Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 7 November 2012

First Committee: a weather report

The 2012 session of the First Committee of the UN General Assembly was notable not only for the disruption caused by super-storm Sandy but also for a stirring of the winds of change in multilateral disarmament machinery. Winds at the other end of the Beaufort scale to Sandy, admittedly, but discernible nonetheless...

The endless debate over the causes of deadlock in the Conference on Disarmament and of under-achievement in other disarmament forums has had its instructive moments, but it has not yet thrown up a game-breaker. We seem no closer to getting the CD re-started than to mothballing it.

Not surprisingly, therefore, attention has begun to turn away from the institutions and to concentrate instead on the issues that are trapped within them.  More particularly, on finding other ways of “taking forward multilateral disarmament negotiations”, to use the terminology of the First Committee’s agenda...

This was certainly the case with three new (or revamped) resolutions tabled by the NAM, Canada, and a cross-regional group supporting an initiative by Austria, Mexico and Norway.  Canada’s (annual) proposal on fissile material took a different tack from previous years and included a request for the UN Secretary-General to establish a group of government experts (GGE) drawn from 25 states to meet in Geneva for 2 weeks in 2014 and 2015  to make recommendations (but "not negotiate") on possible aspects for a treaty banning the production of such material.

The other two proposals dealt with another core issue on the CD’s agenda, nuclear disarmament. Under the NAM resolution (adopted without opposing votes and with only 5 abstentions), this topic will be the subject of a high-level meeting of the UNGA on 26 September 2013 “to contribute to the goal of nuclear disarmament”. The remaining measure sought the setting up of an open-ended working group for up to fifteen working days in Geneva in 2013 “to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons”.

The NAM resolution, although comparatively modest, is nonetheless significant in that it reflects dissatisfaction over the apparent unwillingness of some CD members to treat nuclear disarmament at least on parity with fissile material. Interestingly, Canada’s proposal - born of frustration with getting negotiations underway in the CD on a fissile material ban  – was adopted by the First Committee with only one negative vote (cast by Pakistan, although the idea of a GGE had, in an earlier, separate vote, been opposed also by Iran and Syria).  In the decision on the resolution as a whole there were 148 votes in favour of it and 20 abstentions (including those of China and a number of Middle East states).

This level of support for the Canadian proposal needs to be seen, though, in the context of its explicit readiness both to offer the CD a further year to resolve the deadlock before the GGE meets as well as to ensure that the Conference will overtake the latter as soon as the CD agrees to negotiate a ban on the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.

The last of the three proposals just mentioned takes a much more arms-length approach to the CD.  The open-ended working group (OEWG) would report primarily to the UN General Assembly, although its report would be copied to the CD as well as to the UN Disarmament Commission.

The significance of this distinction between the UNGA and the CD can best be illustrated by an extract from India’s explanation of vote. Explaining why it had abstained on the resolution, India said that “an OEWG established outside of the CD under GA rules of procedure may not lead to productive outcomes in taking forward the multilateral nuclear disarmament agenda with the participation of all relevant countries”.

In other words, the OEWG would proceed not under the CD’s sole decision-making rule – consensus – but under those of the General Assembly which, as laid down in Article 18 of the UN Charter, contemplate voting. As for the vote on the proposal itself, the measure easily carried in the First Committee with the support of 133 members. There were 4 against (France, Russia, UK and US) and 20 abstaining (including China, Pakistan, and Israel as well as India).

For those states that are ready to engage directly in the issues rather than merely in how to prioritise the treatment of them, new avenues have clearly opened up.  For nuclear disarmament, 2013 offers a packed programme with an OEWG, a high level meeting and a NPT PrepCom in the offing,  as well as a conference scheduled for March in Oslo on the humanitarian impact of a nuclear detonation.  Whether or not the CD – bending to the winds of change – manages to wrest back the initiative in 2013 and forestall the convening of the GGE on fissile material in 2014 remains to be seen.

This is a guest post by Tim Caughley, Resident Senior Fellow at UNIDIR.