U.S. Ambassador Bruce Turner’s Remarks to the Conference on Disarmament on the Program of Work Decision
As Delivered on March 16, 2023
I would like to make comments on three different issues. First of all, in support of the statement made by the European Union, we would simply like to reiterate that we are fully in support of International Women’s Day and the Women, Peace and Security agenda. The stark description of the disproportionate impact of Russia’s war of aggression and indeed all armed conflict on women and children is something we all need to remember and consider as we conduct our work in the disarmament sphere.
It is also an excellent reminder of the importance of considering all voices and all perspectives in our work. There is a well-established data set that shows peace processes are more successful when women’s voices – particularly from the impacted communities – are included. Speaking for the United States, we would like to see equally robust research dedicated to exploring the gendered nuances of each of the CD’s agenda items.
In response to what the DPRK said, given that this is a body which deals greatly with nuclear disarmament, I just wanted to set a couple of facts straight. In 2019, the United States withdrew from the INF Treaty because of a material breach of that treaty by the Russian Federation, as I announced a couple of weeks ago. I do not think the Open Skies Treaties is as relevant in this body since it was a transparency regime, but there too our withdrawal was motivated by a number of compliance concerns. And then finally with respect to the New START Treaty, I would simply note that it is Russia that has suspended its participation in this important bilateral treaty, not the United States. We call on the Russian Federation to return to compliance and to return to implementation of that treaty. And finally, of course, let us not forget it is the DPRK which is developing, expanding its nuclear program in violation of numerous UN Security Council resolutions.
And finally, President, I would like to return to your remarks at the very beginning of this meeting, since none of us were given an opportunity to say anything at that moment. You have announced that there is no consensus. I would like to know a little bit more about where things stand. I think there has been a rather lacking amount of transparency in terms of what has actually happened, what the problems actually are, what are the issues that we still need to solve in order to get an agreed program of work and the coordinators. So I would very much appreciate a briefing on where things stand.
I want to welcome the statement that was just made by our Russian colleague – we would very much like to see it in writing. I think there are some things in there that we would certainly look forward to discussing. I welcome in particular the emphasis on a more interactive format for the Ad hoc Committees, or whatever we want to call them. I won’t go into the observer issue today, but I prepared some thoughts also on how we can take our work forward. Since our Russian colleague has been generous in explaining some of the reasoning behind how they are approaching this, I would also like to submit some ideas for consideration.
At the beginning, I would say we regret that we are where we are today – that we still do not have an agreement on a Program of Work, or on the observer question, or on the coordinators for each of the Ad hoc Committees, even taking into account the exceptional geopolitical circumstances that continue to affect our work. And as I said before, we also regret a certain lack of transparency with respect to the consultations that took place, because I think that some of these issues we need to discuss.
The lack of consensus is even more regrettable when one considers that this year’s suggested Program of Work is identical to last year’s, but for the change of name from Subsidiary Bodies to Ad hoc Committees.
We also regret the fact that there was no agreement to devote part of our work program to reviewing and reconsidering our working methods. If the last couple of years have shown anything, it is that our current working methods have only led to stasis. We look forward to the promised consultations on this issue during the French Presidency.
At the same time, I would like to hope that these apparently negative developments might also have their positive sides, provided of course that we are all prepared to work together in good faith to take some modest steps to improve, however slightly, the current state of affairs.
In that spirit, and being relatively new to the Conference on Disarmament, I’ve thought a lot about how we might better facilitate our work and would ask that we give thought to the following suggestions for shaping our work over the coming year, and ideally beyond, consistent with the elements I noted above. First, these suggestions are in accordance with the basic principle of consensus, which we value, but perhaps has been misused in different ways to stymy our work. I am also fully aware that some of them we could address through practice, and others we might consider eventually through changes to our Rules of Procedure. My aim today is simply to identify some of the things we could be thinking about.
First, if this year’s Program of Work is virtually identical to last year’s, why can’t we agree in the future that the same essential Program of Work will be maintained from year to year, unless delegations decide otherwise? The reality is that this is not so much a Program of Work as merely an overall framework to structure our work.
Second, the same applies essentially to the five Ad hoc Committees, which also do not need to change from year to year. I would suggest that the plenary agree, here also, that the Committees will continue from year to year, unless there is a consensus decision to do otherwise. This will ensure that all subjects are covered at all times and that our work remains comprehensive and balanced. This decision could be recorded in the annual program of work, where we lay out dates and considerations for the following session.
Third, if my first two suggestions were focused on continuity, we also need to balance that with flexibility, especially in the Ad hoc Committees. In its basic meaning, the most an Ad hoc Committee can do is make recommendations to the decision body, the plenary; it cannot take consensus decisions itself.
We should give the chairs of those Ad hoc committees the freedom to structure discussions in their respective bodies in the manner they believe will be the most productive. Along the lines of how the Open-Ended Working Groups are managed, the chair should be able to propose tentative agendas and timetables to take work forward, while taking into account the views of delegations in the process. Rather than engaging in long discussions to prescribe the Ad hoc Committee working methods, why don’t we give the various coordinators the leeway to explore what works best for each individual Committee they are leading?
The chair should also have a certain amount of freedom in determining how best to report the results of each Ad hoc Committee’s work to the plenary. And here’s where I disagree a little bit with our Russian colleague. We agree that, ideally, each report on progress achieved would be agreed by consensus, by which I mean to say that all the relevant views should be represented. But we should also remain open to other possibilities. One option would be orally to brief the plenary, as the Subsidiary Body Coordinators did last year. Another would be to submit a paper under the coordinator’s own authority that notes areas of potential convergence and divergence and possible ways forward.
My point here is that, until such time as the plenary deems appropriate for taking a decision on a certain item, we should allow the process as much flexibility as possible. The meetings should be off the record, perhaps with the exception of the first and last as was just mentioned, so that delegates can explore issues in depth and beyond their talking points. There is nothing wrong with taking discussions into the next year. In the end, we are setting up a process that can eventually lead to negotiations, and it is in our common interest to allow that process to proceed at its own speed and in its own direction until such time as it is possible to speak of an emerging consensus on the way forward.
Speaking of process, I cannot accept the argument that the Conference on Disarmament is doing nothing, and is nothing more than a talk shop, unless and until it is actively negotiating. In order for negotiations to be successful, there is a need for common understandings as to the underlying principles and basic elements of a future agreement. In my view, it would behoove us all to think of the Ad hoc Committees as informal bodies structured to build trust and those common understandings until such time as there is consensus to take the next step. An all-or-nothing approach will predictably get us nowhere.
If we can make our Ad hoc Committee process more productive, perhaps we can also apply some of those lessons to our plenary meetings, in particular to the rotating presidencies. One might argue, if we can succeed in making the Ad hoc Committees themselves more productive, that it does not matter whether presidencies last for one month or longer and there is no need to change the current arrangement.
At the same time, I think we would all agree that the current monthly rotation is in reality more an obstacle to, than a facilitator of, progress. The short term incentivizes presidencies to do less, rather than to aim higher. When they encounter difficulties, presidencies are tempted to bide their time and simply pass the hot potato to the following presidency. Even when there is progress, the term comes to an end so quickly that it is impossible to carry it forward in any meaningful way.
In sum, at the moment we are exactly where we were on January 23rd, and I cannot see how anyone could argue that this standstill has nothing to do with our work process. But we all need to recognize that we need to do more if we want this body to start working again.
Thank you, President.