Wednesday, 4 January 2012
Prospects for the Conference on Disarmament in 2012
Some random thoughts on the Conference on Disarmament (CD) as delegations begin to write their speeches for the opening of the 2012 session of the Conference on 24 January:-
1 The last occasion on which the CD fulfilled the negotiating role given to it by the UN General Assembly was in 1996 when the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) emerged from an intensive three-year process. That was 16 years ago.
2 Leaving aside the unconsummated agreement of 29 May 2009, the last time that the CD was able to reach consensus on initiating its next negotiation was in August 1998 when it agreed to a mandate for a fissile material production ban. Those negotiations lasted less than a month. That was 14 years ago.
3 Since then the Conference has not been able to agree (except fleetingly in 2009) to get down to negotiations either on a fissile material production ban or on mandates for any of the other core items on its agenda – nuclear disarmament, security assurances, or preventing an arms race in outer space, or on anything else of substance.
4 How can this barren state of affairs be allowed to exist? How can the resources consumed by the 24-week annual sessions of the CD be put to better use? To whom should the CD be held accountable for those resources?
5 In 1978 the UN General Assembly’s first Special Session on Disarmament (UNSSOD I), when mandating the body that is known today as the CD, instructed the Conference to report to the Assembly annually. The CD duly does so. But given the continuing inability of the CD to be able to report the commencement of any negotiations, is the UNGA simply turning a blind eye to the situation?
6 Yes and no. The annual report to the UNGA is merely a procedural one. This is because the CD is unable to agree to spell out clearly why it is failing to carry out the negotiating role that the General Assembly expects of it. Notwithstanding the rules of procedure that stipulate that “reports must reflect faithfully the positions of all the members” (rule 25) , the Conference’s annual reports are of the lowest common denominator variety that are so often the consequence of decision-making not by voting but by consensus as is the case in the CD (rule 18).
7 But the UNGA can read between the lines of the CD’s report. This is because, of course, the CD’s 65 members are also members of the General Assembly. So too are the 40 or more observers of the CD. In any event, such is the level of concern of UN member states about the paralysis of the Conference, shared by the UN Secretary-General himself, that the Assembly has begun to put the CD on notice.
8 As noted earlier on this website , separate resolutions tabled during the most recent session of UNGA by Austria, Mexico and Norway (though not pressed to the vote) and by Canada have clearly sensitized the broader international community to a role for the Assembly this coming October if the CD remains deadlocked at that point.
9 And significantly the UNGA agreed without dissent on a resolution tabled by the Netherlands, South Africa and Switzerland that did two things. The resolution urged the CD to adopt and implement a programme of work to enable it to resume substantive work on its agenda early in its 2012 session, and it decided that at its next annual session it would “review progress made in the implementation of the present resolution and, if necessary, to further explore options for taking forward multilateral disarmament negotiations”. The parent body (UNGA), thus, is well seized of the situation surrounding its offspring (the CD).
10 What then are the options for the Conference, assuming that the status quo is without viability? One idea that has been pursued by Russia is to reprise the short-lived work programme of May 2009 with a small twist to get work underway on analysing the main elements of a fissile material treaty without actually branding that work as negotiations, while continuing substantive discussions on the three other key issues. The point at which “discussions” morph into “negotiations” is not, after all, some kind of confidence trick but an evolution in trust – a growing acceptance that the parameters in which compromise can be brokered have begun to emerge. This is in stark contrast to the current situation where, far from charting the way forward, the would-be participants are blocked even from any form of substantive engagement be it described as “discussions” or “negotiations”.
11 Another option is to simplify the programme of work, perhaps along the lines suggested recently on this website. This would involve returning to the successful formula of the distant past when the work programme served the purpose originally intended by the rules of procedure (rule 27) of being essentially procedural rather than substantive. That is, it would incorporate a schedule of its activities for that session, without trying also to specify mandates or other matters of substance.
12 Each of these options has the merit of breaking the ice that encases the CD, paving the way for re-building a measure of trust amongst members, trust that is a vital precondition to serious negotiations and thus to meeting the original expectations of the CD as spelled out by UNSSOD I. If that degree of trust is currently unobtainable, the CD may need to explore longer term options such as laying the foundations for an eventual negotiation by setting up an open-ended experts group of the kind that created the right conditions for the CTBT, discussed in an earlier posting on this site.
13 Whatever the way forward, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that in 2012 the future of the CD will be under the spotlight as never before. Clearly it will not be sufficient to continue merely to lament the constraints of the rules of procedure or the “absence of political will”. The rules can and must be used to facilitate rather than frustrate progress. It is essential to overcome not the absence of political will but the clash of wills that exists between those for whom the CD offers a channel for progress on issues of high international security and those for whom it has become a convenient parking place for those same issues. Will the destiny of the Conference be determined by its members or by its creator, the UN General Assembly? Time will tell soon enough.
This is a guest blog by Tim Caughley. Tim is a Resident Senior Fellow at UNIDIR.
(The symbol is drawn from the Microsoft Clip Art Gallery)