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UNIDIR and Reaching Critical Will discuss the deadlock in the Conference on Disarmament

On 11 October 2012 in the margins of First Committee, the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) organized a side event on "Nuclear disarmament: its role in the Conference on Disarmament". The following report, written by Eloise Watson, appeared in the 15 October 2012 edition of the First Committee Monitor.

Mr. Tim Caughley, Senior Research Fellow at UNIDIR, gave some insightful opening remarks, covering what he described as “the politics behind the CD’s barren recent history”. In his opinion, gridlock in the CD ensues partly as a result of the oscillating debate over which issue is the ‘ripest’ for negotiation or most deserving of the CD’s attention. He also laid out several divergent opinions held by CD members concerning the Conference. For example, as he explained, there are those who believe wholeheartedly in the CD’s continued utility and importance and in the need to “just be patient,” while others see no short-term prospects of overcoming the deadlock, and so would like the CD to agree on a scene-setting course of action.

Mr. Caughley moved on to question the meaning of “consensus”—the way in which the CD operates—and its impact on CD progress. As he explained, consensus in the CD often equates to the use of veto, resulting in the indefinite blocking of decisions. He therefore called for the interpretation of consensus in the CD “in its normal manner,” that is, that each member exercise a level of responsibility informed by the likely impact of the decision on the state’s security, “rather than by some unfettered freedom to exercise a veto.” A final point related to his belief that the requirement to agree on a programme of work annually has overloaded the CD’s purpose, unnecessarily complicating its mission and rendering more difficult the task of agreeing mandates.

In her account of the blockage in the CD, Ms. Ray Acheson, Director of Reaching Critical Will also focused on the dangers of the consensus rule. She explained that the strict application of consensus as unanimity has undermined and stymied any real progress in the CD, since consensus has effectively become the equivalent of a veto used by states on issues upon which they don’t want to move forward. Ms. Acheson rebuffed the argument made by many non-nuclear weapon states that the consensus rule is a way of protecting the national security interests of all states and not simply the most powerful ones, underlining that nuclear weapon possessors are in fact the only states yielding the consensus rule as a veto within the CD. As she summarised, “consensus has become less a tool for encouraging creative compromises and more an instrument for demanding unanimity, usually resulting in lowest common denominator agreements.” She affirmed that the CD is equally beleaguered by a lack of political will, which is manifest in several ways.

Ms. Acheson also drew the audience’s attention to Austria’s recent proposal of an open-ended working group on nuclear disarmament that will meet for up to three weeks in Geneva. She commended this suggestion, which would provide for more robust multilateral action than the CD could since more than just the 65 CD members are able to participate.

Audience members made few refutations or responses during the Q&A session, somewhat surprising given the contentious subject matter of the discussion. The German and Mexican delegations agreed that the rule of consenus has become a problem for achieving robust results—or any results at all—across the UN machinery. Dr. John Burroughs (Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy) commented on the requisite level of state participation for disarmament treaties. He questioned whether nuclear weapon possessors need to be signed on from the outset and how broad the number of states involved need be, highlighting that treaties like the Non-Proliferation Treaty and Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention were negotiated by a small group of states. Mr. Caughley agreed, adding that while wide participation of states is always preferable, “if the ideal is incapable of being delivered upon, what are we left with?”