3 November 2008 - Final Edition

Editorial: Crisis of Relevance
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will

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Describing the 2008 First Committee as “flat,” “uninspired,” “stale,” and “redundant”—perspectives of four separate delegates given on four separate occasions—participants expressed the feeling that they were simply going through the motions. A few suggested they anticipate more enthusiasm and positive action next year, when a new US administration has had time to recalculate its positions toward the United Nations, multilateralism, disarmament, and arms control. Others expressed pessimism about the chances of revitalizing the stagnant disarmament machinery, particularly the Conference on Disarmament (CD). Still apt today, former-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s assessment of the CD in his 2005 report In Larger Freedom noted that the CD “faces a crisis of relevance resulting in part from dysfunctional decision-making procedures and the paralysis that accompanies them.”

Some delegations, however, refused to accept either complacency or pessimism, instead demanding changes to the conceptualization and operationalization of key disarmament mechanisms. On 27 October, the final day of thematic debate, the Chilean delegate argued, “Disarmament is a global public good but the Conference on Disarmament is not.” Asking if it is tolerable, in 2008, to “operate behind civil society’s back” or, in the era of globalization and revolutionized communications, to “not consolidate the synergistic relations between the disarmament machinery and other specialized bodies of the UN system,” he suggested that, like the Human Rights Commission, the CD can be reformed to make it more legitimate, inclusive, and transparent.

The Canadian delegation argued that states have “collective ownership of our disarmament machinery” and the responsibility to “repair elements of the machinery that are not functioning, and add on features to address new challenges, in order to operate a system in which our differences can be reconciled, and our common goals realized.” The Norwegian delegation, during the first week of general debate, called for the First Committee to focus on two objectives: building consensus on the need for multilateral disarmament machinery to produce results and fostering a common understanding of how existing and new security threats should be addressed.

In In Larger Freedom, Annan points out that the international community lacks “even a basic consensus” on security issues. “Depending on wealth, geography and power, we perceive different threats as the most pressing. But the truth is we cannot afford to choose. Collective security today depends on accepting that the threats which each region of the world perceives as most urgent are in fact equally so for all.”

Reconceptualizing our vision of disarmament and security should include an understanding of its human security elements. As UNIDIR’s project “Disarmament as Humanitarian Action: Making Multilateral Negotiations Work,” explains, “At root, disarmament and arms control problems are issues of human security.... Yet, security thinking in disarmament and arms control has focused on external threats to states, especially from other states.” While conventional arms control has begun considering humanitarian implications of disarmament, processes and efforts for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation could benefit from such approaches as well.

Reformatting the operations of our disarmament machinery must also include a new attitude toward multilateralism, responsibility, and effort. Annan wrote, “In recent years, the number of General Assembly resolutions approved by consensus has increased steadily. That would be good if it reflected a genuine unity of purpose among Member States in responding to global challenges. But unfortunately, consensus (often interpreted as requiring unanimity) has become an end in itself.... This has not proved an effective way of reconciling the interests of Member States.”

Suggesting a variety of ways to streamline, consolidate, and improve the procedures and structures of the UN system, Annan warned, “It should be clear that none of this will happen unless Member States take a serious interest in the Assembly at the highest level and insist that their representatives engage in its debates with a view to achieving real and positive results. If they fail to do this the Assembly’s performance will continue to disappoint them and they should not be surprised.”

Many delegations have expressed alarm at the prospect of taking some of the most important disarmament and non-proliferation issues outside of the traditional mechanisms of multilateral negotiations, cynically citing the need for transparency and inclusiveness in order to keep the issues under a stranglehold within stagnant systems that are slowly, painfully, losing their relevance. Yet alternative processes, such as those of Ottawa and Oslo, have demonstrated what can be done outside of traditional machinery, in a fully transparent, inclusive manner. The interests that prevent progress on the most significant threats and challenges to our collective security must not be allowed to stifle the peace, dignity, justice, respect, and economic and social advancement promised by the UN Charter.

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