Disarmament Insight


Friday, 7 April 2017

Understanding Nuclear Weapon Risks

UNIDIR has just published this collection of papers by experts on the nature and causes of nuclear risk. The same experts will be panellists in a risk symposium that will take place at the Palais des Nations on 10 April (see our previous blog).

UNIDIR's Director, Mr Jarmo Sareva, notes in the Foreword to the publication that irrespective of differences in how States perceive nuclear weapons, it is apparent that a closer understanding of the components of risk surrounding the safety and security of nuclear weapons is warranted—with a view to reducing the probability of nuclear detonation events.

Given the enormous lethality of nuclear arms and their potential for global disruption, all States share an interest in prevention, something the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross noted at the 32nd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in December 2015.

In 2017, a facts-based discourse that engages the broader international community on reducing nuclear risks has never been more important. This publication and a symposium presenting its findings to multilateral policy practitioners on 10 April are intended to contribute to such dialogue.

Tim Caughley
Resident Senior Fellow, UNIDIR  

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Nuclear Weapon Risk Symposium


Risks surrounding nuclear armaments—a concern of many UN General Assembly Resolutions over the years—have come under closer scrutiny lately. This can be attributed to increased attention to accidents and near misses involving nuclear weapons and new evidence of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear detonations. The risk profile of the use and possession of nuclear weapons has also been influenced by heightened global instability.

Gauging the level of risk from these and other causes has been the focus of a UNIDIR project that will culminate in a public symposium at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland on Monday 10 April. Keynote addresses from Dr William Perry (former US Secretary for Defense) and Mr Yves Daccord (Director-General of the ICRC) will be followed by discussions involving a range of experts on nuclear risk.

The experts include
Mark Fitzpatrick (Risk and Nuclear Deterrence), with Marc Barnett
Hans M. Kristensen (The Quest For More Useable Nuclear Weapons)
Christine Parthemore (The Unique Risks of Nuclear-Armed Cruise Missiles)
Pavel Podvig (Risks of Nuclear Command and Control Accidents)
Patricia Lewis (Cyber Threats and Nuclear Weapons Systems), with Beyza Unal
Reza Lahidji (The Safety of Nuclear Weapons and Materials: Lessons from the Assessment of Nuclear Power Plant Risks)
Elena K. Sokova (Non-State Actors and Nuclear Weapons)

These experts have already contributed to a UNIDIR publication which, with an introduction and conclusions written by UNIDIR, is being published on www.unidir.org .

The objectives of this project have been two-fold:
1. to shed more light on the nature and cause of nuclear risk, and
2. to extend the conversation on risk as a vehicle for seeking common ground between nuclear-armed and non-nuclear-armed states. Given the magnitude and destructiveness of a nuclear detonation, all states have an interest in managing and reducing risks associated with nuclear armaments for as long as they continue to exist. In addition, there is value in cooperating in areas where risks have yet to fully reveal themselves—cyber, new technologies, increasing automation, etc. Creating a culture of transparency and exchange would serve as means towards more targeted actions in risk reduction while sidestepping current disagreements over the best means of advancing nuclear disarmament.

Tim Caughley
Resident Senior Fellow, UNIDIR

Friday, 27 January 2017

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose?

In an earlier posting on this site, I suggested that the Conference on Disarmament move away from the complicated, multi-mandate annual programmes of work of the past 20 years. It was proposed that in order to get the CD going again, its focus should be substantially narrowed ideally to a single issue. And, the work programme should, as in the distant past, be no more than a schedule of activities for the year.
The current President of the Conference (Ambassador Vierita of Romania) appears to have a similar idea. His ‘initiative’ is to call for the setting up of a working group of the CD with the sole task of taking stock of the progress on all agenda items and possible new areas in order to identify the way ahead. He has invited support from CD members for this approach.
The objective of such a subsidiary body could equally be discharged by the plenary itself, the default mode ordained by article 19 of the CD’s rules of procedure. The President may feel, however, that the exercise of taking stock of progress is more efficiently conducted in the more informal atmosphere of a working group.—The necessary rebuilding of trust and confidence among members after years of bitter disputes over its priorities may be facilitated in such a group. And the initiative sensibly envisages that the chair of the group would be elected for the full session of the Conference rather than rotate monthly like the presidency.
The initiative is not described as a programme of work or a schedule of activities (as will be required under rule 28), although it envisages that the chair of the group would establish a timetable for 2017. Nor is it clear whether members of the public would be able to observe its sessions as they are entitled to do in the case of formal meetings of the CD. These are important details that the President will no doubt wish to clarify over the next week or so during which feedback from member states can be expected.
If the intention of the new proposal is to move away from the unsuccessful multi-mandated approach of the past two decades, it should be taken seriously. Its simplicity is to be welcomed, although in my view its additional idea of also setting up “Informal Thematic Working Groups” adds unnecessary complexity.—Such bodies may indeed prove useful but they can readily be established if and when a demonstrable need emerges and a climate of trust and confidence has been engendered.
At the least, this single-mandate focus could serve as an overdue test of whether members of the CD are serious about overcoming their longstanding deadlock. Passing this test will depend on whether the Conference is not only able to break old habits but also on whether it ensures that such a working group is not just business-as-usual under another procedural guise. In other words, if they pursue the President’s initiative, can members successfully debunk the saying that the more things change, the more they stay the same?

