17 May 2005, No. 12

Lost in the echo chamber
Rhianna Tyson | WILPF

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“We don’t fully understand what’s actually happening,” said the Russian delegation on Monday, in the first open plenary since the NGOs took the floor last week. “We’d like to have more transparency.”

They’re not the only ones.

Closed-door debates are the order of the day. Ever since the agenda was adopted last Wednesday, the Review Conference has broken down into frustratingly opaque regional group consultations, sprinkled only with the occasional, equally opaque General Committee meeting.

Are they close to agreement? Will Main Committees begin today? Tomorrow? This week? At all? Russia complained that, as non-members of the General Committee, they (like NGOs) “only get echoes of the debates which are taking place between (the President) and the regional groups and the various delegations.” This babble of echoes becomes increasingly difficult to decipher, especially after taking into account each delegation’s political and strategic agenda.

To some in the Western Group, the Non-Aligned (NAM) are disorganized and undisciplined, unable to see past their differing procedural preferences in order to formulate a strategy based on their common political and strategic goals. To some in the NAM, the Western Group is doing a shoddy job of glossing over the wildly diverging opinions between most of their members and the US, which often stands alone in opposition to a proposal.

In this murky world of disarmament diplomacy, it is difficult to even keep one’s eye on the ball, so to speak. The fight, once centered on the agenda, moved on to the language contained in the footnote to the agenda before tackling the question over the number of subsidiary bodies to create. By now, the battle is taking place over the mandates of these subsidiary bodies.

It is looking more likely that, should any agreement be reached at all, the Conference would create three subsidiary bodies, one per each Main Committee (MC): one on nuclear disarmament (MC I); one on regional issues (MC II); and the last on withdrawal (MC III).

That doesn’t mean that the MCs will actually convene any time soon. Having capitulated to the successive, inexcusable demands of the US- no reference to past Review Conferences, no subsidiary body on the Middle East and no subsidiary body on security assurances- it does not seem as if the NAM will agree to a MC I subsidiary body that does not have the explicit mandate to focus on security assurances. This, to NAM, is the line in the sand; a subsidiary body on disarmament is fine, so long as it also makes time for security assurances.

If agreement on the mandates of the subsidiary bodies cannot be reached, all hope for substantive work is not quite lost. One late afternoon echo heard throughout the Vienna Café was that, if agreement is not reached by Tuesday morning’s open plenary (at 10 AM in Conference Room IV), the regional consultations will give way to open-ended consultations of the whole of the Conference.

This strategy is widely favored for several reasons. First, it would allow for the opportunity to present working papers on substantive issues, and allow States like Australia, which has been working across regional groupings to formulate these papers, to demonstrate their delegation’s commitment to the NPT and to this review process. Second, it would force consensus-blockers to take the floor to express their (oftentimes) lone opposition to a proposal, and demonstrate exactly who is culpable for the failure of the Conference to engage in substantive negotiations.

Even if the regional strategy is discarded Tuesday and some sort of substantive work commences, prospects for the outcome grow dimmer every day. Any remaining ray of hope may yet be entirely snuffed out in the dearth of transparency. At this point, however, we must hold fast to these last strands of hope, before they, too, are only an echo.

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