The Conference on Disarmament (CD) is less remembered these days for its successes than for its paralysis and failings. Key disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control agreements hammered out in the CD include the NPT, BTWC, CWC, and CTBT. But the negotiation of the last of these treaties was concluded as far back as 1996.
Since then the Conference has fallen on lean times. Its only negotiations have almost without exception concerned the question of what it should do next. Bickering over that issue remains inconclusive. Worse than that, the approach that the CD has been taking since 2000 to find a workable solution is fundamentally mistaken: the Conference is pursuing an approach that is not only inconsistent with its rules of procedure but is also perpetuating inactivity.
This is not something to which the 65 member states of the CD are blind. Many realise that this prolonged period of deadlock jeopardises what remains of the integrity of the forum. In this regard, the credibility of the CD this morning suffered a serious setback.
During its annual Women’s Day message to the Conference, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) announced that ‘it was finally time to cease [its] engagement with this body’. WILPF said it had reached this decision in part because the CD ‘operates in a vacuum … is disconnected from the outside world [and] … has lost perspective of the bigger picture of human suffering and global injustice’.
Tellingly, WILPF went on to say ‘[m]aintaining the structures that reinforce deadlock has become more important than fulfilling the objective for which [the CD] was created—negotiating disarmament treaties. We can no longer invest effort into such a body. Instead we will continue our work elsewhere. There is much work to be done’.
The CD’s virtually non-existent relationship with civil society is itself highly damaging to the fabric of the Conference. Based on recent debates in the Conference, some members may shrug off the withdrawal of WILPF’s engagement. But it is hard to deny the accuracy of the League's assertion to CD members that ‘some of you put process over progress’.
The discontinuation of its reporting on the CD by Reaching Critical Will, WILPF’s disarmament programme, will be widely missed in the disarmament community. But WILPF did the Conference a favour this morning. Not by the announcement that it was withdrawing engagement, but by telling the CD directly just how this body is seen. Let’s hope that for the sake of multilateralism it is a salutary lesson.