Disarmament Insight


Thursday, 27 August 2015

“Comprehensive and Balanced”: Sink or Swim

The report (CD/2033) of the chair of the Conference of Disarmament’s informal working group on the vexed question of the CD’s programme of work is commendably concise. Perhaps too concise. One of its conclusions appears to run together a number of separate issues.

The text in question says this: “The focus on the core agenda items should remain as a priority in order to find a consensus formula for a comprehensive and balanced programme of work” (paragraph 6 (a)). Let’s break this down in terms of the CD’s rules of procedure:
- The four core issues will require—if negotiations on each of them are to be undertaken—negotiating mandates individually or collectively.
- But there is no requirement that those mandates be incorporated in the programme of work.
- Nor is there any requirement that the programme of work be “comprehensive and balanced”.  This is simply code for linking all four negotiating mandates together so that none is agreed until all are agreed (in the time-honoured way of multilateral diplomacy).

The Conference is making things very hard for itself in the following ways:
 Its programme of work need be no more than a schedule of activities.
- The negotiation of mandates can simply be listed as an item on that schedule, with an appropriate allocation of time.
- Lumping together the four core issues (dealing with nuclear disarmament, a fissile material ban, preventing an arms race in outer space, and multilaterally agreed negative security assurances) constitutes a hugely indigestible feast of work.  Even if negotiating mandates on those topics can be agreed, imagine the difficulty of finding consensus on the sequence in which they should be negotiated.  Negotiating them more or less simultaneously would be beyond the means of all but the largest delegations.

A short look at the history of the CD (repeated from earlier posts on this site) puts this mis-application of the rules of procedure in context:
The Rules of Procedure, as well as CD/1036 (a decision on the “Improved and Effective Functioning” of the Conference adopted on 21 August 1990), envisage a streamlined approach whereby the programme of work would be no more than a mere schedule of business rather than an overarching mandate or mandates for beginning to elaborate a treaty or a politically binding text on one or more of the core issues.

Decision CD/1036 led to the current rule on the work programme, rule 28, with its emphasis on establishing rather than adopting. This is not a matter of semantics. It means that having established through his or her consultations that no reasonable objection exists to the schedule of business (i.e., work programme) for the year, the Conference president would get work underway without a formal decision. In theory, the work programme, shorn of mandates, would be so simple as not to require a formal, consensus decision of the Conference.  It would be wiser, however, to establish formally by a decision of the CD that there was no objection to this course of action (i.e., consensus).

Returning to successful approaches prior to 1999 would involve the following:

1. In the opening days of the annual session, there would be an allocation of time to be spent on each of the 4 core issues and other substantive agenda items.  That schedule or timetable would also allocate space for the annual high-level segment and for agreeing the CD’s report to the UN General Assembly.  In addition, it would reserve time for discussion of the outcomes of its work especially on mandates.

2. In the course of its work on the core issues, the central matter for CD members to resolve would be: under rule 23 of the Rules of Procedure, is there a need to establish a subsidiary body in which engagement would be intensified? That is, does a basis exist for the negotiation of “a draft treaty or other draft texts”?  Note that a subsidiary body is generally regarded as being more appropriate for facilitating intense engagement than the comparatively stilted, formal option of conducting work in plenary, although under the Rules, plenary meetings are the default option.

3. As, when and if the questions arising under rule 23 are answered in the affirmative, members would immediately apportion time from the reserved allocation (see 1. above) for the negotiation of the necessary mandate(s).

4. Agreement on the negotiated mandates would require consensus. For so long as Members insist on linkages among the four core issues, agreement on mandates is most unlikely to be achieved individually.  The timetable would need to be flexible enough to deal with the reality that a package deal would thus need to be developed.

The key difference from the present situation is that work on the mandates would be taking place under an agreed, streamlined work programme within the rules constituting a schedule of activities shorn of negotiating mandates. With the work progamme blockage removed, the beginnings of a basis of trust might be regenerated. The focus would turn to determining whether a basis exists for developing a negotiating mandate, issue by issue, and hence for setting up subsidiary bodies and tackling issues of substance rather than procedure. The CD’s sense of purpose as a negotiating body would be restored.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the weight of a linked set of negotiating mandates will ultimately sink the Conference. There is a way, however, if there’s a will…

Tim Caughley
Resident Senior Fellow