Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The CD - a conundrum

With the Conference on Disarmament still gripped by paralysis, members are taking careful stock of the CD’s future.  Its role as “a single multilateral negotiating forum”, the mandate given it in 1978 by the UN General Assembly during its first Special Session on Disarmament (UNSSOD-1), has never been more in question. 
Given the Conference’s weighty agenda, what are the consequences for international security of this prolonged breakdown in multilateral disarmament diplomacy? 
It is tempting to think that the answer to that question depends on whether or not one has a nuclear arsenal. This is because the deadlock in the CD is preventing non-nuclear weapon states from:
  • pursuing nuclear disarmament in the CD;
  • securing legally-binding assurances through the CD that nuclear weapons will not be used against them;
  • negotiating in the CD a prohibition of the production of fissile material used in nuclear weapons, a goal also shared by most of the nuclear weapon states;
  • developing through the CD the means to reduce existing stocks of weapons-grade fissile material; and
  •  legislating to keep outer space free from nuclear and other weapons by concerted efforts in the CD before it is too late to do so.
In other words, for concerned non-nuclear weapons states the CD’s stalemate must be intolerable in security terms.  Those nations have been rendered impotent in the face of some of today’s most critical global issues.  Impotent, that is, for as long as these issues are trapped in the CD.
And what about the perspective of states that possess nuclear weapons in their arsenals or which aspire to do so?  How does the impasse in the CD serve their interests? 
Let’s look again at the five bullet points above.  Deadlock in the CD means that nuclear weapon states are not being held fully to account on any of these issues.  The Economist recently observed that the “reality is that the big nuclear powers prefer stagnation in the disarmament conference to surrendering the consensus rule. It allows them to stall any initiative they oppose.”  
In other words, for the nuclear weapons-possessing states, deadlock in the CD preserves the status quo.  Sure, amongst other things the US and Russia are making valuable contributions towards nuclear disarmament on a bilateral basis, and those two states along with France and the UK have long since unilaterally declared voluntary moratoria on the production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons.  But the driving consideration of the non-aligned countries in pushing for UNSSOD-1 was that disarmament should be placed on a multilateral footing in which they – and other non-nuclear states – would participate and have their say. 
For that reason, it is understandable that some non-nuclear weapons states continue to attach importance to the CD as a multilateral channel for strengthening international security.  But as other non-nuclear weapon states keep pointing out, the CD is not an end in itself but merely an instrument – a means to an end.  If the Conference can no longer carry out its role as a negotiating body, members wishing to pursue the issues identified earlier will have little option but to use other multilateral avenues. These might include the CD’s creator - the UN General Assembly itself, or diplomatic conferences or other ad hoc processes in which decision-making is not so hidebound as it has become in the CD. 
With each failure of the Conference to agree its work programme (whether of a comprehensive or a streamlined kind), the harder it will be for the CD to live up to the hopes of so many of its non-aligned founding members that it would provide a multilateral negotiating channel in which to seek security in disarmament. 
This situation is compounded by the reality that the CD is deadlocked not by a breakdown in negotiations but by an inability to agree even on the basis on which negotiations should proceed. This is a dismal and bankrupt state of affairs, the more so because the last occasion on which the CD fulfilled its negotiating role was 16 years ago in 1996 when the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) emerged from an intensive three-year process. 
The time has come to move on from the tired recycling of discussions into a new dimension for the pressing issues languishing on the CD’s agenda.  In the absence of more enlightened applications of the rules on decision-making and on the content of the programme of work, enduring attachment to the CD - whether sentimental or cynical - needs to be seen for what it is – a serious obstacle to multilateral progress on nuclear disarmament and associated issues and to international security.

This is a guest post by Tim Caughley. Tim is a Resident Senior Fellow at UNIDIR. For other comments on the CD in this series see particularly postings dated 21 February 2012, 4 January 2012, 29 November 2011 and 16 March 2011.