In this article, the author reports on the first plenary meeting of the 2012 session of the Conference on Disarmament.
By David J. Franco, 15 Feb, 2012
On 14 February 2012, representatives of the states parties to the Conference on Disarmament (CD) gathered at the UN headquarters in Geneva for the opening of the first plenary meeting of the 2012 session. Following the opening statement of this session’s Presidency (held by Ecuador) we heard the statements of several delegations including those of Croatia, Mexico, Switzerland, Colombia, Chile, Egypt, Iran, Syria, and the US. There were no substantive surprises as states sticked to their well-known, longstanding scripts. However, perhaps the most positive notes derived from the Presidency’s efforts to overcome the current impasse and from the UN Secretary General’s statement and message that either the parties reach an agreement on a way forward or the General Assembly will consider alternative routes for disarmament.
His Excellency the Ambassador of Ecuador Mr Luis Gallegos, who held the Presidency for the first time, opened the session highlighting that this year is of crucial importance for the future of the CD and that parties to the CD have a moral responsibility in finding the way to unlock the existing impasse (since 1996 the CD has not reached agreement on a single substantive issue). Thus, he placed the debate of the paralysis of the CD top of this year’s agenda and further called the parties to exercise political flexibility in order to overcome fifteen years of sterile negotiations.
The floor was then given to delegations and one by one these read their readily prepared statements. Here we heard a mixture of opinions. Whilst most of the delegations agreed that 2012 is of crucial importance for the future of the CD, their position with regards to the causes and solutions to the current impasse often differed to the extent that one could sense, grosso modo, the co-existence of two blocks of states: those who believe that the current impasse is due to the procedural characteristics of the CD (in other words to the fact that the adoption of decisions in the CD is procedurally based on the principle of consensus), and those who believe that the lack of progress is due to the lack of political will and flexibility of some states parties to the CD. Depending on which of the two blocks states find themselves in, their proposed way forward also differs: hence, those in the first block call for substantive changes in the structure and procedural elements of the CD, while those in the second block call for more political flexibility and less radical changes.
Of the statements of the various delegations, some are worth highlighting here. The Mexican delegation, for instance, reminded the conference of the work undertaken by Mexico on the occasion of the signature of the Treaty of Tlatelolco more than forty years ago, which established a nuclear free zone for Latin America and the Caribbean. In this regard, the representative of Mexico highlighted the organic relationship between peace and disarmament and argued that the establishment of free zones, while extremely important for the disarmament regime, should not be seen as goals in themselves but rather as stepping stones towards the ultimate goal of freeing the world of all nuclear weapons.
The representative of Syria, on the other hand, highlighted the lack of progress and pointed to the lack of political flexibility as its immediate cause. Further, without mentioning at any stage the name of Israel, the Syrian delegate indirectly referred to that country as the most destabilizing element in the Middle East. In this regard, the Egyptian representative referred to the importance of working towards the establishment of a Middle East Free Zone of Nuclear and other Weapons of Mass Destruction and stated that he has started to see things holistically, as opposed to seeing disarmament from the standpoint of a state party, as a result of the fact that he now sits in the podium next to the Secretary and the current Presidency (Egypt follows Ecuador in the Presidency and therefore now sits in the podium of the CD).
As per the Swiss delegate, he emphasized the need to overcome the current impasse and called for the elaboration and proposal of alternatives capable of leading the parties to progress. Further, the Chilean delegation intervened in similar terms and the Colombian delegation expressed the view that with increasing political flexibility parallel work in two directions is possible: that is, work towards the adoption of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) and work on the adoption of Negative Security Assurances (NSAs). Finally, the US delegate emphasized the willingness of her government to work towards finding a solution to the CD’s current deadlock and to further work towards the ultimate goal of freeing the world of nuclear weapons as stated in numerous occasions by President Obama.
Message of the United Nations Secretary-General
Towards the end of the plenary session, the Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva, Mr. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, delivered a message of the UN Secretary-General, Mr. Ban Ki-moon. Mr. Kassym-Jomart started his speech by emphasizing past achievements and reminded the parties present at the plenary that the CD has a great record despite its current longstanding deadlock. Nevertheless, his speech contained a clear message: one that, it could be argued, amounted to a clear threat (as far as words are concerned): ‘In 2012, the future of the Conference will be under the spotlight as never before. Lamenting the constraints of the rules of procedure or the “absence of political will” can no longer suffice as explanations for any further lack of progress. The General Assembly is seized of the matter and, if the Conference remains deadlocked, is ready to consider other options to move the disarmament agenda forward’.
The session ended with the closing remarks of the Presidency who made it clear that this year’s top priority is to reach consensus on the way forward. In other words, the CD is confronted with a serious dilemma: to be or not to be. For all the achievements of the past, the CD now faces its own extinction precisely at a time where the tide of disarmament is high in the agenda, at least rhetorically. On a more theoretical level, one is left wondering if consensus is the right way forward in a polarized world in which large groups of states have clear vested interests in preserving the status quo: fifteen years without reaching substantive agreements is a long time and if the CD fails to overcome its paralysis in 2012 the world should not fear the extinction of this forum in favour of existing or newer fora based on majority rules or coalitions.
Changes are often for the better and what may be seen as a threat to the existing disarmament agenda may in fact be seen as an opportunity to explore new venues. As a final remark, the Presidency discussed the issue of the involvement of civil society in disarmament matters generally and in the CD in particular, and pointed that several delegations have expressed their wish to increase civil society participation in the proceedings (as is more the case for example with the NPT and the First Committee of the General Assembly). However, upon discussing this particular issue with one delegate I was left with the impression that here, too, consensus is failing once again.