Established in 1979 as the main multilateral disarmament negotiating forum for the international community, the Conference on Disarmament (CD) this week held a debate on its future status. Since the CD concluded the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996, it has not been able to resume serious substantial work on any issue. Those states wanting progress on nuclear disarmament and those wanting to negotiate on fissile material have not been able to agree on what to do, let alone how to do it.
Held in the CD’s grand, gold-painted room at the United Nations (UN) Palais des Nations in Geneva, the session started off with a “factual presentation” prepared by the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) on the agenda topic of revitalizing the work of the Conference on Disarmament and taking forward multilateral disarmament negotiations.
According to the statement, “The budget of the CD is included in the regular UN budget. The CD meets on UN premises [and] is serviced by UN personnel.” As WILPF notes, the CD is independent of the United Nations, but its secretary is appointed by the UN Secretary-General; it is required to consider recommendations from the UN General Assembly (UNGA); and it submits reports to the UNGA.
The UN is keen to distance itself from any blame for the CD’s paralysis and the statement lists a series of recent UN-led initiatives to try and jump-start the CD, including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s high-level meeting in New York (24 September 2010), a follow-up high-level meeting (27 July 2011), a statement from the CD Secretary-General (14 February 2012), conflicting advice from the UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters, and UNGA Resolution A 66/66 adopted without dissent urging the CD to adopt and implement an agenda.
Over the years UN staff, especially UNIDIR senior fellow Tim Caughley, a former New Zealand disarmament representative, have attempted to explain the challenges posed by the UN’s “broken disarmament machinery” through a number of initiatives, including the outstanding Disarmament Insight blog. The Reaching Critical Will project of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom has been reporting on the CD’s paralysis for years, providing a meticulous chronicle of depressing inaction and failed initiatives.
Many like to blame “lack of political will” to change the “consensus” rules of procedure, which have been abused to the point that a single country, usually Pakistan, can block action. Others describe the problem as the “exclusive” nature of the CD, which has just 65 member states, leaving more than 125 nations outside of the deliberations. Too much formality has been identified as a problem, with proposals for “informal brainstorming sessions” under Chatham House rules to encourage interaction.
Lack of transparency and no NGO access used to be the problem, but now NGOs can sit in the gallery and report on the empty proceedings and a new trend has emerged as frustrated disarmament diplomats take to Twitter to express their views. Those real-time Tweets vividly show the “erosion of trust and confidence” that has led government to find solutions elsewhere, outside of the CD.
While 1996 marked the beginning of the CD’s rapid demise, it also saw the launch of the Ottawa Process to ban antipersonnel landmines, which resulted just 14 months later in 122 governments signing the Mine Ban Treaty. That initiative came about at the same time as the United States sought unsuccessfully to negotiate a ban on the transfer of antipersonnel mines via the CD.
Going “outside” the CD is a threat that more and more states are openly talking about. Predictably states that have avoided participating in external processes such as Ottawa (landmines) and Oslo (cluster munitions) oppose such talk, but fail to offer alternate proposals or to compromise when it comes to getting on with the job at hand.
This blog seeks to explain the emerging humanitarian disarmament agenda, which is moving forward in leaps and bounds outside the auspices of the CD. Yet in order to know where we’re going, we need to know where we’re coming from. Multilateral disarmament diplomacy has undergone a transformation over the past decade as the vast majority of countries embrace disarmament initiatives based on humanitarian rationale aimed at protecting civilians. Yet a powerful minority of mainly military powers are still holding the purse strings when it comes to the CD.
It’s time to ask some hard questions about the CD and not only how to get it working again, but do we even need it?
* In 1998, the CD agreed to a fissile material cut-off negotiating mandate and established a working group with the mandate to negotiate such a treaty in 2009, but the working group was unable to commence negotiations.