of the four core issues in plenary and, if necessary a further, single week for covering the three other subjects. This pattern would be repeated until either the list of speakers on an issue dwindled to the point that the plenary sessions devoted to that subject could be re-allocated or agreement was reached on forming a subsidiary body for that topic.

Such a programme, to repeat, would not prescribe mandates but, based on Rule 19, would utilize plenary meetings in accordance with a “schedule” – see Rule 20 – agreed upon by members.

Mandates may be useful in encapsulating agreement on organizational aspects, e.g., the need for a subsidiary body to report to plenary. But, as the CD has seen, mandates have their limitations in ring-fencing matters of substance. The question is one of support.

Success in pursuing an issue, say inclusion of pre-existing stocks in a fissile material negotiation, will depend on the level of support secured by the proponent (which, in fact, is already plentiful). Success in achieving coverage of pre-existing stocks in the final product of the negotiation will depend, likewise, on sustaining support sufficiently to be treated as a factor in the final compromise. And, if in the end the proponent finds itself isolated, no government can be forced to sign or become bound by a treaty, which it considers prejudicial to its essential security interests.

Fifteen years after the birth of the “Shannon Mandate”, fissile material negotiations remain rooted to the spot, defying the UN General Assembly which adopted without opposition Resolution A/RES/64/29 of 2 December last year, urging the Conference on Disarmament “to agree early in 2010 on a programme of work that includes the immediate commencement of negotiations on a treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices”.

If the simpler, disaggregated approach to agreeing a work programme outlined earlier does not appeal, maybe an even simpler, disaggregated approach outside the CD will emerge, one in which outcomes are achieved through engagement on substance, not blocked by procedure.

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

Photo Credit: "Day #12 Birthday Cake" by allieee on Flickr.