Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Conference on Disarmament: a lifeline?

The Conference on Disarmament (CD) has temporarily set aside pursuit of a programme of work and is operating, without dissent, on the basis of a “Schedule of Activities” [CD/WP.571/Rev.1 of 21 May 2012]. The Schedule amounts to a timetable of plenary meetings in accordance with the rules of procedure. In ordinary circumstances, such a schedule would be one and the same thing as a “programme of work”. Indeed the relevant rule (no. 28) explicitly says that such a programme would encompass a “schedule of its activities”.
But some member states insist on differentiating these two terms.  Why? 
Because they want the programme of work to include specific work mandates. Why? Is there anything in the rules that requires such inclusion? No.
Is it typical past practice to include negotiating mandates in the programme of work? No. So why, insist on it?
As noted in an earlier article, it has been speculated that it suits major powers that the CD is tied up in knots. Subtle shifts in the dialogue and dynamics are, however, afoot. Members are aware that with the annual session already at the halfway point, attention will increasingly turn to the meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York in October. The inability of the CD to make any progress, for instance, on its very first agenda item covering nuclear disarmament and a ban on fissile material production, inevitably gives rise to consideration amongst UN member states as to alternative venues for advancing those pressing issues. 
And, as witnessed last month in Vienna at the first meeting of the new NPT review cycle, the unanimous expression by the 2010 NPT Review Conference of deep concern at the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences” of any use of nuclear weapons is developing a momentum of its own among states and civil society. The extent to which this development will divert attention from dealing with a fissile material ban and nuclear disarmament in the CD remains to be seen, but the ball is very much in the Conference’s court.
In this regard, it is significant that the most recent president of the CD, Ambassador Getahun (Ethiopia), in his closing remarks hinted that a “comprehensive” programme of work – i.e., one that is inclusive of mandates – may need re-thinking.  He raised the possibility of “de-linking” some of the agenda items. Individual mandates, he implied, could – if they stood on their own – be invested with greater clarity as to their objectives. These are significant points, even if, in the scheme of things, they do not amount to game-breakers.  But the high quality leadership of all three presidents of the CD to date this year (they also include Ambassador Gallegos of Ecuador and Ambassador Badr of Egypt), and the willingness of members to acquiesce in greater use of the presidential prerogative – e.g., witness the adoption of the Schedule of Activities – provide the makings of a lifeline for the Conference as it enters the second half of its annual session.  More, maybe much more, will be needed to impress delegates to this year’s forthcoming UN General Assembly.  But it's a beginning. Ideas on possible ways ahead are invited from readers, and will in any event be the subject of a further article on this website.

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.      [Lifesaver image courtesy of Lifesaver clip art by OCAL shared by Clker.com]