Conditions and Elements:  The Disarmament Commission holds its NPT Dress Rehearsal, Dr. Robert Zuber

13 Apr

There were some really hopeful discussions in the UN this week on ocean health, Education for All, and Financing for Development.  But the most hopeful image of all was surely in the Security Council where, for the first time, an Arab Woman sat as Council president.   The topic was Mali, not at this point a poster-child for Council competence.   Nevertheless, seeing Ambassador Kawar  in the president’s chair is a clear and persuasive sign that remaining gender impediments to leadership on peace and security are steadily eroding.

Downstairs from Council chambers the UN’s Disarmament Commission was concluding general debate and moving on to the (mostly closed) working groups.   After much fussing about the agenda, the Commission retreated to familiar formulations – a Group on Nuclear Disarmament and another Group on Confidence Building Measures in Conventional Weapons – a formula which is in keeping with the DC’s deliberative mandate, but one which has not resulted in concrete recommendations to the General Assembly since well before the advent of cell phones.

Working Group 1, kindly and competently presided over by Kazakhstan’s Ambassador Abdrakhmanov, inherited a room that had experienced some clear divisions during general debate. Many of these disagreements were extensions of geo-political tensions, highlighted by Ukraine and Georgia’s condemnation of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the further “erosion of confidence” in the UN security system which that annexation caused.  Several Latin American countries derided the notion that Venezuela could possibly be a “security threat” to the US, a country with a military many times the size of the combined Latin American forces.   Israel (and its own arsenal of nuclear weapons) was cited as a major impediment to progress on a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone.  And the DPRK responded to criticism of its nuclear ambitions from several fronts while insisting that its motive for acquiring such weapons had less to do with “prestige” and more to do with direct security threats allegedly emanating from Seoul and Washington.

None of these disagreements are likely to fade away completely, if at all, before the NPT review begins later in April.  Nor will disagreements disappear regarding the policies that ought to be pursued in order to bring about a long-anticipated world free of the WMD which, as many delegations noted, threaten security more than guarantee it.   And as more and more states feel confident asserting their security preferences, individually and through regional coalitions, disagreements on security priorities and tactics will need to be resolved through honest negotiation rather than major power bullying.

One of the interesting sub-themes in the early days of the DC focused on the matter of “conditions” and “elements.”   At first glance, these would seem to have much in common, but a closer look reveals some discomforting differences.   States attending Working Group 1 that refer to “elements” generally are seeking clarity on concrete measures to bring about outcomes such as verifiable, irreversible nuclear disarmament – most often cited through development of a Nuclear Weapons Convention.  The objective is clear; the issue is about which building blocks – and in which order – should states pursue in order to bring about the desired outcome.   While there are different lenses through which the unacceptability of nuclear weapons are viewed –legal, moral, humanitarian – the key element is that there is ‘good faith’ validation of the ultimate objective.   While there remains much to discuss regarding tactics and their priorities, the objective itself must remain firmly planted in security consciousness.

“Conditions” suggest something different.   There is conventional wisdom in its use, as we can learn from any negotiating or counseling session.   In our rights-based cultures, “conditions” are too often held hostage to unilateral demands — demanding things from others to which we feel entitled without any commensurate contributions to the fulfillment of what we want. In other words, we too rarely assume any responsibility for helping to facilitate others’ fulfillment of their promises.   This ‘logic’ is in keeping with assumptions of rights-based entitlement but is problematic for sound human (or organizational) relations.   Demands unaccompanied by expressions of support, after all, are rarely endearing.

In the case of nuclear disarmament the case for “conditions” often rings hollow.   Commitments to disarmament are not of the nature of our more conventional promises but are largely embedded in legal instruments that, however many quibbles we might (and do) have with their formulation, represent an obligation that, until it is formally altered or withdrawn, is grounded in solemn, binding assumptions

If these disarmament commitments cannot be fulfilled — and we think they can be — the only viable reasons would be a failure of one or more of the agreed elements, not because “conditions” just don’t seem quite right to honor a solemn promise.  Making the world safe for disarmament is “conditions” language.   Making the world safe through disarmament is “elements” language.

I can help another to fulfill their obligations, assuming those obligations are made in good faith.  But I am not responsible to convince someone that their binding commitments are, well, binding.   This would be a complete misreading of “conditions,” insofar as they refer to externally imposed assessments of circumstance which were not present at the time the original “promise” was transacted.

For those who fail to see the distinction outlined here,   I urge you to conduct an experiment in the form of a conversation to explore “conditions” for the fulfillment of basic (and mostly public) obligations to your spouse.    (Please let me know how that conversation goes.)  Generally, couples can help each other fulfill commitments, but only in cases where there is demonstrated good faith regarding the objectives of the commitments themselves.

It is clear from the Disarmament Commission general debate and Working Groups that there are many weapons-related issues that require serious deliberative input from delegations, from verification protocols (as suggested by the US) to Brazil’s encouragement to employ existing disarmament machinery in a more serious and creative way.   Nigeria referenced the “choice instruments of destabilization” represented by illicit small arms.  Spain highlighted increasing dangers from “explosive weapons” and promoted a “code of conduct” for outer space.  Austria and others sought the closing of legal gaps on disarmament as well as more communication with UNIDIR and other outside experts.  There were even calls for more disarmament education.

In this context, we would also do well to take more seriously Chile’s assertion of the “indivisibility” of security, affirming the linkages among various weapons-related interests, but also the implications of poverty, refugees and a deteriorating climate on our security options. This might now be beyond the purview of the DC, but these linkages are essential to a security system that inspires public trust and provides additional motivation and urgency for delegations in many realms of UN security activity. In this context, Nepal’s call to place disarmament at the center of foreign policy could be an important integrating factor, as they understand both the risks of weapons and the multiple elements that need to be mobilized and organized effectively in order to promote genuinely peaceful and inclusive societies.

The DC is running out of time to be much more than a dress rehearsal for what seem to be sobering expectations of the upcoming NPT.  Skepticism and even disinterest, as noted by Vietnam and others, has taken over too much public and diplomatic perception of our disarmament machinery.  There is trust to build, both within and beyond the NPT states, but also with the larger policy community and its public.

Cuba made reference this week to the “mushroom cloud” that would spark “genocide” on an unprecedented scale.  It is time for the DC to both recommend and embrace “elements” towards a legally binding and fully verifiable end to such a genocidal threat.   On grounds of urgency and trust building, “conditions” for ending the threat of “mushroom cloud” are simply not sufficiently relevant.

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