Monday, 4 July 2016
Conference on Disarmament (CD) has just concluded its second session. It will resume on 2 August for its final 7 weeks for 2016.
The CD remains in the grip of its 20-year paralysis. There have, however, been several twitches of life this year. Draft programmes of work tabled by the Russian Federation and the United Kingdom have in different ways challenged the Conference to rethink the manner in which it might best approach its responsibilities as a negotiating forum. (The last time the CD exercised that role was in 1996 when developing a comprehensive testban.)
By way of an additional topic to the perennial four ‘core’ issues on which the CD has long been blocked, Russia proposed negotiations on elements of a treaty for the suppression of acts of chemical terrorism. This new topic hasn’t broken the log-jam but it has caused some soul-searching as to what the Conference might usefully take up if progress on the core issues remains elusive.
The United Kingdom took a more radical approach. Rather than repeating the CD’s stubborn, two-decades-long approach of trying to set up a working group for each of the four core issues, the UK proposed that there be just one such group. Its ostensible focus would be nuclear disarmament, one of the four core issues (the others being fissile material, negative security assurances and outer space).
Single-mandate proposals like the British one are a welcome echo of the good old days of the CD (pre-1996). So too, are work programmes that are cast in part at least as a schedule of activities. In more productive days, the work programme was no more than a schedule of activities, allowing real work – the development of a negotiating mandate – to get underway at the beginning of the annual session.
Whether the CD is seeing the possible beginnings of a return to better habits of the distant past is too early to say. Russia has yet to convince all CD members that its proposal is an appropriate topic for the Conference. The UK has yet to convince all members that the proposed mandate is truly a negotiating one and not a duplication of the discussion mandate of the current UN General Assembly’s Open-ended Working Group (OEWG) on nuclear disarmament. Time will tell.
One final point concerns the vexed issue of CD v. OEWG. Given the emergence of forums such as OEWGs and GGEs dealing with issues in parallel to those on the CD’s agenda, some debate has arisen about the Conference’s true role. This comes down to recognising the difference between “single” and “sole” negotiating body?
“Sole” has come to be used as though the CD were the only legitimate multilateral disarmament negotiating forum. However, UNSSOD1’s use of the words “a single negotiating body” was intended to mean something else. What the General Assembly had in mind was that the CD would be a standing body, a single - as opposed to the sole - forum.
That is, it would be a standing institution to which key disarmament issues could be brought and negotiated by key states as needs arose (assuming the necessary consensus). It was seen as more effective and efficient to support a single establishment and maintain a single repository of knowledge and expertise than to take up disarmament issues, one by one, in an ad hoc manner. Not an exclusive forum for disarmament negotiations, but a convenient, pre-existing, readily resourced one.
That point may seem esoteric, but in any event competition breeds innovation. In the CD’s case, the signs of some re-invention may slowly be emerging, if the Russian and UK proposals are anything to go by.
Resident Senior Fellow