At the end of an item posted on this site on 30 May this year, the comment was made that the adoption by the Conference on Disarmament (CD) of a schedule of activities was a step in the right direction. It would have been more momentous if this schedule had been recognised for what it is, in practice – the essence of the elusive “programme of work” required by the rules of procedure. With its priorities adequately reflected in the schedule of activities, the CD could then have turned its energies to negotiating the necessary mandates for dealing with the chosen subjects.
Such a return to keeping mandates separate from the programme of work might have been viewed by the UN General Assembly during its scrutiny of the CD later this year as a positive sign that the Conference was capable of responding to deep concerns about its effectiveness. The Gordian knot tying the main priorities inextricably together would have been cut. But, on the contrary, it was made clear by some CD members that the schedule of activities was not to be a Trojan horse for the programme of work. The schedule, they stated, was to be no more than a timetable for the formal thematic debates that followed.
So, can signs of progress be gleaned from the debates themselves? Possibly. Lines perhaps have become a little more clearly drawn on the ranking of the four core issues. A fissile material ban and nuclear disarmament are neck-and-neck, with negative security assurances and preventing an arms race in outer space both following behind – running strongly in the race though not in first or second place but seen by some as possible compromise candidates for future focus if the deadlock on fissile material and nuclear disarmament persists.
This state of affairs had been recognised in the work programme proposed by the President (Egypt) on 14 March, albeit in a document including both a schedule of activities and mandates for working groups and special coordinators. The mandates for the working groups on nuclear disarmament and fissile material would require the latter to “deal with elements” of a treaty banning fissile material production for use in weapons (FMT) while the former would simply “deal with nuclear disarmament”. This distinction softened the earlier disparity between “negotiate” a FMT and “exchange views and information on practical steps for" nuclear disarmament (see CD/1864).
The divergence of views over which of these two topics is the “riper” for treatment continues, but it sounds increasingly ritualistic. The respective champions of these subjects know that the endgame entails either broadening out the mandate on a FMT to cover existing fissile material thereby expanding the nuclear disarmament value of the exercise, or launching parallel working groups dealing separately with a FMT and nuclear disarmament either contemporaneously or (more workably) in sequence.
Are the signs of entering the endgame sufficient to warrant a sympathetic consideration by members of the UNGA when they “review progress made in the implementation of [last year’s resolution A/66/420] and, if necessary, to further explore options for taking forward multilateral disarmament negotiations”?
Many members made it clear during the thematic debate on revitalising the CD that their patience is wearing very thin. The debate was marked by urgings for members to show more “political will”, a thoroughly hollow imprecation as pointed out by the US Disarmament Ambassador who noted that the problem was not an absence, but a clash, of political will. As an aside, perhaps it will be a measure of progress of sorts when members, instead of lamenting the lack of political will, spell it out more clearly in terms of an absence of willingness to compromise.
After its current recess the CD will have seven weeks in which to satisfy the doubters that it is responsive to concerns about its viability. It may choose to do so either by seeking the solution for the disagreement over its priorities by developing a less complicated programme of work shorn of its linkages. Or it may take some overt step such as appointing a friend of the President to explore the scope for compromise on the mandates for nuclear disarmament and a FMT without discounting the validity of other core issues.
Whether such steps would be sufficient to re-engage disaffected members remains to be seen. But in light of the current impasse it is unsurprising that alternatives to the CD are being voiced in the margins of the Conference, albeit without any option emerging yet as the most favoured. Meanwhile to help breathe life into these issues Germany and the Netherlands have initiated meetings of scientific experts on fissile material, and, on nuclear disarmament, Norway will host a meeting in Oslo early next year on the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons.
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.