Disarmament Insight


Monday, 3 September 2012

Political will/Political won’t. Compromise?

Apart from the ritualistic and sometimes ironic “congratulations” that are offered each month to the incoming president of the deadlocked Conference on Disarmament, the most common expression heard in the Council Chamber  is “political will”.  
Or more accurately, “the lack of political will”. 

I was asked by one of this year’s UN Disarmament Fellows what “political will” means.  My response was to duck the question by saying that what was lacking in the CD was “compromise”, not political will.  
- Compromise between those states that don’t want a ban on the production of fissile material to cover existing stocks of such material, and those that do 
- Compromise between those that want a binding agreement to prevent an arms race in outer space, and those that don’t
- Compromise between those that don’t want negotiations to eliminate nuclear weapons, and those that do 
- Compromise between those on the one hand that want the nuclear weapon states to provide legally binding assurances that nuclear weapons will not be used against non-nuclear weapon states, and on the other hand those that believe existing assurances are sufficient
- Compromise amongst those championing negotiations on any one or more of those activities
- Compromise between those that see the CD’s rules of procedure as a constraint, and those that see their national sovereignty as diminished by such constraint... 

But to return to the question.  “Political will” was described by the previous High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Sergio Duarte as the source of energy that allows for movement past agreed milestones. A former Director of UNIDIR Patricia Lewis defined political will as “the sustained determination to advance a public interest, even in the face of strong resistance”.  Both recognised that the current problem in the disarmament arena is not so much a lack of political will but a clash of political wills.

As has been apparent in the CD’s thematic debate on revitalising the Conference, views on how to overcome this clash of wills remain far apart.  Indeed, some doubt whether the political will to forge compromises and negotiate broadly acceptable outcomes is even possible in a more complicated post-Cold War security environment.  If this is so, sustaining the CD in its current mode will be harder to justify, spawning perhaps ad hoc processes driven by like-minded states, but open to all, where political energy is more readily harnessed to achieve a public interest. Those states that choose to stand aside from such processes deny themselves the ability to influence the outcome, outcomes that strive for consensus but which allow recourse to voting to prevent endless deadlock.

In the meantime, it would be nice to hear and see more use of the word “compromise” in the Conference on Disarmament in a practical effort by its members to give meaning to "political will" as the CD finalises its annual report to the UN General Assembly and completes its otherwise barren 2012 session.

This is a guest blog by Tim Caughley, Resident Senior Fellow, UNIDIR.
For brief background material on the CD see the publication “The Conference on Disarmament Issues and Insights”