New Structures Required to Move Disarmament Forward

Imagine a large convoy trying to navigate with a compass but no map. Somewhere along the way, it hits what appears to be a dead end. The convoy grinds to a halt and the drivers get out in hopes of reaching a unanimous decision on which route to take. No one’s worried at this point. They have made it this far after all. How hard could it be to find consensus on a way forward?

The Conference on Disarmament (CD) is the real-world embodiment of this hypothetical convoy. Its 65 drivers simply cannot find consensus on a way forward. And, as a consequence, the CD is now at a standstill following decades of collective progress on disarmament.

So, how did we get to this point? Part of the blame rests with the self-imposed structural constraints within the CD. While the universal and democratic nature of the CD’s rules of procedure is not without merit, it simply is not working.

Take the alphabetical rotation of the presidency and the rule of consensus as examples. While these have been two of the CD’s most lauded features, the rotation of over ninety presidents (the preceding being Iran, which, was not without its problems) and the CD’s failure to reach consensus since 1996 have produced little more than a broken record of rhetoric, whose raison d’être rests solely on moratorium.

The CD’s lack of progress has fueled lots of criticism. To many, certain CD members have failed to demonstrate a substantive commitment to working in good faith to move the organization forward. This has resulted in the CD becoming an “oblivious island of inactivity.” United Nations (UN) Secretary General Ban Ki Moon summed up this criticism in his 2010 address to the UNGA when he bemoaned the fact that the CD was now at a “critical juncture” and risked being doomed to irrelevance without a general revitalization.

In response to this criticism, the organization has arguably re-focused on transparency and confidence building measures among members over the last three years. Unfortunately, this has come at the expense of making substantive progress on universal disarmament. It is no wonder then that the CD’s longstanding reputation as  “the single forum of multilateral negotiations towards disarmament” has been challenged by alternative international forums that have sprung-up in response to the CD’s well-publicized shortcomings.

The Open Ended Working Group (OEWG) and the Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons are but two examples of how the international movement for disarmament has moved beyond the CD. While representatives in these forums are not mandated to negotiate treaties, their discussions are fed back into the CD and other international governmental organizations. These organizations have proven more effective and innovative because their different codes of conduct have allowed for more open and inclusive discussions.

Granted, there are qualms in not having all nuclear-armed states always present in these discussions. However, one should not understate the impact that these forums could make in the field of disarmament. As outlined in one of the papers presented by the New Agenda Coalition (NAC) to the OEWG, non-armed states can be authoritative voices on disarmament. After all, some of these are states still dealing with the entrenchment of nuclear arms in non-armed states from wartime alliances such as NATO. Papers presented to the OEWG called on these states to lead by example, by rejecting nuclear weapons from being stationed on their territories. Civil society groups have also been adding their voice to the global disarmament discourse, providing policy alternatives such as divestment and the possibility to incorporate greater involvement from corporate groups through domestic legal frameworks.

What makes these forums significant is that they have been borne from a clear commitment to engage in seeking reforms within an environment conducive to such discussion that is not currently offered under the CD. Furthermore, the wide array of attendees who actively participated in its actualization is remarkable. Pacific Island countries (PICs) need to recognize this, and recognize that our own vulnerability warrants greater reason to voice concern and to actively engage in these discussions as well. Breaking down the CD’s state-centric discourse and its exclusive and subjective terms of membership to “civil” states, is not only necessary, but well overdue.

This is not, of course, to dismiss the CDs past accomplishments. But one cannot live in the past. Articulating the CD’s many milestones only illustrates the long lull of inertia that has characterized the CD since 1996. And, it brings into question the CD’s continued relevance.

To be clear, acknowledging the increasing irrelevance of the CD does not mean we have surrendered to the status quo. The CD has not so much become irrelevant as it has a reference point, a stepping-stone in our collective journey towards disarmament. Political will remains all but latent within the confines of the CD and the mournful lament over its absence is a disservice to its growing persistence elsewhere. It’s time to move on and find new pathways to disarmament. We cannot afford to rely on the CD as the sole medium of mobilizing change.

If we are to achieve disarmament in our lifetime, we must continue to enforce the need to disarm. We must acknowledge that the will to do so and the conditions under which it can happen vary. States and other stakeholders committed to reaching disarmament must then be encouraged to create new structures through which this can be achieved.


Keiko Ono is a 2013 Pacific Young Leader on Disarmament. She is of joint Japanese and Papua New Guinean descent.

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