Opening of the 2013 Substantive Session of the UN Disarmament Commission: Time for Progress

4 Apr

As the UN Disarmament Commission (UNDC) opens its annual substantive session, a body which enjoys universal membership and is often referred to as the UN’s “disarmament think tank,” there is much anxiety around its ability to garner a consensus outcome before the end of its three-week program of work. This is the middle session of the triennial discussion cycle, which will conclude next year in 2014. The 2013 session has adopted two agenda items for its program of work—“Recommendations for achieving nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation” and “Practical confidence-building measures in the field of conventional weapons,” respectively. Although the UNDC has previously reached consensus to adopt guidelines or recommendations on 16 occasions since its re-establishment in 1979, it has not been able to achieve such consensus since 1999 when it adopted Guidelines for Nuclear Weapon Free Zones. Thus, last year’s session marked the 13th consecutive year that the UNDC closed without adoption of any recommendations.

The UNDC, a deliberate body that is tasked to put forth guidelines, standards, and recommendations to be presented to the UN General Assembly First Committee, is the oldest component of the UN disarmament machinery and is intended to play an important role in the early stage of development of new global norms for disarmament. In theory, such deliberative and consensus recommendations have the potential to serve as the basis for future multilateral negotiations, namely negotiations in the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament. The delegation of China noted in its general debate remarks, “…the UNDC has played an important role in setting a priority agenda for multilateral disarmament negotiations.” However, this once-relevant role has been increasingly diminished and undermined with each passing year without adoption of any substantive recommendations.

This year’s session is chaired by Ambassador Christopher Grima of Malta who offered opening remarks to the UNDC underscoring that meaningful progress on the disarmament agenda is urgently needed in a time when the multilateral disarmament machinery continues to yield very little. Serious obstacles remain in the way of the entry-into-force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the 2010 NPT Action Plan is far from fully implemented, nuclear weapon system modernization programs are under way in all the nuclear weapon states, proliferation risks remain high, and the recent postponement of the conference on the establishment of a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East has injected new levels of distrust into the NPT regime. With this backdrop, Ambassador Grima noted, “…with each failed attempt to reach consensus the risk of this body becoming irrelevant draws even closer.”

Several delegations offered remarks during the general exchange of views focused on the first agenda item, nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the Community of Latin American and Caribbean states (CELAC), the Africa Group, the Arab Group, and the European Union all offered regional and cross-regional perspectives on the UNDC’s work going forward and reiterated concerns over the status of the UN disarmament machinery. The delegation of Indonesia, speaking on behalf of NAM, underscored the lack of progress by nuclear weapon states to accomplish total elimination of such weapons and also regretted the recent failure to convene the conference on the Middle East NWFZ. Likewise, the representative of Cuba spoke on behalf of CELAC and underscored the importance of addressing all three pillars of the NPT—disarmament, non-proliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. CELAC as well as the Africa Group called for convening of a high-level conference “to identify ways and means of eliminating nuclear weapons and prohibit their development, production, acquisition, testing, stockpiling, transfer, use or threat of use, and to provide for their destruction.” In addition, the Arab Group and the NAM statements also welcomed the forthcoming High-level meeting of the General Assembly on Nuclear Disarmament scheduled for 26 September 2013. Furthermore, the delegation of Iran called for adoption of a specific principle under agenda item 1 noted as follows: “There is no legal, political or security reason to justify the possession of nuclear weapons by any country and their total elimination is the only absolute guarantee against the threat posed by such weapons.”

In terms of the deadlock that has plagued the UNDC, many delegations called for greater political will to achieve consensus in this forum, including the delegations of India, Malaysia, Moldova, Pakistan, and the Republic of Korea. In contrast, other delegations offered specific proposals related to the UNDC’s working methods, many of which would be welcome contributions to making the UNDC more useful, relevant, and productive. The Swiss delegation offered recommendations for improving the Commission’s working methods including focusing each session on just one agenda item, opening the UNDC’s full deliberations to Secretariat staff members, academia, and civil society, as well as submitting a report to the General Assembly on the Commission’s exchanges regardless of whether or not consensus recommendations are reached. Other recommendations included the Egyptian proposals for developing a portal that contains all former proposals and working papers that were discussed in earlier sessions as well as convening side events to elaborate on fresh ideas and test new conclusions. The delegation of Norway noted that working methods could be examined more carefully through production of a Chair’s Summary at the conclusion of the UNDC’s session.

It is more important than ever to use this session of the UNDC as a point of departure from the “status quo,” avoiding generic statements in support of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation or commitment to existing UN instruments. Now is the time to urgently strive to break the deadlocks that seem almost endemic to most parts of the UN disarmament machinery. Indeed, a lack of political will may be, in part, causing this stalemate, but opening up the working methods to new, innovative, and more interactive exchanges is a key strategy in overcoming stalemate.

It is imperative that the UNDC fulfill its role in providing the UNGA First Committee with recommendations so that the First Committee’s work also becomes more effective. In many ways, the UN disarmament machinery is only as strong as its weakest link, but none need be weak at all. As the UNDC begins its issue-specific deliberations in the working groups, it is essential to bear in mind what High Representative Kane warned at the opening of the session—the UNDC will be judged less by words and more by the quality of its outcomes.

 

–Katherine Prizeman

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