Tag Archives: UNDC

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

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

The Arms Trade Treaty: No Treaty, Weak Treaty, ‘Plan B’?

25 May

As the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) preparations are drawing to a close and diplomats and civil society alike anxiously await the July Diplomatic Conference, much of the attention has turned to the possible configurations of a (hopefully) forthcoming consensus treaty. Some would argue that it is best to focus on making the negotiations a success rather than prematurely anticipating their failure. As such, the levels of pessimism and optimism vary according to whom one is talking, whether a member state delegation or civil society advocate.

One could continue to debate the ‘nuts and bolts’ of treaty language from scope and final provisions to the strength of the humanitarian references included. Nevertheless, I would argue that it is absolutely necessary at this point to, at the very least, objectively evaluate and consider the possible scenarios of the 4-week Diplomatic Conference and the corresponding consequences of each circumstance irrespective of one’s position on the desired outcome. Such an evaluation would be useful insofar as it would essentially reveal the net effect of each outcome, whether positive or negative, on what I see as the most desirable outcome of the ATT process—a robust instrument of international standards to regulate the global business of the transfer of arms that is fully implementable to include a comprehensive scope, primary attention on diversion, provisions and structure to facilitate international cooperation and assistance that will ultimately stop transfers of arms and ammunition that fuel conflict, poverty, and serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

Questions on the minds of many who have dedicated themselves to this process for over a decade are clear— is a weak treaty better than no treaty at all? Would a weak treaty do more harm than the harm caused by opting out of the process altogether? Where are the ‘redlines’ that would warrant such an abandonment come July? Are there alternatives for negotiating an ATT within the UN system, or perhaps outside it? In order to address these inquiries it is important to contextualize the ATT debate. To my mind, the ATT process will encompass much more than the month of July. It is essential to assume a long-term perspective, in particular a process through which states commit to a review process that establishes regular meetings of states parties to assess and adjust the ATT to better reflect evolving security circumstances. Moreover, as with all multilateral negotiations, the ATT has not and will not be formulated in a vacuum. In 2012, member states are faced with parallel disarmament and arms control challenges—high stakes for a Conference on the establishment of a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East, a continued stalemate in the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament now stretching over 15 years, and a 13th straight year without consensus recommendations in the Disarmament Commission. Furthermore, a failed negotiation on an ATT would, in turn, also cast a long shadow over the Review Conference of the UNPoA, which is scheduled to take place in August after the ATT negotiations have concluded.

What, then, are the possible scenarios for the ATT Conference? It seems that two of the principle scenarios—adoption of a weak treaty or adoption of no treaty at all—will have significant negative consequences. The only outcome that would not have negative effects would be adoption, by consensus, of an ideal treaty characterized by high levels of state accountability (especially on weapons diversion), oversight capacity for an Implementation Support Unit (ISU), and strong, binding humanitarian language. However, as this process is subject to a consensus rule, a provision that was introduced by the US as a precondition for taking part in the negotiations, this scenario is highly unlikely. Some member states, including the US, have already made clear that a high level of oversight, or any oversight, will not be acceptable and that it is entirely a national prerogative to determine how to manage national export controls in response to any international standards adopted in the ATT. Other member states have continuously asserted that the ATT is a trade treaty seeking merely to regulate the legal business of arms transfers and will not seek to limit the right of member states to sell or purchase arms by overburdening them with treaty-specific reporting obligations.

Therefore, I highlight two principle scenarios and what effect each would have on the long-term process. There are strong arguments that an ATT deemed ‘weak’ is better than no treaty at all. Some would argue that a strong review process with the possibility for improving on the first iteration of the ATT would be a generally positive outcome. Similar to the evolutionary process of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the argument would be that the ATT will most likely require sequential refinement under the auspices of a regular cycle of review conferences in order to achieve even close to its full potential, but that such refinements are possible and preferable to abandoning to the process altogether.

It could also likewise be argued that prospects for success of an ATT next July, as opposed to this July, is not any higher (especially given the consensus provision); thus any postponement would be futile, especially given the weight of the consensus provision. In light of other related UN processes such as the UNPoA, a completely failed ATT Conference would be severely detrimental to the other, in many cases already broken, parts of the multilateral disarmament machinery dealing a major legitimacy blow to the system. Even if the ATT is not universally considered a disarmament treaty per se it is certainly being treated as such by civil society and some member states. A failed process would indubitably be a serious blow to a system desperately in need of tangible victories.

