by Ray Acheson, Reaching Critical Will of WILPF
On Tuesday morning, the Turkish delegation pondered how the Commission used to function, back when it actually managed to agree not just to an agenda but to recommendations for the General Assembly. It concluded that member states back then understood that the UNDC is a deliberative body not meant for negotiating binding texts. The Swedish delegation likewise argued that the UNDC was never meant to be a negotiating forum but that the way it has been working as not reflected this basic fact. Mr. Kvarnström noted that the UNDC has been described as the “think tank” of the disarmament machinery, “but such a description presupposes that some constructive thinking ought to actually emerge from our deliberations.”
The deliberative character of the UNDC should indeed give it the freedom to engage in discussions about anything. Yet, as High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane noted, “The greatest obstacles to progress in disarmament have long been the lack of trust or confidence in proposed initiatives due to uncertainties or suspicions about their true motivations.”
The aversion to agreeing to anything, whether procedural or substantive, binding or non-binding, has plagued all of the disarmament machinery for more than a decade. And this new cycle of the UNDC has been no different. Wednesday marked the third day of ongoing consultations to reach agreement on the agenda for the current UNDC cycle.
On the table is the Chair’s proposed compromise for the agenda, which indicates that the two agenda items would be “recommendations for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation measures to achieve the objective of a nuclear weapons free world” and “practical confidence-building measures in the field of conventional weapons”. The compromise also indicated that during general debate states could conduct discussions, in informal meetings, on working methods of the UNDC and on elements for a declaration of the fourth disarmament decade. For both issues, friends of the Chair would distribute draft outcome documents in order to engage in further informal consultations in order to reach consensus. The final decision on these documents would be taken by consensus in a plenary meeting.
Many delegations have expressed disappointment with this proposed compromise, which still only has vague and unspecific agenda items while priority items were left to plenary discussions. The EU had wanted working methods of the UNDC to be an agenda item while the NAM had wanted the declaration as an agenda item. However, most recognized that it was better than not adopting an agenda at all and many states indicated their flexibility in order to move forward.
However, France, supported by Russia and the United States, insisted that the proposed agenda item on nuclear disarmament be amended to only address “creating the conditions” for a “world without nuclear weapons” (rather than a world “free” from nuclear weapons—suggesting that they don’t see nuclear weapons as “bad things” of which the world needs to free itself). This continuing refusal on the part of the nuclear weapon states to concretely discuss nuclear disarmament is unacceptable to many other states, leading to an impasse.
In between rounds of consultations, the Chair has allowed member states to deliver general statements, which has led to some substantive discussion on working methods and the role of the UNDC.
Specific suggestions for moving forward
Poland’s delegation noted that all sessions of the UNDC have considered ways and means to enhance its functioning and suggested that the recommendations adopted during those sessions should serve as a basis for overcoming the current stalemate. To this end, it submitted a working paper to the Commission, which includes the following three recommendations:
1. Poland’s working paper urges that the current UND cycle should seriously consider including a joint statement or Chair’s summary that reflects the views or positions of different delegations in the UNDC’s report if consensus cannot be reached on specific agenda items, in accordance with a decision made by the UNDC in 1990.
2. The working paper also encourages interaction with experts, which should also be reflected in the Chair’s summary.
3. Finally, the paper urges states to make every effort to ensure that Chair’s of subsidiary bodies are elected during the organizational session, which would allow them to conduct informal consultations on the subjects of these bodies before the beginning of the substantive session.
Some delegations had other specific suggestions. The Swiss delegation proposed that the UNDC adopt a single agenda item, because in the current formulation, an impasse in one area impedes progress in the other. Mr. Bavaud of Switzerland also suggested the UNDC open its proceedings to exchanges with representatives from the academic world and civil society and that it submit a report to the General Assembly that reflects the substantive discussion in the UNDC, such as through a Chair’s summary.
