Three aspects of the Conference on Disarmament’s longstanding paralysis are particularly mystifying.
First, despite all the agonising among the 65 CD members about the current deadlock, there has been no emergence of a group of concerned countries to explore a way though the impasse. Every month a new president alone takes on the responsibility of finding a breakthrough. Why is this such a lonely task? Have members tacitly accepted that the CD’s usefulness has come to an end? After all, 16 years have elapsed since the Conference last fulfilled its mandate as a negotiating body. If this is not the case, why is there no coordinated activity – sustained across the monthly presidencies – to shore it up?
The Secretary-General of the Conference, Mr Tokayev, recently proposed the establishment of an informal working group with a mandate to produce a Programme of Work that would lead to negotiations. This idea has struck a chord with a number of member states. It will be interesting to see whether those members actively lobby and meet among themselves - ideally as an informal cross-regional group - to pursue this promising avenue, or whether it is simply left to successive presidents to painstakingly consult on its general acceptability.
Another mysterious aspect of the CD’s malaise is this. Strong statements are made regularly by members of the Conference about the need to negotiate on the topic to which they attach priority. The trial of strength over which of the core issues is “ripest” for negotiation amounts to a direct clash of political wills. The result is that there is no agreement on anything. The consensus needed for the Programme of Work and the conduct of negotiations is altogether absent.
Why is this so strange? Well, take the case of a fissile material negotiation, or “fissban”. The principal proponents of this issue profess to being frustrated by their inability to re-launch the negotiation that began and prematurely ended in 1998 and has never been resumed. But what is stopping them from rallying their supporters and conducting a sustained debate in Plenary, focused ideally on a working paper containing a framework or elements of an eventual treaty? They don’t need a Programme of Work for such an initiative – under the Rules, working in Plenary is the CD’s default option (Rule 18).
Assuming such discussions gather momentum in Plenary and build up the necessary trust along the way, a negotiating mandate will in due course be needed to intensify the work. And time will have to be allocated to the working group in which the negotiations would be conducted. So procedural hurdles would still remain. The CD would, however, have rediscovered the will to work which is currently absent judged by the lack of initiatives of the kind just described. This should in itself have a cathartic effect. By the way, a “simplified” Programme of Work (see previous postings on this site) would be the obvious vehicle for making time available for the intensified phase of negotiations just noted (to be pursued alongside other business agreed by the Conference).
Finally, it is interesting to speculate why no state has come forward with any concrete working paper on fissile material negotiations in recent years? Draft treaties were tabled in 2006 and 2009 by the US and by Japan and the Netherlands respectively, while Brazil, Canada and Australia each made proposals in 2010. But since then, there has been nothing quite as specific apart from the working paper of Bulgaria, Germany, Mexico, Netherlands, Romania, Spain, Sweden and Turkey in June 2011. The lack of any recent proposal on fissile material - as a new focus for Plenary debate - is hardly a ringing endorsement of the CD.
Maybe, as with nuclear disarmament, attention is turning elsewhere. UNOG’s website records that, in advance of the convening in Geneva in 2014 and 2015 of a Group of Government Experts (GGE) on fissile material, 25 states and the EU have recently responded to the UN Secretary-General’s request to submit their views to him on a fissile material ban. The GGE will proceed on the specific understanding that if the CD meanwhile agrees and implements a programme of Work that includes the negotiation of a fissban, the GGE will cease and any product of its work will be passed on to the CD.
With very little time left during the current session of the CD for the tabling of concrete proposals on a fissban, let alone a Programme of Work, and in the absence of any member-driven, cross-regional initiative to caucus to overcome the sorry deadlock, these mysteries about getting work underway seem set to remain unsolved. Yet the solutions aren’t nearly as complicated as the current, discredited efforts to agree fatally-linked, multiple mandates in a single document. Persisting with the latter is the third and most worrisome mystery.
Tim Caughley, Resident Senior Fellow, UNIDIR