In contrast, there are those that argue, and rightfully so, that a weak treaty would have far greater negative effects in the aggregate. A weak treaty— a simple list of principles which member states should bear mind in when transferring weapons without any accountability or implementation mechanism—could be used as cover for future transfers of questionable character. Signatories could argue that they are acting in accordance with their international law obligations as parties to the ATT, have evaluated a given transfer according to this list of principles (‘bearing them in mind’), and have nonetheless decided to continue the dubious transfer. Moreover, a weak ATT could potentially be used as the basis for states seeking to curtail UN efforts to advocate for better controls of illicit small arms or for stronger application of international humanitarian and human rights law related to the production or use of armaments. Either of these outcomes would fuel considerable skepticism regarding the viability of the UN in regulating the global arms trade, not to mention anger at the UN for creating ‘cover’ for bad behavior rather than eliminating said behavior.

Universality of the ATT process will have a direct effect on its strength—the more member states that subscribe to it, the weaker it will inevitably become. This debate begs the question, then, when is it better to walk away from the process than to proceed with a weak treaty? What are the points that are ‘non-negotiable’? For each member state, the answer to this question will vary. The CARICOM states have placed tremendous emphasis on the inclusion of SALWs in the scope, while the UK has recently underscored the arms trade as the ‘greatest threat to development, beyond disease and disaster’. Brazil, on the other hand, has continuously asserted its marked opposition to references to corruption, development, and stability in the criteria. Needless to say, the ‘redlines’ are not uniform and vary according to national interests, but it is absolutely essential that delegations know what those lines are before formal negotiations begin in July. Delegations must evaluate when the best course of action would be to ‘walk away’ from the process and seek alternatives elsewhere.

If delegations choose to ‘walk away’ from the process in July, alternative forums for negotiating an ATT are available, but also with their own set of limitations. There is the option to take the issue to the General Assembly in the fall and seek a new resolution and form of recourse to get negotiations back on track. Some like-minded states have discussed, unofficially, the possibility of opting out of the universal process in order to pursue a more comprehensive ATT, but one that will inevitably have fewer signatories. Foregoing a universal forum for ATT negotiation could call into question the future relevance of universal negotiations in the field of disarmament and arms control, which is already in serious jeopardy given the CD paralysis. Furthermore, such an approach would meet the same difficulties as have been encountered with regards to international efforts to ban cluster munitions and landmines. While such courses of action of like-minded states contribute to norm-setting, they likely fail to provide a universal framework for addressing the issue at hand. The value added of an ATT that is not universal, most especially one that does not legally bind the primary arms manufacturers and exporters, is not altogether lost, but certainly substantially diminished. The states subject to such treaties negotiated outside the universal process are usually those already committed to the regulations.

What, then, is the best scenario? The best scenario is, as previously mentioned, a robust and comprehensive instrument with full implementation capacity. However, this is not the only question that should be asked. The focus now should not be just on what is the best scenario, but also on the best path towards the ideal scenario, even after July negotiations conclude, by objectively evaluating the consequences of each of the most likely negotiating outcomes.


–Katherine Prizeman

UN Disarmament Commission Ends: Another Year Without Consensus

23 Apr

The three-week session of the 2012 Disarmament Commission (UNDC) came to a close on Friday, 20 April marking the 13th straight year without adoption of any consensus recommendations or guidelines and continuing an alarming trend of sub-standard performance in the UN disarmament machinery. The UNDC is continuously hailed as the only deliberative body for disarmament matters as well as one that enjoys universal membership. It is meant to serve as a policy-making body insofar as member states are expected to formulate and present consensus recommendations to negotiating forums (i.e. the Conference on Disarmament) on those consensus items which should then become subject to direct negotiations and, eventually, the drafting of international legal instruments.  The UNDC is a body that is supposed to serve as an essential part of the multilateral disarmament machinery contributing to the overall goal of general and complete disarmament. The UNDC has not, however, served this function in more than a decade. The Chair, Ambassador Enrique Roman-Morey of Peru, noted in his concluding remarks that diplomats will now have to go back to their usual responsibilities with “a sense of having almost accomplished” their duty to formulate consensus recommendations, guidelines, and proposals. It is indeed frustrating and disappointing for all parties, including member states and civil society.

