Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 16 March 2011

CD: Getting to first base on a simplified programme of work

The need to simplify the programme of work of the Conference on Disarmament is at last gaining some momentum. Already the subject of an item on this blog on 24 February last year, the notion of reviving an earlier practice of the CD is increasingly seen as a means of getting the Conference to first base.

In short, the idea is to view the organizational tasks of the CD in two steps, rather than one. First, the Conference would agree on the direction of its work for the annual session, scheduling (or timetabling) the activities in such a way as to assist delegations to plan ahead.

What would be included in such a programme? Under rule 28 of the CD’s rules of procedure, the Conference would want to reflect its activities in a manner consistent with its agenda, and would need to take into account any recommendations, proposals and decisions that had been made to it by the UN General Assembly as well as decisions of the CD itself and proposals of its Members.

In the 1990s, the agenda and the programme of work were sometimes embodied in a single document, for ease of allocating blocks of time to respective agenda items. But if the work programme is treated in a manner separate from (but related to) the agenda, it would serve the same purpose. The programme would set out specific periods of time and the relevant dates for taking up specific agenda items. It would also list other organizational matters that it wanted to address.

For instance, in CD/963 of 7 February 1990 and CD/1119 of 22 January 1992, the Conference projected the need to convene subsidiary bodies “according to the circumstances and needs” of those bodies. It also agreed dates for the meeting of the Ad Hoc Group of Scientific Experts on seismic events (see also a previous post I wrote on this topic last November).

The first step, thus, is to agree on the organizational framework for the year ahead, including the allocation of time or space for subsidiary bodies. No mention of actual mandates.

The second step is to settle upon mandates for the subsidiary bodies that Members agree to establish. Obviously, at its broadest abstraction, the UN General Assembly’s mandate for the CD is that it must operate as a negotiating body. Hence, it would be logical that at least one of the mandates for subsidiary bodies would be a negotiating mandate or would foreshadow one. The CD is not compelled to establish subsidiary bodies, but would do so “when it appears that there is a basis to negotiate a draft treaty” (rule 23).

Having come to the view that it should take an issue forward in a subsidiary body, the CD would need to reach agreement on the mandate for such a body (rule 23). This immediately raises the question whether, in terms of the current impasse, the idea of simplifying the work programme by separating out the four mandates will serve the cause of progress. Will it not simply postpone the inevitable discord over the terms of the mandates?

Certainly, the act of separating mandates from the programme of work will not automatically overcome the issue of linkages. For so long as there is more than one mandate, the risk of linkages will persist. Nonetheless, in 1998 the Conference agreed separate – unlinked - mandates on fissile materials and negative security assurances (see paragraph 9 of this UNIDIR paper on fissile material negotiations in the CD for more detail).

Moreover, if Members really want to preserve the CD and help it to get to first base, a solution is at hand through taking a less complicated approach to the contents of the work programme. Getting to second base then becomes the challenge, but the tempo of action will have been raised and the unseemly situation of being unable even to get off home plate and agree formally on the annual sequence of its activities would have been laid at last to rest.

But, as already acknowledged, the question of linkages still lingers. How can the CD avoid the self-cancelling situation that paralyses it through these linkages? What incentives can ever be devised to prevent the tit-for-tat approach of “I will not agree to the mandate on topic A until you stop blocking the mandate on topic B”? There may not be easy answers to these questions, but that is not the end of the story. Second base can still be reached.

Once the simplified work programme is adopted and the focus of attention moves to mandates for subsidiary bodies, it will be essential for the CD to deal with mandates one by one. Succumbing to the temptation to lump mandates together will ensure deadlock in the same way as currently exists with the overloaded programme of work.

How will dealing with mandates separately help advance the runner to second base? In treating each mandate individually (as in 1998), the concerns of delegations with the terms of that particular mandate can be brought out into the open and treated specifically rather than generally, as is now the case. For example, can Member State X explain more precisely why mandate A does not meet its needs? Will Member State Y clarify why it is unable to accept a negotiating mandate on issue B? No more hiding behind the programme of work…. Without honest engagement at this level in which hold-out Members are placed on the spot, issue by issue, the prospects of breaking the deadlock are negligible.

This year’s plenary debates have served their purpose of putting the focus on substance rather than letting matters of procedure (especially the work programme) dominate activities. To get answers to the questions just raised, it would be necessary to do so off the official records of the CD, that is, in informal meetings of the Conference. The readiness of Members to provide answers to such questions in a constructive vein will demonstrate whether the CD is capable of moving to first and second bases or whether it prefers to remain rooted still to home base.

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.