Disarmament Insight


Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The CD: trying to square a circle

The Conference on Disarmament (CD), now into the second month of its annual session, remains frozen to the spot.  No sign of a thaw has emerged, but there has, at least, been a mood-change – the sword of Damocles hanging over the Conference is being taken more seriously now.  In the sombre words of the UN Secretary-General’s Personal Representative to the CD, the current situation has created “a serious credibility and legitimacy deficit. The future of the Conference is at stake”.

Mr Tokayev placed his comments not only in the context of “the existential threat” posed by nuclear weapons but also against the stark backdrop of “budgetary austerity”, reminding the 65 member states that the work of the CD is funded by the entire membership of the United Nations through the UN’s regular budget. He also offered some concrete ideas for ending the CD’s barren streak of 15 successive years in which the CD has produced dividends neither for international security nor for long-suffering global taxpayers.

Another trend this year is a growing readiness amongst Conference members – and observer states – to offer constructive ideas for possible ways forward.  Members are less and less attributing the impasse in the Conference simply to a “lack of political will”.  Increasingly, the problems in the CD are being seen for what they are – a clash, not a lack, of political wills and tyranny by a minority. Divergent priorities – compounded by continuous misuse of the rules on the programme of work and consensus - are thus cancelled out.  Gridlock reigns.

The Geneva Forum recently held an orientation programme for new disarmament diplomats. A young delegate from a non-member state wondered aloud how a body with the international standing of the CD could allow itself to become hidebound by a matter as mundane as agreeing an annual work programme.  How, he asked, could this situation be explained to his government which was considering seeking observer status?  Good question.

The answer lies at two levels. There is a deep-seated aversion among some members towards issues which they regard as contrary to their national interests but which are being pursued by others in their own national interest. This is the clash of positions mentioned earlier, but it is magnified because it applies across four distinct issues, not just one, and allows a tiny minority to impose its will.  And, secondly, there is the unfortunate spider web that has been woven round these four “core” issues, wrapping them together in one toxic package.

For example, some states want to negotiate a ban on the future production of fissile material while others will only enter into to such an exercise if existing stocks of fissile material are included in the negotiating mandate. Many states want to negotiate or at least get down to pre-negotiations on an agreement on nuclear disarmament while others are content in the knowledge that no progress will be made on this issue for so long as there’s a standoff on fissile material negotiations, or outer space, or security assurances.

Why, the young delegate might have wondered, can’t the four core issues be dealt with separately?  The answer is that they can.  But those few members that prefer the status quo – no multilateral nuclear disarmament, no curbs on the production of fissile material, no action to prevent an arms race in outer space, no multilateral regime to provide security assurances to non-nuclear weapon states – have no incentive to de-link the four issues. Ever since the CD took the fatal plunge in 1999 of trying to incorporate negotiating and other mandates into its annual work programme, the Conference has been in the grip of the naysayers.

If the impasse is intentional, what incentives can be used to get the web untangled?  Or to be more precise, how can the nuclear weapons-possessing states be persuaded that it is in their best interests to unblock the CD? Judging from this year’s debate on the future of the Conference, these questions pose a real dilemma. Saving the institution is one thing: making progress on an issue vital to international security is another matter altogether.  Many non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) are asserting that their priority in the CD is nuclear disarmament.  In the face of speculation that negotiations on fissile material might be pursued outside the CD, some NNWS are also saying that they are opposed to issues being hived off for less-inclusive treatment elsewhere.

Those states are going to have to make a difficult choice.  Nuclear disarmament, their main priority, is trapped in the CD – at least for so long as the Conference chooses to overload its draft work programme and tolerate irresponsible use of the consensus rule.  What will be the position of those states when their top priority becomes the subject of such irresistible pressure that negotiations on nuclear disarmament get underway outside the blocked CD?  Could the fear of this eventuality be the incentive to impel the nuclear weapon states to revive the CD?   After all, the CD offers them a comfort that is available nowhere else, not even in the NPT – the comfort that decisions can be taken only by consensus.

In the meantime, as Mr Tokayev put it, the CD is “trying to square a circle”.  For the young participant in the Geneva Forum orientation, the message to his government, in these circumstances, might best be to raise questions like his in the UN General Assembly where the views of the broadest constituency of nations can be brought to bear on the Conference on Disarmament whose future lies so delicately in the balance.

This is a guest post by Tim Caughley. Tim is a Resident Senior Fellow at UNIDIR – for other comments on the CD see also here.

The diagram is a file adapted from the Wikimedia Commons.