Debating Political Will and Working Methods in the Disarmament Commission

5 Apr

The General Debate in the 2012 session of the Disarmament Commission has been quite scattered as some delegations have used the plenary to lay out detailed positions on all issues related to disarmament and non-proliferation, some to lament the widespread stalemate across the multilateral disarmament fora, and others to propose recommendations for improving the functioning of the Disarmament Commission (UNDC) itself. While there can be some merit to discussing national positions on disarmament-related issues in a broad context such that national priorities can be understood as part of a conglomerate of concerns, there is little value added in reiterating general support for existing treaties, frameworks, and broad principles of disarmament and non-proliferation. This is most especially true in a forum, the UNDC, which is mandated to deliberate on particular issues, formulate recommendations, and submit them to the General Assembly for further action. A reiteration of existing national positions does little to advance this agenda and while the problem of paralysis is not exclusive to the UNDC, but rather characterizes the Conference on Disarmament (CD) as well, member states must use the next three weeks of substantive discussion to address the issue at hand—the UNDC’s failure to deliver recommendations for the last twelve years. The UNDC must take seriously its mandate to deliberate on specific agenda items to formulate recommendations to be submitted to the GA and, indirectly, to the CD for the purposes of negotiation. In order to do so, all obstacles to achieving consensus must be honestly reviewed.

Delegations have been split over the nature of these obstacles, ultimately whether they are of a political or institutional nature. The Swedish delegation reiterated support for time dedicated to a discussion on how the UNDC goes about its work as well as how its work relates to the role envisaged for the UNDC within the multilateral disarmament machinery. The Kazakh delegation suggested the Chair prepare a short note outlining the previous resolutions from the GA and other fora that “spell out how the working methods of the UNDC can be strengthened” identifying recommendations that have been previously set forth on this topic. Other delegations have disagreed with the assertion that working methods have been the cause of the UNDC’s failure. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) has made clear on many occasions that the stalemate is due to the lack of political will. The NAM states have called for the work of the UNDC to “be intensified through reinvigorated political will.” The Egyptian delegation stated categorically that the problems of the UNDC are not related to its working methods. Similarly, the Pakistani delegation has stated that the lack of progress is rooted in the lack of political will and “double standards.” Even the Chair has weighed in on this argument in his letter to delegations prior to the start of the session stating that the ‘lack of political will’ case is not valid in a deliberative body.

The issues contributing to the UNDC paralysis are not so simple as to categorically blame either political will or working methods exclusively. As the Norwegian delegate stated during the open debate, perhaps the deadlock is due in part to political will, but delegations must make more imperative use of the UNDC to identify ways to overcome the stalemate in any case. Likewise, the Swiss delegate noted that there are several issues that have contributed to the deadlock. Mr. Bavaud stated, while political will has been significantly lacking and in places where it has existed has not been acted upon, much of the lack of progress has been of an institutional nature. Moreover, the Swiss delegation rightly noted that restrictive approaches to working methods, such as not allowing the input of outside experts into the Commission, are no longer acceptable when national security concerns cannot be delinked from global peace and security challenges.

Member states have put forth specific recommendations for improving the functioning of the UNDC. Poland’s delegation has issued a working paper on the topic calling for a Chairman’s summary or joint statement to be issued on all agenda items on which member states cannot reach consensus, and no recommendation can be formulated, as to reflect the views and positions of delegations and to prevent the loss of exchange of views altogether. The stalemate of recent years has prevented the transmission of information to the General Assembly rendering the UNDC’s work utterly useless. Furthermore, the delegations of Poland, Japan, and Switzerland have also suggested opening up UNDC proceedings to exchanges with representatives from academia and civil society.  Poland, in its working paper, also noted the issue of organizational matters encouraging the early election of not only the Chairperson, but also the Chairpersons of the subsidiary working groups and Vice-Chairpersons.

As noted by a handful of delegations, it would be wise to also examine the formulation of agenda items. Inclusion of broad, generic items related to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation has not proven effective.  The Brazilian delegation called the debate during the last cycle of the UNDC “excessively general and ambitious, making it more difficult to have concrete results.” The Swiss delegation agreed that it would be helpful to focus on more specific, circumscribed items, such as negative security assurances, nuclear weapon free zones, or verification mechanisms for conventional arms.

The international community has a joint responsibility to find more constructive ways to work and to explore all the possible impediments to success. The argument over the two obstacles to the UNDC’s success is not an either/or debate. Movement forward in the UNDC will require both the political will necessary to accept compromise for the sake of multilateral agreement and a re-examination of working methods that have not yielded concrete results in more than ten years.


–Katherine Prizeman

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