UNDC 2013: Memory Lane

19 Apr

Among the proposals emerging from this year’s session of the UN Disarmament Commission (UNDC), there were two that particularly caught our eye. The Swiss proposals presented during the opening exchange of views calling for more involvement by experts in the work of the UNDC is one that Global Action to Prevent War and Armed Conflict (GAPW) has discussed in other commentary and fully supports in practice.

The other proposal that we wished to highlight was provided in a working paper by the Egyptian delegation, often among the most thoughtful delegations on disarmament matters. While their proposals specific to both substantive working groups will no doubt help to frame discussions during the third and final year III of the current UNDC cycle, the opening paragraphs of their paper (A/cn.10/2013/WP.1) are perhaps the most actionable in terms of their implications for the ongoing deliberative potential of the UNDC.

Paragraphs 1 and 2 of the Egyptian paper highlight an ongoing problem for both the UNDC and many other parts of the UN system — a lack of institutional memory.  Given the turnover in diplomatic missions and ODA staff, and given the lack of interest in or invitations to NGO experts with a deep interest in supporting the efforts of the UNDC (Reaching Critical Will and GAPW are generally the only NGO monitors in the room — when we are allowed to be there), it is difficult if not impossible to keep track of what the Egyptian working paper calls “unfinished business,” including both proposals not implemented and consensus not reached.   Aside from information and commentary posted on the Reaching Critical Will, there has been little effort to summarize key discussions, insights or proposals.   As RCW recognizes, it is difficult to “nurture” (to quote the Egyptian paper) new ideas when you can’t remember what those ideas are, let alone track their development.

Delegates with a longer term engagement with the UNDC will recognize the degree to which deliberations have followed a well-worn path. Moreover, the nature of involvement with the UNDC has changed over the years, with fewer delegations consisting of experts from Geneva and more and more of the deliberative burdens falling on already overworked diplomats from New York missions. There has been less and less energy around the UNDC in recent years, which to our mind requires some urgent remedial response. GAPW would like to endorse, consistent with the Swiss and Egyptian proposals, that the UNDC promote side events in partnership with NGO experts to more thoroughly investigate substantive and procedural matters that are germane to the mandate of the UNDC but also at times impede its progress.

It may be, as some NAM-affiliated delegations have suggested, that the UNDC will require a more robust overhaul, perhaps within the context of another Special Session on Disarmament (SSOD IV). But until that issue is resolved, the UNDC would do well to establish procedures for reporting and stakeholder engagement that can preserve institutional memory and allow interested observers in and out of government to track both UNDC progress and impediments over time.

There are, as Egypt notes, some fairly simple ideas that can enrich the experience of the UNDC for both participants and observers.  Having more sets of trusted eyes in the room for future UNDC sessions would certainly help ensure that the best of the Commission deliberations can find more suitable, trustworthy venues where they can be studied, assessed and even acted upon.


–Dr. Robert Zuber

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