Multilateral Frustrations Generate Challenges for Disarmament Diplomacy

This week the Conference on Disarmament (CD) begins its second session of the year in Geneva, on the back of the two weeks of multilateralism in New York City at the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty’s third Preparatory Committee Meeting (PrepCom). The six presidents of the CD will meet this week, and meetings with a “general focus on nuclear disarmament” will commence on May 19th. This session of the CD will last until June 27th.

Formed in 1960 under the name the Ten Nation Committee on Disarmament, the CD has transformed into a multilateral disarmament treaty negotiating body at the United Nations in Geneva with 65 member states. The CD has completed a number of treaties in the past, including the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1992, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention in 1972, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968. These achievements are momentous in terms of how they have shaped the disarmament arena. But the CD is not without major flaws; operating by consensus means that one state can block a programme of work for the rest (Pakistan has been blocking negotiations on a fissile material cut-off treaty, for example). The group has not had a success in negotiating anything since the CTBT was finalized in 1996 (the CTBT, which would prohibit nuclear testing, has not yet achieved the necessary ratifications for it to enter into force). Lack of momentum in the CD has for some years led many to question its relevance and authority, and in turn, look for other ways to push past the deadlock.

The CD isn’t the only focus of frustration in the nuclear diplomacy realm. States parties at the NPT Review Conference in 2010 agreed to hold a meeting in 2012 on the establishment of a zone free of nuclear and weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, a core part of the agreement that enabled consensus in 2010, but there has been little sign of such a meeting taking place. The Egyptian delegation walked out of last year’s PrepCom in protest. Speaking on behalf of the Arab League last week, the Iraqi delegation to the NPT PrepCom announced they would reconsider support for the 1995 indefinite extension of the Treaty if the Helsinki conference is not convened by 2015. That indefinite extension had been secured on the back of an agreement to establish a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East (the so-called “1995 Resolution”). How the Arab League move would actually be operationalised remains unclear, but it is symbolic of the search for leverage to achieve progress on this file, and the temporary nature of the current status quo.

There is equal dissatisfaction with progress on the disarmament front. The three pillar system of the NPT was intended to balance non-proliferation of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear weapon states, with disarmament from the nuclear weapon states (UK, US, France, China, and Russia), with the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy. From the perspective of many member states, whilst the debate at the NPT meetings has often focused on disarmament, the effective focus of the international community, and in particular the UN Security Council, has been to establish tight controls on proliferation, whilst the nuclear weapon states have been left to their own devices to attempt disarmament at their own pace. The joint statement from the P5 nuclear weapon states this year indicated that their annual meetings (which began in September 2009, the fifth in Beijing last month) are currently a discussion forum aimed at building confidence rather than a practical negotiating space.

Some point out that getting these five states in a room to discuss nuclear weapons at all is a small triumph, given the broader geopolitical situations and relationships. The same goes for the P5+1/E3+3 (US, UK, France, China, Russia, Germany) negotiating parties who are working with Iran this week in Vienna to try and draft a comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Negotiators have a tough road ahead of them as this needs to be accomplished by July when the six month interim deal runs out.

In last week’s This Week column, Paul Ingram wrote that when states get together to talk about nuclear weapons in a multilateral setting, the problem isn’t necessarily the daunting coordination, but rather that “bigger problems lie hidden and unsaid, deeply buried within the operating model that governs international relations.” As a solution though, he goes on to say: “Greater understanding is required of the attachments involved, of the operating models that underlie nuclear “deterrence” and the broader strategic relationships in which all states are implicated. States need to take responsibility for the impacts of their actions and postures on international security.”

There are inevitably different priorities and ideas on how to strengthen international security structures, the interconnected issues are complex, and states are locked in competition not only over their own interests, but how those interests should be mediated by agreement. This makes the diplomatic efforts made at the multilateral level all the more challenging but also critical. It also means that if state parties value international agreements that give legitimacy to their positions and activities they need to be ready to compromise, to take seriously the signals from fellow member states about the health of the instruments they are involved with (such as the NPT), and to feel bound to the agreements they make. States frequently fall short of others’ expectations. Agreements need to offer effective leverage or appeal to states aggrieved within the process.

However, in the end, the international community has to face the fundamental challenges at the heart of some states’ physical and psychological attachments to nuclear weapons. It is not enough simply to point to past agreements or commitments.


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