UN Disarmament Commission Concludes Without Consensus Recommendations: Moving Towards Final Year in Review Cycle

19 Apr

The UN Disarmament Commission (UNDC) concluded the second year in its three-year cycle on Friday, 19 April without adoption of consensus recommendations or guidelines. Much of the discourse during the concluding plenary had a positive tone with delegations noting that the work done in the 2013 substantive session will “set the stage” for progress next year, and in his concluding remarks, Chair Ambassador Christopher Grima of Malta called the three-week session “productive” and rich in discussion. Still, it is discouraging that the session could not come to more concrete conclusions.

The 2013 UNDC adopted a procedural report took account of the session’s organization of work, documents submitted by the Secretary-General (the annual report of the Conference on Disarmament) as well as by member states (a working paper from the delegation of Egypt), as well as the reports of the two subsidiary working groups. The delegations of Iran and Algeria underscored that converting the status of the Chairman’s non-papers to a working paper does not set a precedent for future sessions nor does it enjoy consensus. Indeed, both reports of the subsidiary working groups clearly noted that all working papers “do not represent negotiated positions or command consensus and should not set a precedent.”

The culture of stalemate across the UN disarmament machinery cannot afford any further delays.  While the progress made in both working groups of this session on the development of working papers is clear insofar as there is some substantive work upon which to build, it is discouraging that the international community must endure yet another delay of concrete movement forward in any part of the failing multilateral disarmament machinery. As noted by High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane in her opening remarks three weeks ago, the UNDC will be judged not according to its words, but its quality of its outcomes.  Once again, without adoption of recommendation of guidelines, there is little on which to positively assess the UNDC beyond yet another year of national statements and non-consensual working papers.

In the 20 years since its re-establishment in 1979, the UNDC was able to reach consensus a total of sixteen times to adopt guidelines or recommendations on a wide variety of disarmament issues. However, most strikingly, all of these consensus outcomes came before 1999 illustrating that any momentum generated in the UNDC has been elusive at best over the last fourteen sessions. Some combination of lack of political will and immoveable working methods surely accounts for the paralysis that continues to plague the UNDC, a paralysis also apparent in the inability of the Conference on Disarmament to adopt a program of work for more than fifteen years. While a fourth Special Session on Disarmament (SSOD IV) could dissolve and re-establish the UNDC to revamp its working methods, mandate, or perhaps both, the short-term provides only the opportunity to make one last stitch effort at consensus at next year’s 2014 substantive session building on the progress made in the working group papers presented by this year’s Chairpersons.

In addition to the substantive discussions in the two working groups, discussions of working methods arose. As noted by several delegations during the general exchange of views at the opening of this year’s session, the lack of willingness to adapt working methods to better address the lingering stalemate as well as the UNDC’s inability to reach consensus recommendations are worrisome trends. The proposals from the Swiss delegation to revitalize the UNDC’s working methods (limiting the agenda to one item, opening deliberations to experts, and submitting an annual report to the UN General Assembly regardless of the session’s outcome) must be more seriously considered if the UNDC is to move away from the road to irrelevance on which it is headed. Ambassador Grima agreed that the working methods would need to be reviewed for both how it conducts deliberations and how even limited success can be better reported after each session. Moreover, Ambassador Grima said that the application of consensus in the UNDC should be reflected upon.

Working Group I:  Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation

The agenda item on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, an item that is mandated to be addressed at every session of the UNDC, once again saw divergence of views. Working Group I (WGI), chaired by the Ambassador Naif bin Bandar Al-Sudairy of Saudi Arabia, adopted a report outlining its procedures over the last three weeks.  Other documents presented to WGI included a working paper submitted by the US entitled “Preventing the use of nuclear weapons” (WP1), and two working papers submitted by the Chairman entitled “Recommendations for achieving the objective of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons” (WP2), and “General guiding elements for achieving nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation” (WP3), respectively.  Also discussed in WGI was a compendium text of comments on the working papers of the Chairman (CRP2). CRP2 is a compilation of proposals made by member states during the consultations. It is clearly noted in the report that the working papers “could form a basis for further deliberations for the formulation of consensus recommendations at the conclusion of the Commission’s three-year examination of agenda item 4 at its substantive session in 2014.”

