Tuesday, 10 January 2017
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.
Resident Senior Fellow