Disarmament Insight


Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Conference on Disarmament: Some misconceptions

On the 10th anniversary of the UN Study on disarmament and non‐proliferation education, these comments are made in the spirit of disarmament education and in the hope that delegates to and observers of the crucial 2012 session of the Conference on Disarmament will find them helpful.
1. The CD – “a single multilateral disarmament negotiating forum”.
The notion of the CD as a single negotiating forum is much misunderstood and misquoted. Even the CD’s own annual resolution and report to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) gets it wrong. The most recent CD resolution tabled in the First Committee at UNGA66 mistakenly refers to the CD as “the sole multilateral disarmament negotiating forum” (emphasis added).
What’s in a word? What’s the difference between “single” and “sole”? Not much ordinarily, but “sole” has come to be used in some quarters as though the CD were the only legitimate multilateral disarmament negotiating forum. The use of the words “a single” was intended by the UN General Assembly to mean something else. This role was conferred on the CD by the UN General Assembly during its first Special Session on Disarmament (UNSSODI) in 1978. What the General Assembly had in mind was that the CD would be a single (as opposed to the sole) forum. That is, it would provide a single edifice within which key disarmament issues would be negotiated by key states as needs arose (assuming the necessary consensus – see further below). It was seen as more effective and efficient to support a single institution and maintain a single repository of knowledge and expertise than to take up disarmament issues, one by one, in an ad hoc manner.
The point about drawing a distinction between “a single” and “the sole” forum is that frustrated members of the CD need not be constrained in any way if they wish to move negotiations elsewhere: for example, to their own or other edifices or processes such as those used to negotiate the Ottawa and Oslo Conventions, or to the parent body of the CD – the UN General Assembly itself.
As a footnote, separate resolutions tabled during UNGA66 by Austria, Mexico and Norway (though not pressed to the vote) and by Canada have each sensitised the broader international community to a role for the UN General Assembly next October if the CD remains deadlocked at that point. The parent, thus, is well seized of the situation surrounding its offspring: the CD, in effect, is on the mat, if not quite yet on formal notice from the UNGA.
2. “Comprehensive and balanced”
The phrase “comprehensive and balanced” is often used in the CD to qualify the programme of work (or priorities) of the Conference, agreement on which has eluded the CD since 1998 except for a false dawn in 2009. The CD’s rules of procedure require that a programme of work must be established each annual session as the basis for the CD’s efforts for that year. But the rules do not require that that programme be “comprehensive and balanced” in those specific terms. There is certainly no need for the programme to be comprehensive (see further below), although it would need to be balanced as a practical element of the consensus necessary for concerted implementation of it.
3. “Programme of work”
The ingredients needed for a programme of work are the source of a damaging misunderstanding in the CD. Modern-day formulations of the programme of work embody mandates for subsidiary bodies/working groups to which the substantive work of the CD would be delegated for the remainder of the annual session. But writing these mandates into the work programme is not required by the rules of procedure (rule 28). Attempting to do so has proved a recipe for the current 13 year-long deadlock.
To be clear, mandates for subsidiary bodies do need to be agreed by the conference, but not in the work programme. But to return to the point. Under the CD’s rules, a work programme need be no more than a “schedule of activities” for the session – simply a timetable that sets out for planning purposes the dates for taking up individual agenda items and the periods of time to be allocated to each topic. It would also list other organizational matters that members wanted to address, such as allocating time to any high level segment and to the preparation of the annual report to the UN General Assembly. If the CD could unburden itself of its endless agonising over its programme of work by reverting to the successful formula of the past, perhaps the trust and confidence necessary for agreeing mandates and getting down to substantive work would ebb back into the Council Chamber. If not, the attraction of alternative processes will surely prove irresistible.
4. “Consensus”
There is no ambiguity in the rules of procedure about the manner of decision-making in the CD. UNSSODI expressed the need for the Conference to operate by consensus, and rule 18 reflects that position. But what does “consensus” mean? Rule 18 does not say that every member has a veto. It is clear from UNSSODI that the circumstances in which a member would object to a decision (i.e., break consensus) is when it believes that the ultimate product of the work of a subsidiary body has not emerged “in such an equitable and balanced manner as to ensure the right of each State to security”.
Short of a threat to national security, “consensus” should be interpreted in its normal manner. That is, decisions should be taken by general agreement where no member feels so discomforted by that decision as to impel it to voice its objection, thereby blocking the outcome. So, members might object to a decision to adopt a draft treaty on a certain topic, say fissile material, where it believed that the outcome, despite intensive negotiations in which it had participated, would prejudice its national security. At the other end of the spectrum, a member would not normally object to a decision to adopt, for example, a programme of work of the simplified kind outlined above even if that member’s “wish list” was not fully met. In other words, the consensus rule entails the exercise by each member of a level of responsibility informed by the likely impact of the decision on the security of that state, rather than by some unfettered freedom to exercise a veto. Indefinite blocking of decisions in the pre-negotiating stage of the CD’s work on a given topic serves only to reinforce doubts about the utility of the Conference.
These views are intended to encourage dialogue as part of an educative process. Bigger questions are whether these four areas of misinterpretation are accidental or deliberate, and why. In any event, their combined effect prevents the CD from operating in the manner intended by UNSSODI, freezing the opportunity to advance the causes of nuclear disarmament, to ban fissile material production, to achieve more extensive security assurances or to prevent an arms race in outer space, a least under the roof of the Conference on Disarmament. Is it any wonder that efforts to move issues from the CD to another process are intensifying? Please feel free to comment on possible ways forward.
This is a guest blog by Tim Caughley. Tim is a Resident Senior Fellow at UNIDIR. 

(The symbol is drawn from Google Clip Art Images)