Chairman Ambassador Roman-Morey stated that the UNDC had achieved “the minimum necessary to consider this session of the United Nations Disarmament Commission a relative success.” The question, however, is how another three-week session of deliberations that yielded no concrete results or substantive documents can be counted as a “relative success,” particularly when the same outcome has plagued the UNDC for 13 years. The session this year should be considered a continuation of the status quo, a striking paralysis preventing concrete movement forward in disarmament matters. This paralysis is pervading many parts of the UN disarmament machinery including the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD). The stalemate in the UNDC and the CD clearly demonstrates pervasive inflexibility with the laying down of ‘red lines’ making compromise nearly impossible.

After adoption of three purely procedural reports, the Report of the Disarmament Commission on the whole and the reports of the two Working Groups (nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation [I] and confidence-building measures [CBMs] in the field of conventional weapons [II]), delegations, along with the Chair, expressed varying degrees of frustration and underscored different causes of the continued paralysis. The Chair of Working Group I, the delegate of Saudi Arabia, noted that there was no consensus on any substance or recommendations, which was due not to a lack of effort, but to a lack of time. Likewise, the delegate of Indonesia, when presenting the report from Working Group II, asserted that the lack of consensus on substantive recommendations was a function of complexity rather than energy. Ambassador Roman-Morey referred to a deep sense of mistrust that has kept parties apart and positions divided and also pointed to the “exhausting discussions” on purely procedural matters, such as symbols used for the documents, as sources of provocation that have contributed to the elusiveness consensus. The Swedish and Argentinean delegates underscored that although substantive Chair’s ‘non-papers’ were discussed, they ultimately cannot be referred to without formal adoption and, therefore, their utility is virtually lost without an official record of the discussions (Working Group I’s non-paper outlined guiding principles and recommendations for achieving nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, while Working Group II’s non-paper explored the objective, principles, and practical confidence-building measures in the field of conventional weapons). Two Working Papers on facilitating substantive discussions in the UNDC and recommendations on the function of the UNDC, from Japan and Poland respectively, were also submitted.

The extent to which political will was a source of the UNDC’s failure also came to light in concluding remarks. The Swedish delegation stated that it was not a lack of political will that caused another year without consensus. Contrastingly, Ambassador Roman-Morey had the opposite view: there is definitive political will not to pursue themes of universal disarmament. The Cuban delegation agreed that the failure was indeed a function of the lack of constructive political will that was manifest in the unwillingness of some states to disarm and renounce their nuclear weapons. More positive analysis of this year’s session came from the Japanese delegation that asserted that the DC had “laid solid groundwork.” Similarly, the Indonesian delegation, on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), reaffirmed the role of the UNDC. The Mexican delegation also sounded hopeful in stating that although the results did not meet expectations, there were enriching discussions held. The Russian Federation also agreed that there were many candid discussions illustrating that all member states are ultimately in favor of nuclear disarmament.

Ambassador Roman-Morey stated that in “matters of disarmament one must be realistic while remaining positive.” How can those that work on the UNDC remain positive and realistic after such a prolonged stalemate? It is time to make serious commitments to break the status quo, formulate alternative and realistic pathways to consensus, and implement them as quickly as possible. High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane called on the member states to “adjust their sails” as the best course for meeting new challenges. To further this, the Chair suggested reformation of the procedural arrangements of the UNDC. Three continuous weeks of meetings have not helped achieve positive results in 13 years. Thus, Ambassador Roman-Morey suggested dividing the UNDC into two parts—two weeks in the spring, and one week in the fall when the First Committee begins its work. A suggestion offered in the past has also been opening all deliberations to civil society and academic experts to further enrich debate over recommendations.

Ultimately, employing the same methods and the same attitudes towards compromise will not suffice. The UN disarmament machinery is seriously faltering in its responsibilities and needs to explore new pathways for deliberation and trust.  As noted by the Austrian delegate, the General Assembly should take more leadership for exploring options for facilitating deliberations that seek to revitalize how the UNDC does its work. Member states must also explore new avenues of engagement and trust building so that successful disarmament outcomes become the norm rather than rare breakthroughs amidst many disappointments.


