Status quo is no longer an option

Beatrice Fihn | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF
13 September 2012

The Conference on Disarmament (CD) met for a final plenary meeting of the 2012 session on Thursday, 13 September. Ms. Angela Kane, the United Nations High Representative of Disarmament Affairs, delivered a statement and the CD adopted its annual report to the General Assembly (GA). Statements and comments were also made by the CD President, Netherlands, Finland, Spain, Ireland, Ecuador, Algeria, the Group of 21 (G21), Japan, Russia, Switzerland, Canada, China, Indonesia, Sweden, Iran, Australia, France, Egypt, Ethiopia, Austria, Croatia, Colombia, United States, Libya, Belarus, and Hungary.

Statement by the high representative

While commending the CD for adopting an annual report, Ms. Kane reminded everyone that “this session has once again reached an impasse” and argued that this continued deadlock will be widely viewed as a setback in the effort to advance global disarmament goals, in particular the elimination of nuclear weapons. Ms. Kane believed that overcoming the stalemate would require a lot more than institutional reforms or even finding a new venue for negotiations. She argued that only a “genuine commitment by Member States to build upon shared interests—and to recognize that cooperative multilateral diplomacy focused on establishing global norms offers far greater potential to advance national security interests than self-help alone”.

When discussing options for moving forward, Ms. Kane asserted that one of the most widely agreed standards of multilateral disarmament agreements “is that they should be universal in membership”. She argued that this is the reason the consensus rule exists, “it rests on the common-sense notion that universal norms require universal support.” She argued that instead of exploring alternatives to the CD, greater efforts should be devoted to exploring “means of establishing a political climate that can enable to the CD to commence negotiations.” She provided a few suggestions for such means, for example that the nuclear weapon states should accelerate progress in nuclear disarmament, high-level consultations in different formats, new approaches to addressing key issues, and considering new initiatives in the forthcoming 67th session of the General Assembly. She also noted other suggestions to break the stalemate, such as a simplified programme of work or reform of the CD operating mode.

Annual report to the UN General Assembly

While a consensus document, the adopted annual report does include some new and stronger language that highlights the problems facing the CD a bit more than previous annual reports. For example, it does note the concerns raised by the statement by the UN Secretary-General (UNSG) in January and the suggestions for revitalization by the Director-General (DG) of the United Nations office in Geneva, Mr. Tokayev.

However, several words and sentences emphasizing the failure of the CD to agree on a programme of work were amended or removed from the first draft on 28 August. For example, in paragraph 5, the final report added that the UNSG “reflected on the accomplishments of the Conference as the world’s single multilateral negotiating forum” before moving on to describe the more critical words from the UNSG’s statement. In addition, the words “Unfortunately, the Conference failed to reach consensus on such a programme of work” were removed in the paragraph on the proposed programme of work from Egypt. Under the section of “Improved and effective functioning of the Conference,” the comment on Mr. Tokayev’s statement from 14 February 2012 that he “outlined some concrete options focusing on procedural reform for consideration in the absence of agreement on a programme of work with a negotiating mandate” has been replaced with “outlined some concrete steps for consideration of Member States aimed at improving the functioning of the Conference”.

Comments on the report

Ireland suggested that the discussions over the report showed that maybe there was a growing feeling that the status quo is no longer acceptable, while Spain and Ecuador noted that they were not entirely satisfied with the content of the report but joined consensus on it. Japan noted that it did not reflect entirely “the troubles” that the CD faces, and Switzerland would have preferred the report to address more clearly the impasse and failure of the Conference to achieve its work. Both Canada and Colombia noted that the CD was not the end goal, but rather a tool for conducting negotiations. Australia didn’t believe the report was the factual document that the General Assembly deserved, and noted “we all know the extent and tone of the warning which the Secretary-General delivered to the Conference.” Austria said that it would continue to try to find a way towards substantive negotiations, and would continue to do so in Geneva and in New York and Russia encouraged all delegations to start thinking about the General Assembly and the way forward.

At the same time, Algeria believed it was a “balanced document” and Iran appreciated the compromises made to allow all delegations to support the report. Belarus said that while there may be a feeling of disappointment for some delegations, it was important that consensus had been reached. The Ambassador of Belarus also noted that it was important to remind the GA that the CD is vital and had to be preserved as “the only forum available” to discuss the issues. China hoped that all parties would maintain the authority of the CD, which could “not be replaced by other fora”.

As the first president of the 2013 session, Hungary stated it would take a down-to-earth, realistic approach when it took over the Presidency of the Conference next year, and planned to hold bilateral and informal consultations with as many of the Member States as possible, as well as informal consultations with regional groups, before the start of the 2013 session.

In his concluding remarks, Ambassador Hoffmann reminded delegations that the CD has been warned that it had lost it raison d’être and that it would become increasingly difficult to escape the reality of the current situation. He argued that voices were increasingly being heard questioning whether the CD deserved the resources devoted to it and that it is increasingly difficult to see how the Conference could in the near future achieve its objectives.

Notes from the gallery

With the adoption of the final report yesterday, another CD session closes without any negotiations on disarmament and definitely not any closer to agreement on a programme of work than last year. Despite some small acknowledgements in the annual report that a problem exists, the amendments made in the final version shows how far the Conference is from actually solving any procedural issues, let alone negotiating and concluding disarmament treaties.

Progress on nuclear disarmament is long over due. While most countries today subscribe to the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, such commitments must be translated to concrete action—both from nuclear possessors and non-nuclear weapon states. It is no longer acceptable to waste more time in the Council Chamber; a treaty banning nuclear weapons and the achievement of their elimination is urgently needed.

It is time to prioritize commencing negotiations that have nuclear disarmament as their objective, at any forum possible, over the continued existence of a dysfunctional conference that hasn’t delivered anything of substantial value in the last fifteen years.

The solution is not to give the CD more time or to revitalize it. It is necessary that states take responsibility for nuclear disarmament and move forward in any way possible. There are no flawless solutions; no multilateral disarmament negotiations have ever been without difficulties. But allowing the international community to remain in a deadlock is simply not an option anymore. Action must be taken now.