Since the UNDC is not the only piece of the UN disarmament machinery suffering from stalemate, the Swiss delegation also suggested that the UNDC could examine the respective roles of the various organs of the machinery, their interaction, and the way it could possibly be improved. In the framework of this approach, the UNDC “could also examine the processes that would be required to carry out a reform of the existing machinery and ways of creating the conditions that would make this exercise possible.”
Political will or working methods?
The Republic of Korea, expressing frustration with the UN disarmament machinery as a whole, called the UNDC’s attention to the message of the UN Secretary-General to the Conference on Disarmament in January 2012, “when he made it clear that the General Assembly is ready to consider other options to move the disarmament agenda forward.” Ambassador Shin argued that it “is now time for the disarmament machinery to act and to halt its endless debate.” He argued that member states need to come to grips with the “very rationale of the UNDC and its working methods” and called for more focused topics for deliberation.
Brazil’s delegation also called for focused discussions, noting that the debate during the last UNDC cycle “was excessively general and ambitious, making it more difficult to have concrete results.” Kazakhstan called for a “fresh perspective” for this cycle of UNDC, steering clear of the stalemate of the last cycle. Benin’s delegation suggested adopting a “small steps” agenda so that the Commission can begin work on specific priorities on which it can actually reach agreement. The Benin delegate emphasized that making progress is vital because the status quo poses a danger to all states, leading inexorably as it does to the continuation of a world in which the arms race is ongoing and in which resources are being gobbled up by weapons. Cuba’s delegation likewise highlighted the growing expenditure on nuclear and other weapons, arguing that it is unacceptable that more money is spent on waging war than promoting development.
Despite general dissatisfaction with the working methods of the UNDC, many delegations see the lack of political will and flexibility as the main impediment to progress. Cuba’s delegation argued that while the working methods could be improved, they are not the real obstacles to progress. Likewise, the Egyptian delegation argued that the discussions on methods of work in 2006 and 2009 “did not yield sufficient measures” and instead confirmed that the stalemate is mainly caused by lack of political will to achieve progress on nuclear disarmament.
The Swiss delegation agreed that political will is often lacking or ineffectively capitalized upon, but also argued that lack of progress “is just as much due to causes that are institutional in nature.”Mr. Bavaud noted that the disarmament fora “no longer appear capable of providing answers to the challenges they face because many of the nations involved give precedence to questions of national security, to the detriment of global considerations.”
Norway’s delegation’s argued that it may be that the current standstill in disarmament multilateralism is due to lack of political will, but that this “would make it even more imperative to fully make use of the Commission to deliberate on matters where the views of member states differ, and consider ways to overcome these differences.” Mr. Langeland also noted that there has been progress lately, though there is growing impatience on how to eliminate nuclear weapons. He suggested that since UN member states have agreed on the objective of a world free of nuclear weapons, they should make use of UNDC to deliberate on how to achieve this objective.
Likewise, the Australian delegation argued that the UNDC can play a key role in fostering the right environment, clarifying context, and sharing approaches for implementation of past commitments, such as the 2010 NPT action plan. Ms. Elias also noted that the UNDC’s discussions can also look at other complimentary measures to create a world free of nuclear weapons and suggested that they do this regardless of the language on specific agenda items.
Indeed, Brazil’s delegation called on states to “refrain from entering into blame games about who has caused this state of affairs” and to instead “engage in constructive discussions to find again the common ground needed to productive substantive and effective results in the area of disarmament.”
Regardless of what is on the UNDC’s agenda, “action has become a necessity,” as Mr. Bavaud of Switzerland said. “Restrictive approaches are no longer appropriate,” he argued, “because in today’s world, national interests and security in a global sense can no longer be separated. In this situation, we feel it is becoming increasingly difficult to deny the need for an in-depth review of the whole disarmament machinery, or of a new approach in this area.
The question is whether the multilateral disarmament bodies “will be able to translate the political will by an overwhelming majority of UN member states in advancing disarmament goals,” argued Mr. Langeland of Norway. “The alternative is continuing the process of making these two bodies even more marginalized. Lack of action in these two bodies will only increase the determination to consider other avenues in order to move forward.”