WP2 outlines so-called “recommendations” for achieving nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation and recalls several current initiatives to take forward multilateral negotiations, including the open-ended working group (OEWG) in Geneva, the group of governmental experts (GGE) that will make recommendations on possible aspects of a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT), and the upcoming September 2013 High-level meeting of the UNGA on nuclear disarmament. Also taken up in this document is the issue of the Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (WMDFZ), for which a 2012 conference was not convened as mandated by the 2010 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference outcome document. The DC document calls for such a conference to be convened “without further delay as soon as possible.” WP3 on “guiding elements” reconfirms the mutually reinforcing relationship between nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation and the importance of multilateralism in achieving nuclear disarmament. This document also “expresses grave concern about the current status of the disarmament machinery, including the lack of substantive progress in the Conference on Disarmament for more than a decade.”

The working paper presented by the US is a disappointing review of the US’ nuclear weapons policy underscoring the importance of a “future, step-by-step” approach to disarmament. The paper calls this approach “the only practical path” towards complete nuclear disarmament as there is “no quick fix.” The paper goes on to highlight the US and Russian new START commitments as well as the proliferation risks associated with the DPRK, Iran, and Syria, but does little on elaborating how disarmament obligations will be met in a serious and timely manner. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and a FMCT are identified as “essential multilateral steps for nuclear disarmament,” both of which do little to further disarmament but instead have a distinct non-proliferation focus. Lastly, the US paper underscores the Nuclear Security Summit process as well as the Permanent 5 (P5) process as contributors to “strengthening global architecture that governs nuclear security” and “breaking new ground” on engaging new issues related to disarmament, non-proliferation, transparency, and confidence-building measures. However, it is still unclear what precisely a “step-by-step” approach would entail or what “new ground” is being broken. Such P5 declarations are often clouded in vague reiterations of previously accepted NPT commitments and the modernization programs currently being undertaken in all the nuclear weapon states further undermines the international community’s pursuit of the goal of nuclear abolition.

The working paper provided by the delegation of Egypt (WP1) considered by the committee as a whole noted that the League of Arab States is concerned about the issue of the Middle East and “expects a conclusion highlighting ways to ensure the implementation of the 2010 Review Conference commitments and to convene a conference on the establishment of a zone free of nuclear weapons” in 2013. The fact that the Middle East conference was not convened during the 2012 calendar year will continue to be an issue of contention in all fora of the disarmament machinery as well as the upcoming NPT preparatory committee session in Geneva this coming week.

Working Group II: Confidence-Building Measures in the Field of Conventional Weapons   

Working Group II (WGII), devoted to confidence-building measures (CBMs) in the field of conventional arms, also adopted a procedural report and considered a working paper presented by Ireland on behalf of the European Union entitled “Practical confidence-building measures in the field of conventional weapons.” The Chairman, Mr. Knut Langeland of Norway, presented a non-paper that included principles as well as practical CBMs such as transparency and information exchange measures (the UN Register on Conventional Arms, the UN Report on Military Expenditure, the Programme of Action on small arms (UNPoA), and the International Tracing Instrument (ITI)), observation and verification measures, military constraint measures, and cooperation and assistance. The previously mentioned working paper from the delegation of Egypt also addressed the issue of CBMs in conventional weapons measures noting that any CBM process must address overproduction, increased levels of stockpiling and mutual accountability, as well as principles in the UN Charter such as references to crimes of aggression and foreign occupation.

The WGII Chairman’s non-paper, drafted under Mr. Langeland’s own responsibility, also references existing instruments in the field of conventional arms, such as the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), the Anti-Personnel Mines Treaty, the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), as well as the recently adopted Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). The paper “encourages” member states to “consider signing and ratifying” the ATT after it open for signature on 3 June 2013. The working paper contains brackets and bold text that highlight the various proposals made during the working group’s consultations. Mr. Langeland noted that hopefully some parts of the non-paper illustrated areas for possible consensus and a basis for work next year.

Last chance in 2014

In an environment of low-yielding (if non-yielding) multilateral disarmament machinery, there is a growing intolerance for delay in any part of its operations. With another year of the UNDC passing without adoption of recommendations or conclusions, it is quite clear that it has not been fulfilling its role as the deliberative body of the machinery providing consensus recommendations and guidelines for consideration in the General Assembly First Committee.

The general sense of the session this year has been that its deliberations will provide “a good basis” for the formulation and adoption of consensus recommendations and guidelines next year in 2014. However, according to this line of argument, the last fourteen sessions of the UNDC have formed a “basis” for adoption of consensus recommendations or guidelines. Delaying yet another year does nothing to address the stalemate in the disarmament machinery, but does increase the stakes for next year’s session. The pressure is most certainly on to finally adopt consensus recommendations and end a fifteen-year UNDC drought.

 

–Katherine Prizeman

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