2012 Substantive Session of the Disarmament Commission: Eager for Consensus

30 Mar

The United Nations Disarmament Commission (UNDC) is hailed as the ‘sole, multilateral deliberative body’ mandated to make recommendations on two or three specific issues related to disarmament, one of which must pertain to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. At the 2011 session the US delegation referred to the UNDC as a “deliberative think tank on arms control.” The UNDC, universal in its representation, a significant characteristic to note in contrast to the Conference on Disarmament (CD) that does not include the participation of all member states, is tasked to formulate consensus-based recommendations to be delivered to the General Assembly prior to the start of the First Committee such that those recommendations will be considered and integrated as part of the Committee’s agenda of work.

Unfortunately, the UNDC has been unable to agree upon and subsequently adopt any recommendations in more than a decade’s time. The conclusion of the 2011 session, without adoption of any substantive recommendations, marked the twelfth year of no agreement on any of the agenda items– nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, a declaration of the 2010s as the next disarmament decade, and confidence-building measures around conventional weapons. After three weeks of plenary meetings and working groups, many delegations were outspoken about their discontent, disappointment, and frustration. The Mexican delegation noted that this continued failure is unacceptable when the world is “threatened by nuclear weapons and excessive accumulation of destabilizing conventional weapons” stating that the only tangible result of the UNDC has been the expenditure of resources by taxpayers.

Frustration around the multilateral disarmament fora is not unique to the UNDC. The other obvious point of contention and frustration is, of course, the CD that has fought since 1998 to agree on a programme of work. The seemingly intractable stalemate in the Geneva-based body has become an alarming concern for member states, civil society, and the Secretary-General himself who has publicly stated that the CD is “no longer living up to expectations.”  Proposals for working outside of the CD have come to bear among delegations, particularly in terms of negotiating a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT).

Nonetheless, arms control and disarmament are not without their elements of optimism. The forthcoming Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) negotiations, although wrought with its own set of complexities and challenges, represent a majority opinion that arms transfers should be regulated by a set of common international standards. There is little doubt that such a treaty should exist, although the strengthen and scope of the future treaty remain unclear. Similarly, the Programme of Action on small arms (UNPoA) is a consensus-based framework, adopted by all member states in 2000, for national, regional, and international provisions for preventing and eradicating the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons (SALWs). Implementation of the PoA has had a mixed record overall, but the review process has nonetheless had marked success and continues to seek ways of strengthening implementation, most recently with last week’s Preparatory Committee for the August Review Conference. The Prep Com was able to achieve its goals of setting an agenda of work, adopting rules of procedure, and endorsing a Chair for the Review Conference (Ambassador Ogwu of Nigeria).

The 2012 session of the UNDC will begin a new three-year cycle and will meet for three weeks in both plenary and working group sessions chaired by Ambassador Enrique Roman-Morey of Peru. Consensus on its provisional agenda remains elusive. Some delegations have expressed interest in including an agenda item that includes an “introspective look” at the Commission’s role in the broader disarmament machinery and examines its working methods. However, there is no consensus on this point as some member states contend that the obstacle to adopting recommendations is not in the working methods, but rather the political will of states. There have also been calls for more specific subjects to be vetted rather than the generic and repetitive discussions often held in the UNDC rendering it irrelevant to the wider international security discourse.

The UNDC has the unique opportunity to deliberate disarmament and arms control issues in a universal forum prior to the start of the First Committee in the fall. Recommendations offered from the UNDC could help streamline and focus the vast spread of issues that need to be covered in the First Committee (Disarmament and International Security) as well as underscore issues that are most important to member states. Moreover, as the CD has garnered much of the attention of the international community, albeit exclusively negative attention because of its current state of stalemate, the UNDC has the flexibility to arguably work with less politicization, and “fly under the radar” of sorts, while enjoying universal participation.

The UNDC must use this new cycle as a point of departure from the methods and habits of the last decade (such as generic statements of support for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament) to tackle the obstacles to consensus that have prevented the formulation of any principles, guidelines, or recommendations. In order to do so, it is important that member states address both the political will and the working methods issues. The stalemate is surely due in part to the lack of will of governments to commit to recommendations (even non-binding ones as they are). Likewise, the work of the UNDC has also been impeded by its methods insofar as member states continue to discuss the same issues in the same manner, ultimately leading to the same results year after y ear. It would be logical to explore alternative methods of work. It would be worthwhile to explore other ways of deliberating, such as inclusion of expert panels, NGO statements, or other specialized presentations that could contribute to the conversation.

Many member states identify disarmament and arms control, related to both weapons of mass destruction and conventional arms, as among the most pressing priorities on the international agenda. As such, the UNDC’s path towards irrelevance must be altered if these priorities are to be genuinely addressed in all forums available to the international community.

–Katherine Prizeman

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