Disarmament Insight


Thursday, 22 August 2013

CD: Face-to-Face

Fifteen years have elapsed since the Conference on Disarmament last engaged in substantive work.  Briefly in August 1998 the CD tried to fulfil a newly agreed mandate to negotiate a ban on the production of fissile material.  Those efforts lasted three weeks.  Since then, negotiations on that issue have never risen beyond a procedural level.  The same is true for the other core agenda items – nuclear disarmament, preventing an arms race in outer space and negative security assurances.
During these barren years, no less than 90 presidents of the conference have grappled with the task of developing a programme of work for dealing with these four topics in a manner that is tolerable to the CD’s membership.  As required by the CD’s rules, the responsibility for chairing the 24-week annual session of the conference changes no less than six times each year. 
Sharing the presidency in alphabetical order of member states may be democratic, but it takes a toll on continuity.  And during this past decade and a half it has also proved a very lonely task.  In the absence of consensus on mandates for getting down to serious work, it has fallen to successive presidents to conduct constant shuttle diplomacy among individual delegations to find a breakthrough.  While those consultations take place off stage, the CD is effectively at a standstill.  Disarmament experts have begun to turn their attention to opportunities offered by new forums and approaches outside the conference.
Recently, the CD took a decision to mitigate both the effects of the discontinuity of the presidency and also its loneliness.  An informal working group has been established to produce the elusive programme of work. 
The duration of the new body will not be constrained by the rapid rotation of presidents.  Even better, as the group is open to all CD members and observers, a more transparent and inclusive process for uncovering and narrowing rooted differences of view should result (although this benefit will be tempered by the apparent exclusion of civil society, again).  Successive presidents will still have a role in conducting private consultations with concerned delegations, but that will no longer be the central dynamic.
One other reflection, in passing, on the rule to confine each CD presidency to four working weeks... If the conference does eventually succeed in elaborating and agreeing a programme of work, the issue of presidential rotation will fall away.  Attention would turn instead to the chairs of the subsidiary bodies established to carry out the real work of the conference.  The chairs of those bodies will become the key actors, and on past practice they won’t – and shouldn’t – be rotated month-by-month.  At that point the CD president’s role will revert largely to a titular one. 
In the meantime, if the informal working group is to salvage the CD’s credibility, it will recognise that its creation has surmounted a current short-coming in the conference’s methods of work.  An obstacle to face-to-face efforts, delegation-to-delegation, to forge the necessary compromises on matters of real substance has been removed. The issue of presidential continuity has been dealt with, and the responsibility for settling the CD's long-standing differences has been placed where it belongs - on the membership as a whole. Let the thawing begin...

Tim Caughley, Resident Senior Fellow, UNIDIR