Disarmament Insight

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Thursday, November 4, 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.

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