UN Disarmament Commission Ends: Another Year Without Consensus

23 Apr

The three-week session of the 2012 Disarmament Commission (UNDC) came to a close on Friday, 20 April marking the 13th straight year without adoption of any consensus recommendations or guidelines and continuing an alarming trend of sub-standard performance in the UN disarmament machinery. The UNDC is continuously hailed as the only deliberative body for disarmament matters as well as one that enjoys universal membership. It is meant to serve as a policy-making body insofar as member states are expected to formulate and present consensus recommendations to negotiating forums (i.e. the Conference on Disarmament) on those consensus items which should then become subject to direct negotiations and, eventually, the drafting of international legal instruments.  The UNDC is a body that is supposed to serve as an essential part of the multilateral disarmament machinery contributing to the overall goal of general and complete disarmament. The UNDC has not, however, served this function in more than a decade. The Chair, Ambassador Enrique Roman-Morey of Peru, noted in his concluding remarks that diplomats will now have to go back to their usual responsibilities with “a sense of having almost accomplished” their duty to formulate consensus recommendations, guidelines, and proposals. It is indeed frustrating and disappointing for all parties, including member states and civil society.

Chairman Ambassador Roman-Morey stated that the UNDC had achieved “the minimum necessary to consider this session of the United Nations Disarmament Commission a relative success.” The question, however, is how another three-week session of deliberations that yielded no concrete results or substantive documents can be counted as a “relative success,” particularly when the same outcome has plagued the UNDC for 13 years. The session this year should be considered a continuation of the status quo, a striking paralysis preventing concrete movement forward in disarmament matters. This paralysis is pervading many parts of the UN disarmament machinery including the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD). The stalemate in the UNDC and the CD clearly demonstrates pervasive inflexibility with the laying down of ‘red lines’ making compromise nearly impossible.

After adoption of three purely procedural reports, the Report of the Disarmament Commission on the whole and the reports of the two Working Groups (nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation [I] and confidence-building measures [CBMs] in the field of conventional weapons [II]), delegations, along with the Chair, expressed varying degrees of frustration and underscored different causes of the continued paralysis. The Chair of Working Group I, the delegate of Saudi Arabia, noted that there was no consensus on any substance or recommendations, which was due not to a lack of effort, but to a lack of time. Likewise, the delegate of Indonesia, when presenting the report from Working Group II, asserted that the lack of consensus on substantive recommendations was a function of complexity rather than energy. Ambassador Roman-Morey referred to a deep sense of mistrust that has kept parties apart and positions divided and also pointed to the “exhausting discussions” on purely procedural matters, such as symbols used for the documents, as sources of provocation that have contributed to the elusiveness consensus. The Swedish and Argentinean delegates underscored that although substantive Chair’s ‘non-papers’ were discussed, they ultimately cannot be referred to without formal adoption and, therefore, their utility is virtually lost without an official record of the discussions (Working Group I’s non-paper outlined guiding principles and recommendations for achieving nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, while Working Group II’s non-paper explored the objective, principles, and practical confidence-building measures in the field of conventional weapons). Two Working Papers on facilitating substantive discussions in the UNDC and recommendations on the function of the UNDC, from Japan and Poland respectively, were also submitted.

The extent to which political will was a source of the UNDC’s failure also came to light in concluding remarks. The Swedish delegation stated that it was not a lack of political will that caused another year without consensus. Contrastingly, Ambassador Roman-Morey had the opposite view: there is definitive political will not to pursue themes of universal disarmament. The Cuban delegation agreed that the failure was indeed a function of the lack of constructive political will that was manifest in the unwillingness of some states to disarm and renounce their nuclear weapons. More positive analysis of this year’s session came from the Japanese delegation that asserted that the DC had “laid solid groundwork.” Similarly, the Indonesian delegation, on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), reaffirmed the role of the UNDC. The Mexican delegation also sounded hopeful in stating that although the results did not meet expectations, there were enriching discussions held. The Russian Federation also agreed that there were many candid discussions illustrating that all member states are ultimately in favor of nuclear disarmament.

Ambassador Roman-Morey stated that in “matters of disarmament one must be realistic while remaining positive.” How can those that work on the UNDC remain positive and realistic after such a prolonged stalemate? It is time to make serious commitments to break the status quo, formulate alternative and realistic pathways to consensus, and implement them as quickly as possible. High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane called on the member states to “adjust their sails” as the best course for meeting new challenges. To further this, the Chair suggested reformation of the procedural arrangements of the UNDC. Three continuous weeks of meetings have not helped achieve positive results in 13 years. Thus, Ambassador Roman-Morey suggested dividing the UNDC into two parts—two weeks in the spring, and one week in the fall when the First Committee begins its work. A suggestion offered in the past has also been opening all deliberations to civil society and academic experts to further enrich debate over recommendations.

Ultimately, employing the same methods and the same attitudes towards compromise will not suffice. The UN disarmament machinery is seriously faltering in its responsibilities and needs to explore new pathways for deliberation and trust.  As noted by the Austrian delegate, the General Assembly should take more leadership for exploring options for facilitating deliberations that seek to revitalize how the UNDC does its work. Member states must also explore new avenues of engagement and trust building so that successful disarmament outcomes become the norm rather than rare breakthroughs amidst many disappointments.


–Katherine Prizeman


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