18 May 2005, No. 13

Hold that pessimism
Rebecca Johnson | Acronym Institute

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We’re now into the third week and frustration is running high. All those reports and painstakingly written, often coordinated working papers languishing in silence with no main committees or subsidiary bodies in which to strut their stuff. Paralysed by that classic negotiating tactic “nothing agreed until everything is agreed”, the President shuttles between the groups of delegations. But the NAM and Western groups are also being frustrated internally by the obstructionist tactics of one or two of their members. Just as it appeared that politeness and protectionism would doom the Conference and allow a handful of clever manipulators to avoid accountability, Australia, which has sometimes been accused (not without reason) of shielding its American allies, insisted on being given plenary time to introduce working papers. Though President Duarte was nervous that this might be challenged, he was persuaded to agree.

The Aussies did us proud with a strong statement calling for entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on behalf of the G-10 (Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden). Malaysia stepped up immediately after and introduced the NAM’s substantive working papers on issues ranging from nuclear disarmament and negative security assurances to regional issues and nuclear energy. In quick succession the European Union, Japan, Canada, Egypt and China all jumped at the opportunity to talk about their working papers on withdrawal, disarmament education, reporting, the Middle East, security assurances and other relevant issues.

In the packed Committee Room 4, it was as through a breath long held was gently exhaled in relief. Not only had the Chair’s authority to open the plenary to allow discussion of the working papers not been challenged, but the initiative had been seized on constructively by some important delegations to enable them to put their substantive ideas and recommendations on the table for consideration.

Somewhere in the middle of this, Iran raised a point of order to try to object, belatedly recognising that the swift acceptance of this constructive use of the plenary by so many delegations could become a means to bypass the deadlock over establishing the committees and subsidiary bodies. Iran seemed at pains to stress that it “welcomes” Australia’s intervention, but feared that this would “not give a positive impression to civil society outside”. I’m not sure which part of civil society Iran meant to represent, particularly as transnational civil society includes views and positions that are as varied politically and strategically as the positions of states. However, most of the NGOs in attendance were delighted to see the working papers being introduced and talked about, and were glad that Australia had had the gumption to take this forward and set an important precedent that could potentially move the conference forward.

Moreover, it was politically and substantively important that the G-10’s first working paper so clearly underlined the centrality of the CTBT to the NPT compact, and the profound proliferation dangers attached to holding open the option to resume nuclear testing: if the nuclear weapon states keep the testing door open by failing to ratify the CTBT, others may march through, conduct their own nuclear explosions and risk shattering the nonproliferation regime together with the test ban.

A closed session in the afternoon proved that breaking the logjam once does not necessarily get all the logs rolling in the right direction. Once it had been shown that work could proceed in the plenary directly under the President’s auspices, the race was on again to convene the main committees. This time Iran and the United States appeared to be out front pulling, causing suspicious minds to wonder why.

As delegations failed to agree on how to allocate the remaining eight working days so that the committees and various subsidiary bodies would get sufficient time to go through the motions, it is important to ask whether it is sensible to go ahead with convening the committees so late. There is a real risk that with so little time left, they will not be utilised successfully to facilitate debate and substantive negotiations, but instead could become the means for further posturing and delay. The number of sessions currently being considered could tie hands well into next week, giving the Conference little time to manoeuvre if any of the committees gets bogged down, as has happened in the past. It would be worth considering alternative ways to use the remaining time and skills of the designated chairs more effectively to draw out the best ideas and recommendations from the valuable resources represented by the many working papers, so that substantive negotiations can begin early next week. Unfortunately, this seems unlikely – we should never underestimate the inertia of bureaucratic minds and special interests!

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