Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Back to Basics in the Conference on Disarmament

The website for the Conference on Disarmament lists a dozen draft programmes of work proposed during the CD’s long fallow period since the CTBT was negotiated in that body. All of those work programmes have been supported by an overwhelming number of member states, but to no avail. That planning tool by which the 65 members try to prioritise and provide order for each year’s work has either fallen foul of the consensus rule or been immediately undermined after adoption.
In the face of these frustrations, there has been speculation on reforming the rules of procedure of the Conference particularly to facilitate decision-making. But the chances of opening up, let alone amending, these rules are negligible.  Better then to focus on how to apply them more imaginatively. Failing that, looking for other ways to do business...
There is certainly scope for reappraising the CD’s approach to formulating its annual programme of work.  There is a discernible pattern to the last nine of the twelve proposals just mentioned.  All ambitiously seek to set up at least three subsidiary committees or working groups of the CD as well as specifying mandates for those bodies.
The manifold layers of that approach are staggering in terms of their complexity and intensity.  They involve:
 - agreeing the precise terms for tackling more or less simultaneously four major issues affecting international security (noted below),
 - establishing three or four forums to operate concurrently for the purposes of deepening discussion on each of the four issues to the point of negotiating binding agreements on one or more of them,
 - programming the means of dealing with all four issues in a single document, and
 - requiring that the decision to undertake such complex and demanding streams of work as set out in that document be taken without a single, formal objection.
Is it any wonder that the CD remains rooted to the spot? One country blocking, say, the mandate on nuclear disarmament, ensures that no progress is made on any of the other three core issues – i.e., a ban on fissile material, preventing an arms race in outer space or securing legally binding security assurances. Paralysis is total.  Worse, it is self-inflicted.
Would it make a difference if the treatment of these issues in the work programme were to be de-linked?  That is, if the CD returned to its practice of developing separate mandates for each issue, might it be possible to make progress on at least one of them?
We know from recent decisions that no progress is currently possible on banning the production of fissile material. But, what if the CD isolated the remaining three issues and took decisions on each of them one by one?  Unfortunately, it is known also that at least one member state is opposed to progress on each of the remaining issues, although in the absence of individual decisions on mandates taken one-by-one, this state of affairs has not been formally tested in recent years.
This suggests that whether the mandates are linked or separated the result would be the same: the CD would remain in deadlock.  If this were so, the main options are to:
 - adjourn the work of the Conference, convening it only when circumstances require (e.g., for a periodic gauging of new prospects for progress),
 - take up discussions of a lesser issue or an emerging one, or
 - try a new approach to developing a programme of work – a “low-key”, groundwork approach unencumbered by substantive mandates.
The low-key option would be predicated on recognition that the mandates for the four issues covered by the recent series of work programmes are too ambitious, individually and collectively.  Instead, the focus would be less on the end product of the CD’s work on a given subject and more on the groundwork and confidence-building steps needed to underpin concrete progress. Attention would be placed on identifying and laying the foundations for such progress – defining key terms, filling gaps in knowledge on technical and scientific capacity for verification or other mechanisms, forming groups of experts, etc.
These confidence-building discussions would be scheduled on a rolling basis, initially allocating equal time to each of the four core issues.  When interest in an issue began to wane, the time originally allocated to it could be respread across the other issues. The absence of sustained, lively engagement in an issue would be as telling as the reverse.  But if none of the issues was able to secure sustained, intensifying commitment, then that would tell an even more serious story - the future of the CD, or at least the future of dealing with these issues in the Conference, would be confirmed to be in real doubt.  
At that point, the integrity of the CD would best be served by conceding defeat for the meantime and adjourning it sine die.  Taking up a lesser issue would smack of desperation. Agreeing to deal with an emerging issue would require consensus, a hurdle at which the Conference on Disarmament so often baulks.  Having already failed last week to adopt its work programme for 2013, the CD could do worse than experiment with a new approach to agreeing its annual plan of work.

Tim Caughley, Resident Senior Fellow, UNIDIR

(with acknowledgement to ClipArt for the symbol for meeting points)