Disarmament Insight


Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Nuclear disarmament: Promises and hope

There are plenty of promises and hope floating around you”.  This was the message inside a Chinese fortune cookie opened during a visit to New York last week for the annual UN General Assembly meeting on disarmament matters (First Committee). It is a message that bears closer analysis to the prospects for nuclear disarmament than first meet the eye…
Plenty of promises” exist in terms of international commitments to nuclear disarmament as well as recent pronouncements of world leaders that the planet will be a safer place when nuclear weapons are eliminated.
Those self-same undertakings have given rise in turn to a degree of “hope”.  But, if this session of the General Assembly is any measure, that hope has a firmer grounding than in recent years.  What is the difference?  There are several answers, and strangely these expectations arise despite, or perhaps because of, the paralysis in the Conference on Disarmament (CD).
In the margins of the Assembly, there is growing recognition that at least one game-breaker, perhaps several, have emerged in the shape of a new focus on nuclear disarmament outside the CD:
--- There is the resolution promoted by Austria, Mexico and Norway proposing the setting up of a working group open to all states to “develop proposals to take forward multilateral negotiations for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons”. 
--- Another draft resolution in circulation is being promoted by Cuba. The aim of Cuba’s paper is to have the General Assembly agree to convene a one-day long High-level Meeting on Nuclear Disarmament in September 2013.
--- And last but not least there is the Norwegian initiative to host a meeting in Oslo next March to bring a new focus to the humanitarian impacts that would result from the use of a nuclear weapon whether accidental or deliberate.
Although it doesn’t deal specifically with nuclear disarmament, mention should also be made of Canada’s annual General Assembly resolution on fissile materials, the latest version of which proposes the setting up by the UN Secretary-General of a group of government experts in Geneva until such time as the CD reaches agreement on a programme of work. The experts would be tasked with elaborating a treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.
At the time of writing it is difficult to predict the outcome on any of these initiatives, but in sum – and in terms of the fortune cookie - they offer “plenty of…hope” that a new departure towards nuclear disarmament will emerge. 
How or when will we know whether that hope is well founded? One measure will be whether members of the CD are ready to face facts and acknowledge that prospects for progress on nuclear disarmament in that forum are negligible no matter how much some of them would like to believe otherwise.  Even if the new developments just noted prompted the Conference to overcome its chronic inability to agree its priorities and to adopt without dissent its elusive annual “programme of work”, a more difficult barrier looms.
The 14-year standoff over the CD’s priorities has eroded the level of trust amongst members.  Restoring it will take time, perhaps further testing the patience of some members. An early sign of the existence of improved trust following a breakthrough on the CD’s priorities will be the absence of the gerrymandering that scuppered the 2009 work programme.  On that occasion certain procedural steps were unnecessarily put to the Conference for formal decision and fell just short of the necessary consensus.
Of course, several political factors of regional and international significance will come into play before the end of this year. Nonetheless it is tempting to conclude that, after a dearth of activity on nuclear disarmament in a multilateral context, 2013 holds the promise and hope of at least some progress of one kind or another.

This is a guest post by Tim Caughley. Tim is a Resident Senior Fellow at UNIDIR.
The photograph of a fortune cookie is a file from the Wikimedia Commons