Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Creative Options for the CD Part 1

This posting is drawn from comments made on 15 May during a seminar organised by Indonesia and UNIDIR.

In looking at the impasse in the Conference, it is necessary first to acknowledge the complicated international security backdrop to the CD. How much does the security climate impact on the effectiveness of the Conference? How can it be measured? In practical terms, however, the UN General Assembly appears to believe that any such impacts are manageable.  Why else would it continue to agree in these times of budgetary constraint to convene the CD for 24 weeks a year, year in, year out for such a modest return?

That question is not intended to downplay the symbolic importance of the CD. The Conference was established as a multilateral negotiating forum by the General Assembly at its special session on disarmament (UNSSOD-1) in 1978 at a time when arms control and disarmament had been treated as the preserve of a dozen or so powerful military nations. The quid pro quo was the emphasis placed by the General Assembly on participation of nuclear-weapons-possessing states on the basis of consensus.

The fact is, though, that recently the General Assembly has become less unquestioning about the stalemate in the CD.  The CD itself has yet to take the hint. Its seeming lack of capacity to challenge the status quo is worrying.  Or at least it is to those members whose security is patently not well served by the status quo.

Some of these habits may be changing. The General Assembly recently agreed to various initiatives for new subsidiary organs on nuclear disarmament and fissile material, two core issues of the CD. It also decided to convene a High Level Meeting (HLM) on nuclear disarmament. These developments are not mere coincidence.

Key questions being asked by UN members states about the CD are: 

  • Why does misuse of the rule on the programme of work persist? 
  • Why is the consensus rule applied as though it were a crude right to veto?
  • Why is annual report to the General Assembly (the CD’s constituting body) more revealing for what it doesn’t say than for what can be found in the actual text itself?
  • Why is the Conference so extraordinarily conservative over its membership and the involvement of civil society?
Those who profess to be satisfied by the status quo solemnly champion the CD’s continued existence but in a curiously passive manner. There are not only few signs of self-driven change but even fewer signs of serious efforts to promote change.

Here briefly is what significant groups of states say about resolving the CD’s impasse.

* At the 2010 HLM on revitalizing the CD, the NAM – when stressing the priority attached to nuclear disarmament by UNSSOD-1 - said this: “… it is counter-productive to ascribe the lack of concrete results in the CD to its rules of procedure, as such an approach could conceal the true obstacle faced by the CD, which is lack of political will”. 
* In its most recent statement, the P5 “ … expressed their shared disappointment that the Conference on Disarmament continues to be prevented from agreeing on a comprehensive program of work, including work on a … ban on the production of fissile material … and discussed efforts to find a way forward in the Conference … including by continuing their efforts with other relevant partners to promote such negotiations within the CD.

The P5 did not spell out the extent of its efforts to find a way forward. And the NAM did not say exactly how a lack of political will could be remedied. But it is clear that any creative option for resolving the CD’s impasse must first recognize, then deal squarely with, the reality that it is the stand-off over fissile material and nuclear disarmament, the issues alluded to by the P5 and NAM respectively, that is casting the darkest cloud in the Council Chamber.

The ostensible obstacle – and manifestation of the stand-off on substance - is how to achieve agreement on a programme of work.  But the rule requiring agreement on a programme of work is only an obstacle if the CD treats it as one.  If, however, the Conference is ready to begin serious work, it will simplify its approach to the work programme, de-emphasise the inherent linkages among all four core issues and treat the programme as no more than the organizational tool that it is.  All that the rule requires in terms of content is that the programme include a schedule of activities – that is, a timetable.

The characteristic of a healthy body that wanted to get down to work would be a readiness to caucus informally to explore solutions.  Yet when did we last see groups of member states actively organizing meetings with one another to seek a break-through? 

Revitalisation of the CD requires less introspection and more action. The Conference should first recognise that a line needs to be drawn under its efforts to produce a multi-mandated work programme. These steps might then follow:
* The CD would concentrate for the rest of the current session on agreeing in principle on a schedule or timetable of activities for 2014.
* This year’s annual report to the General Assembly would incorporate that draft schedule.
* The schedule would allocate equal time for discussion to each of the four core issues with a lesser amount of time to other agenda items.
* It would be adopted along with the agenda when the CD reconvenes next January.
* For each of the four issues, the only point for discussion under the time allocated would be this: under rule 23 of the Rules of Procedure is there a need to establish a subsidiary body?  That is, does a basis exist for the negotiation of “a draft treaty or other draft texts”?
* Where those questions are answered in the affirmative, mandates for the required subsidiary body or bodies would be negotiated.
* Mandates would evolve independently of each other. They would not be aggregated in future work programmes which would be confined essentially to allocating time to subsidiary bodies for pursuing agreed mandates.

If linkages among mandates crept back into the CD’s modus operandi, the necessary spirit of compromise to keep the Conference functioning would patently be lacking.  The General Assembly would draw its own conclusions. In respect of the new OEWG on nuclear disarmament and the GGE on fissile material, perhaps it has already shown its hand.

Tim Caughley, Resident Senior Fellow, UNIDIR