–Katherine Prizeman

Debating Political Will and Working Methods in the Disarmament Commission

5 Apr

The General Debate in the 2012 session of the Disarmament Commission has been quite scattered as some delegations have used the plenary to lay out detailed positions on all issues related to disarmament and non-proliferation, some to lament the widespread stalemate across the multilateral disarmament fora, and others to propose recommendations for improving the functioning of the Disarmament Commission (UNDC) itself. While there can be some merit to discussing national positions on disarmament-related issues in a broad context such that national priorities can be understood as part of a conglomerate of concerns, there is little value added in reiterating general support for existing treaties, frameworks, and broad principles of disarmament and non-proliferation. This is most especially true in a forum, the UNDC, which is mandated to deliberate on particular issues, formulate recommendations, and submit them to the General Assembly for further action. A reiteration of existing national positions does little to advance this agenda and while the problem of paralysis is not exclusive to the UNDC, but rather characterizes the Conference on Disarmament (CD) as well, member states must use the next three weeks of substantive discussion to address the issue at hand—the UNDC’s failure to deliver recommendations for the last twelve years. The UNDC must take seriously its mandate to deliberate on specific agenda items to formulate recommendations to be submitted to the GA and, indirectly, to the CD for the purposes of negotiation. In order to do so, all obstacles to achieving consensus must be honestly reviewed.

Delegations have been split over the nature of these obstacles, ultimately whether they are of a political or institutional nature. The Swedish delegation reiterated support for time dedicated to a discussion on how the UNDC goes about its work as well as how its work relates to the role envisaged for the UNDC within the multilateral disarmament machinery. The Kazakh delegation suggested the Chair prepare a short note outlining the previous resolutions from the GA and other fora that “spell out how the working methods of the UNDC can be strengthened” identifying recommendations that have been previously set forth on this topic. Other delegations have disagreed with the assertion that working methods have been the cause of the UNDC’s failure. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) has made clear on many occasions that the stalemate is due to the lack of political will. The NAM states have called for the work of the UNDC to “be intensified through reinvigorated political will.” The Egyptian delegation stated categorically that the problems of the UNDC are not related to its working methods. Similarly, the Pakistani delegation has stated that the lack of progress is rooted in the lack of political will and “double standards.” Even the Chair has weighed in on this argument in his letter to delegations prior to the start of the session stating that the ‘lack of political will’ case is not valid in a deliberative body.

The issues contributing to the UNDC paralysis are not so simple as to categorically blame either political will or working methods exclusively. As the Norwegian delegate stated during the open debate, perhaps the deadlock is due in part to political will, but delegations must make more imperative use of the UNDC to identify ways to overcome the stalemate in any case. Likewise, the Swiss delegate noted that there are several issues that have contributed to the deadlock. Mr. Bavaud stated, while political will has been significantly lacking and in places where it has existed has not been acted upon, much of the lack of progress has been of an institutional nature. Moreover, the Swiss delegation rightly noted that restrictive approaches to working methods, such as not allowing the input of outside experts into the Commission, are no longer acceptable when national security concerns cannot be delinked from global peace and security challenges.

Member states have put forth specific recommendations for improving the functioning of the UNDC. Poland’s delegation has issued a working paper on the topic calling for a Chairman’s summary or joint statement to be issued on all agenda items on which member states cannot reach consensus, and no recommendation can be formulated, as to reflect the views and positions of delegations and to prevent the loss of exchange of views altogether. The stalemate of recent years has prevented the transmission of information to the General Assembly rendering the UNDC’s work utterly useless. Furthermore, the delegations of Poland, Japan, and Switzerland have also suggested opening up UNDC proceedings to exchanges with representatives from academia and civil society.  Poland, in its working paper, also noted the issue of organizational matters encouraging the early election of not only the Chairperson, but also the Chairpersons of the subsidiary working groups and Vice-Chairpersons.

As noted by a handful of delegations, it would be wise to also examine the formulation of agenda items. Inclusion of broad, generic items related to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation has not proven effective.  The Brazilian delegation called the debate during the last cycle of the UNDC “excessively general and ambitious, making it more difficult to have concrete results.” The Swiss delegation agreed that it would be helpful to focus on more specific, circumscribed items, such as negative security assurances, nuclear weapon free zones, or verification mechanisms for conventional arms.

The international community has a joint responsibility to find more constructive ways to work and to explore all the possible impediments to success. The argument over the two obstacles to the UNDC’s success is not an either/or debate. Movement forward in the UNDC will require both the political will necessary to accept compromise for the sake of multilateral agreement and a re-examination of working methods that have not yielded concrete results in more than ten years.


–Katherine Prizeman