A feature – for better or worse – of the Conference on Disarmament is the sanctity attributed to the CD’s rules of procedure (CD/8/Rev.9). Incoming Presidents, when assuming the chair of the CD in the alphabetical rollover of the presidency every four weeks, solemnly insist that they will abide by the rules of procedure throughout their (derisorily short) term. This has become code for saying that they will not countenance presiding over any action of the CD unless there is unanimous support for such action – the literal, and misplaced, embodiment of rule 18 that the Conference shall conduct its work and adopt its decisions by consensus.
Sometimes it seems that strict observance of the rules of procedure is an objective in itself, whereas the purpose of the rules is to facilitate orderly work rather than frustrate it. Perhaps, however, a new sense of enlightenment is afoot. Recently the CD took the unusual step of acting in direct contradiction to its rules. Rule 9 ordains that the rotation of the presidency, based on the English alphabetical list of Member States, “shall be followed”. Yet the Conference has acquiesced in a reversal of that order, placing the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea before Cuba for the remaining presidencies of this year. (This outcome does not fall within the circumstances envisaged in rule 10 which afford a temporary relaxation of rule 9 within a presidency.)
The purpose of this switch between Cuba and the DPRK was seen as a pragmatic one to accommodate exigencies of the respective delegations. It is in any event harmless enough, although on a future occasion such a swap might be engineered for less innocent reasons. The point, however, is that the Conference has shown itself ready to overlook its rules when it suits it to do so.
Nonetheless, these particular circumstances have led indirectly to an unfortunate outcome. The Foreign Minister of Canada announced on 11 July that Canada will boycott the CD through the remaining three weeks of the DPRK’s rotation as President. Whether this stance was triggered by the switch of presidencies is not clear. But one of the values of the CD is that it brings under the one roof all the States that possess nuclear weapons irrespective of their international standing, and affords an opportunity for principled advocates for nuclear disarmament like Canada to make their views very clear.
Canada has taken full advantage of that opportunity, and its leadership – including as one of this year’s collegium of presidents for 2011 – Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Cuba and the DPRK – has been exemplary. It is for no want of skill and energy of the Canadian presidency, whose efforts bridged the 2010 and 2011 annual sessions of the CD, that the Conference remains in its decade-long deadlocked state.
To go back to the beginning of these comments, the rotation of presidents of the Conference takes place strictly by rule rather than by election. And more importantly, the President, in the time-honoured manner of the office, acts first and foremost in a neutral capacity. If the chair needs at any point to project a national viewpoint, he or she makes it clear that they are speaking on that occasion as a Member State rather than as President. Given the current state of the CD, what is needed is a constructive, concerted effort of trust-building rather than individual acts of self-acknowledged symbolism.
This is a guest post by Tim Caughley. Tim is a Resident Senior Fellow at UNIDIR – see here for other comments on the CD.
Graphic courtesy of Google images.