Disarmament Deadline: Powering Down a Three Year Cycle

20 Apr

In reviewing the most recent versions of the Disarmament Commission Working Papers submitted by the Chairs of both Working Group I (nuclear weapons) and II (conventional weapons), it would seem that we are getting close to some kind of agreement whereby recommendations will be forthcoming that can both bind the two Working Groups within a successful process and provide real guidance to a disarmament community badly in need of deliberative assistance.

Without disclosing the specific contents of these Working Papers (negotiations on text language are well under way), we would like to offer the following comments:

After three weeks and, in essence, three years of the current policy cycle, it is imperative that the Disarmament Commission renders a set of recommendations on its two policy objectives – nuclear disarmament and confidence building in the field of conventional weapons.   As we have noted in other contexts, the value of these recommendations lies as much in building confidence in the Disarmament Commission itself as in providing working ‘capital’ to inspire movement on some of the difficult disarmament challenges that we all face.

Confidence, of course, is largely in the eyes of the beholder, but Working Group II especially seems to have found the language to facilitate some movement in that direction, in part by keeping in mind the nature of the deliberative process – recommending next steps in areas such as stockpile management or ending the diverted arms trade rather than engaging in preemptive policy precedents that are the proper domain of other parts of the disarmament machinery.

The ‘bar’ regarding Working Group I is set higher of course, since the objective is the elimination of a potentially devastating weapons system rather than spreading confidence to address a range of weapons tasks, from marking and tracing to regulation of the global arms trade.   Still, as weapons of all kinds increase in destructive potential and find new pathways (i.e. unmanned aerial vehicles, outer space) for threat or use, an approach that is disarmament-focused (more than about mere regulation) and at the same time committed to greater trust building among states should be able to result in shared policy advice.

That task is hardly a modest one.  As noted by Working Group II, confidence building measures cover a broad range of mutually reinforcing activities of a political, military, economic, social, humanitarian and cultural nature.  This is important point, tying the work of disarmament to other core functions of the international community and reminding diplomats and others that all work on weapons includes confidence building dimensions.

Some delegations have taken their Working Group responsibilities quite seriously. Mexico for instance has offered its own recommendations for achieving nuclear disarmament, joining other proposals offered by the Non-Aligned Movement and the League of Arab States, as well as the significant input on Working Group I drafts offered by Iran, Egypt, China, Brazil, the UK, Morocco, South Africa and other states.

The essence of Mexico’s position takes account of the fact that, “in the past, weapons have been eliminated after they have been outlawed.  We believe that this is the path to achieving a world without nuclear weapons.”

While delegates seem united in affirming the need for the total elimination of nuclear weapons, Mexico’s strong commitment to a legally binding instrument towards that end is unlikely to be echoed in the final Working Group I document.  Indeed there are several other items of importance to us that are also unlikely to be included:  modernization comes to mind as does a stronger insistence on convening a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone conference with full engagement by regional states.   In addition, it would also be useful from our standpoint to reaffirm that nuclear disarmament and its conventional counterpart are best promoted through multiple lenses – humanitarian to be sure, but also legal, political and even ethical.   A combination of lenses that can reinforce commitments and inspire greater will to abide by them seems to us to be the most propitious path.

But the most important thing now is to produce a document that satisfies the basic commitment of the Disarmament Commission to the productive policy engagement by the remainder of the UN’s disarmament machinery.   While disarmament is a matter of utmost urgency, this particular deliberative body must show it can first walk before being expected to move at a more urgent pace.

Some good, sound, actionable suggestions from each Working Group that provide guidance without threatening work in other disarmament settings would be a welcome outcome of this final week of a long and winding cycle, welcome for the Commission’s future as well as for the wider world.

Dr. Robert Zuber

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