Tim Caughley
Resident Senior Fellow, UNIDIR

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

CD Back to Basics

As the 2017 session of the Conference on Disarmament (CD) is about to begin (on 23 January), here are 10 points which newcomers to the CD and others might wish to ponder:
1 The agenda of the CD covers some of the world’s most important security issues—nuclear disarmament; prohibiting the production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons; preventing an arms race in outer space; agreeing on legally-effective means to assure non-nuclear-weapon states that nuclear weapons will not be used against them. These matters are also known as the four core issues of the CD.
2 The CD has made no concrete progress in dealing with these issues (or anything else) since 1996 when the negotiations on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) were concluded.
3 The CD was established by the UN General Assembly as a negotiating body, not a deliberative (or ‘talk-shop’) forum. It has failed to fulfil its mandate for over 20 years. Its role as a standing body of the international disarmament community has thus atrophied. Disarmament negotiations have found new or alternative negotiating vehicles and institutions—UN General Assembly (Arms Trade Treaty; treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons) and treaty bodies (Anti-Personnel Landmines Convention; Cluster Munitions Convention).
4 In terms of the CD’s failings, the Conference is not under-resourced. It has a budget for 30 hours every week of fully serviced meetings with simultaneous interpretation into the 6 UN languages for 24 weeks a year.
5 And the Conference has ‘workable’ rules of procedures (RoP) that, although somewhat idiosyncratic, have adequately met the needs of the CD (and its predecessors) during successful negotiations of the past (for example, the NPT, ENMOD, Seabed Treaty, BTWC, CWC and the CTBT.)
6 The RoP are workable if the 65 states that are members of the Conference want to get down to work. There are, however, some constraints. As all CD decisions must be taken by consensus, the formal opposition of just one state can block a decision. And every year, work only begins if no state prevents agreement on the proposed schedule of activities for the annual session (the so-called ‘programme of work’). The more complicated the programme of work, the greater the likelihood that one or more states will oppose it. With three very short-lived exceptions (in 1998 (twice) and 2009), no programme of work has secured consensus since the decision in August 1993 on the mandate for the CTBT negotiations (CD/1212).
7 The draft work programmes that have failed to achieve agreement or implementation for two decades now have been unnecessarily complicated.  Rather than follow earlier CD practice of simply setting out a schedule of activities for the year ahead, for 20 years the programmes have also incorporated mandates for negotiating or otherwise dealing with all four of the core issues, to zero effect. Such mandates are indispensible, but there is nothing in the rules of procedure that requires them to be set out in the annual work programme.
8 This unfortunate current practice is not just complicated. It has the effect of holding work on any one of the four mandates hostage to each of the other three. A state that blocks consensus on the programme of work because of its opposition to one of the four mandates, prevents work taking place not only on any of the mandates but on the annual schedule of activities embodying the mandates.
9 This extraordinary state of affairs is not an accident. Some members regard it as a symptom of the tense global security environment, which is inhibiting progress on these kinds of issues. If this is so, then the CD should operate merely on an as-needs basis, re-convening only when there is a demonstrable new and promising development. Other states, however, believe that the Conference depends for its existence on being able to make a difference in times of global tension, the more so in the light of the relevance of the four core issues on its agenda. In relation to nuclear disarmament, for example, the words of the previous UN Secretary-General come to mind: “Some may claim that security conditions today are not ripe for the pursuit of further nuclear disarmament. I say this view has it completely backwards. The pursuit of arms control and disarmament is precisely how we can break the tension and reduce conflicts.” 
10 After 20 years of empty returns on its annual investment of 24 weeks, the CD’s integrity is dependent on it finally acknowledging either that its impasse is—and is likely to remain—chronic,  or that a new beginning is required. If the 2017 session is to arrest the CD’s decline, it should aim for a straightforward, business-like programme of work simply setting out a schedule of activities for the year. That schedule should foreshadow immediate negotiations on an individual core issue (or issues), or an emerging issue, to get the Conference going again. In short, rebuilding confidence and credibility from a less convoluted platform will require going back to the basics of the CD’s heyday. Otherwise, the sense that the Conference has become anachronistic - powerless to make a difference in addressing today’s international security challenges, may intensify.

Tim Caughley
Resident Senior Fellow