Making the Conference on Disarmament Work

Action taken in the aftermath of a catastrophic attack is an action already too late. Think about Syria and the chemical weapons attack. Think about the innocent lives lost and what could have been done to prevent it.

As governments around the world reacted to the Syrian crisis, one thing was clear —weapons of mass destruction (WMD) have a distinct ability to mobilize world leaders into action. But reaction is not prevention.

States must continually work to ensure that attacks do not occur in the first place. For this reason, multilateral forums are essential. They provide a space for states to work together to prevent atrocities before they are carried out. When it comes to WMD, this forum already exits.

The Conference on Disarmament (CD) is the world’s foremost multilateral disarmament forum designed to negotiate, on a consensus basis, treaties that prevent catastrophic attacks. Yet, its track record is contested, inconsistent, and —like all fragile relationships— troubled by trust issues.

Like any relationship, it has had its high points. The successful negotiation behind the Biological Weapons Convention, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the Non-Proliferation Treaty attests to the CD’s capacity as a multilateral institution.

But in more recent times, the relationship has hit a rough patch, plagued by arguments and entrenched positions. Participants have been using the consensus rule to block negotiations on the next logical disarmament step, the Fissile Material Cut Off Treaty (FMCT). And as a result, the CD has been stuck at an impasse—for 17 years now.

To overcome this impasse, many nuclear and non-nuclear states have decided to extend disarmament discussions to outside forums. The United Nations Permanent Five (P-5) states on the Security Council have begun holding their own conferences on the issue. Newer bodies also are emerging, including the Open Ended Working Group (OEWG), where non-nuclear states hope to engage in freer, more creative discussions.

At first glance, discussions outside the CD may appear a good idea. But on closer inspection, they will prove otherwise. As these states have begun working outside the CD, they have merely formed groups with like-minded peers, reinforcing viewpoints they already share and leading to little in the way of a breakthrough.

In March, United States (US) Ambassador Laura Kennedy announced that the P-5 is committed to upholding the step-by-step negotiating approach of the CD and will not participate in the OEWG. Two months later, the OEWG responded by saying it remained committed to finding an alternative process to the step-by-step approach. These statements only serve to underscore the existing division and mistrust between nuclear and non-nuclear states.

These trust issues will persist, whether or not disarmament is negotiated in the CD. Despite the deadlock in negotiations that have given rise to these outside forums, there is still no other viable alternative to the CD. In 17 years, no new framework has arisen to replace it. The CD remains the strongest forum for multilateral disarmament, hands down, specifically because it brings every single nuclear state and many of their non-nuclear neighbors to the same table. This fact cannot be overstated.

In my home of American Samoa we do something similar. Traditional leaders, our chiefs, set up village council meetings to discuss issues. Ideally, consensus is reached and the high chief makes a final decision. But there’s more to it.

This system works because of how the relationship has evolved over time. Village residents accept the decision because they respect the high chief’s wisdom. Our chiefs still wield a lot of power over communal issues. Knowing that they must work together in the future, families rarely challenge the chiefs’ authority. Issues are usually resolved quite quickly, because no one wants these matters to move beyond their control and into the courts.

This type of system reminds us that although leaders are expected to make decisions based on good faith what really drives individuals to act are the relationships within the decision-making apparatus. There is an unspoken social and political pressure to handle issues quickly and communally, before they spiral beyond our control. The CD would be wise to remember this.

If the FMCT is to have any chance of moving forward, state negotiators must first work on establishing more trust in their relationships—and the CD is still the best place to do so. Stronger trust fosters better collaboration. It helps future negotiations, and it will help to strengthen enforcement of the landmark conventions the CD has already put in place to make this a safer world.

There are an estimated 17,300 nuclear weapons still out there, presumably in less than a dozen countries; so action is very much needed. In order for treaties to hold these nuclear states accountable, and in order for next steps like the FMCT to be taken, the participation of all states in the decision-making process is essential. This is why the CD exists. This is why there is no better solution.

As U.S. President Barack Obama stated in his 2009 disarmament pledge in Prague, “This goal will not be reached quickly– perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, ‘Yes, we can.’”


Charity Porotesano is a 2013 Pacific Young Leader on Disarmament and a 2012 Truman Scholar. She lives in American Samoa where she works in education and serves as a youth representative on the Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council.

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