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2 November 2011 - Final Edition

Editorial: Stalemate continues; more money goes to nucelar weapons
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF


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After a month of dialogue, consultations, expressions of frustration, and rare opportunities for hope during this year’s First Committee—which was preceded by fifteen years of the same at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) itself—Austria, Mexico, and Norway were compelled to withdraw their draft resolution on revitalizing multilateral disarmament negotiations (A/C.1/66/L.21/Rev.1). In announcing the withdrawal on Monday morning, the Austrian delegation explained that rather than watering the text down in pursuit of acceptance, the sponsors decided to preserve its integrity and not press for adoption at this year’s session.

During the previous week, First Committee had adopted by consensus the draft resolution presented by the Netherlands, South Africa, and Switzerland on the same subject (A/C.1/66/L.39). This baseline text will give space to interested states to explore options for moving forward. It signals, in a small but significant way, that the CD is on notice and that the General Assembly is asserting its responsibility for action on disarmament. However, the resolution does not provide any mechanisms for actually beginning substantive work, only calling for continuation of dialogue and consolidation of relevant proposals.

After fifteen years, it is gravely disappointing that the majority of delegations could not reach agreement on a more robust proposal that actually seeks to begin substantive work within a reasonable time frame. It is even more alarming that many of the states opposed to such a proposal are some of the same states that claim to have as their highest priority the complete elimination of nuclear weapons within a specified time frame.

These delegations expect such negotiations to take place inside the CD, yet they demand preservation of the consensus rule, which the nuclear weapon possessors have been using as an instrument of veto for the last fifteen years. They demand nuclear disarmament, yet hold it hostage to the preservation of an institution established during an intense period of arms racing. They call for efforts to revitalize the CD through strong political will—the ingredient that many states argue is missing—yet do not seem to have the will themselves to consider alternatives. They accuse the draft resolutions dealing with the CD as distracting from the “core task” of CD member states, which is to forge consensus on a “balanced” programme of work that gives equal treatment to the four “core” issues. However, this task has been attempted for fifteen years to no avail—which has in fact distracted from the CD’s real core task, which is to negotiate disarmament treaties.

In reality, it is the non-nuclear weapon possessors to which the stalemate does the most damage, as Algeria’s delegation pointed out last week. Yet many non-nuclear weapon states, including Algeria, continue to argue that the consensus rule is a way of protecting national security interests of all states at the same level and not simply the most powerful among them. But the nuclear weapon possessors are the only states using this rule as a veto. Thus it protects those that possess nuclear weapons, which they use as an instrument of power in their relations with other states.

The nuclear weapon possessors, a tiny minority of countries, benefit from the stalemate in the CD. The decision of certain non-nuclear weapon states to block proposals for beginning substantive work on the issues they purportedly care most about would only seem to harm their own interests. Nuclear disarmament, prevention of an arms race in outer space—these are not priorities for nuclear weapon possessors. But possessor states, and the coffers of their military-industrial complexes, are the ones that benefit from the failure of the General Assembly to adopt L.21/Rev.1 or even more robust proposals for beginning substantive work on disarmament. Indeed, as a new study by the British American Security Information Council has found, the coming decade will see “new nuclear arms races and a huge amount of money (hundreds of billions of US$) being spent” on nuclear weapons.

“Since joining the CD in 1996, Austria has never seen one day of substantive negotiations there,” remarked Ambassador Strohal last week. “We are being told that security interests are at stake, as if the negotiation of disarmament treaties were a threat. It is particularly odd that this argument is used by states with nuclear weapons in their arsenals.” However, he argued, we know that “the negotiation of disarmament treaties increases the security of the international community at large, especially of the vast majority of states not possessing nuclear weapons.”

Some questions thus arising from this year’s First Committee are: Why is the CD, an institution whose rules of procedure and limited membership undermine collective security, so revered by some of the non-nuclear weapon states? What benefit do they derive from the continued stalemate? They may be concerned about losing an institution historically identified with nuclear disarmament, without having anything solid to replace it. However, such worries should be outweighed by the costs of continuing indefinitely with the status quo.

The ever present question that plagues any attempt to move forward, given the lack of political will to a) negotiate on any of the four core issues; b) establish an alternative process or structure for such negotiations; and/or c) abandon the four core issue approach and focus on one encompassing treaty such as a nuclear weapons convention: If there is no will, where is the way?

Civil society and many non-nuclear weapon states grow weary of calls for political will. The mantra has been repeated for fifteen years and we are no closer to nuclear disarmament. In fact, that goal becomes more elusive as modernization programmes are put into place, as billions of dollars are sunk into the weapons laboratories, and as states around the world continue to shelter under nuclear umbrellas and include the potential use of nuclear weapons in their security doctrines. The continued economic, political, and security investments in nuclear weapons undermines the development of collective security. The failure of the General Assembly to accept responsibility for and initiative substantive work on nuclear disarmament doesn’t just mean that international agreements prohibiting such weapons do not exist but that sustainable security itself becomes increasingly unobtainable. “It is not just the disarmament process that is put into question,” argued Mr. Hermoso of the Philippines, “but the multilateral process as a whole is at stake.”

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