Remarks to the Conference on Disarmament on Revitalization
As Delivered by Ambassador Bruce Turner
Thank you, Mr. President, for convening this important plenary and thanks also to you, the French Presidency, and UNIDIR for organizing the high-level retreat on revitalizing the work of the Conference on Disarmament (CD), which took place in late June in Montreux.
As the final plenary scheduled under Germany’s leadership, I would also like to congratulate you and your team on a successful Presidency.
As the sole negotiating body for multilateral nuclear disarmament, as is well known, the CD and its predecessor bodies have played a critical role in the formation of landmark nonproliferation and disarmament agreements, including the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention, and the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Unfortunately, the CD does not operate in a vacuum, and over the years it has also become well known that we have found ourselves in a state of stagnation and consequent, understandable frustration – reflecting the overall state of the current international security environment.
Despite the disagreements that bedevil our work, we believe it would be a mistake to dismiss our efforts on grounds that the CD is failing to “deliver.” In our view, it remains an important multilateral forum that brings together all nuclear weapon possessing states and other key actors, where the discussions that take place provide us an opportunity to gain a better appreciation of differing views as a first step toward finding eventual common ground.
While an absence of sufficient political will has been regularly cited as the primary obstacle to beginning negotiations on one or more of the issues that fall under the CD’s mandate, there are other ways we can make progress. Enacting only a few modest changes to our practices, or “small steps” as they were referred to during the retreat, could potentially improve the working methods of the CD without changing the formal rules of procedure.
As we highlighted in our food-for-thought paper, such steps might begin by improving continuity through the adoption of a multi-year program of work and creating multi-year subsidiary bodies for the various agenda items. Within those subsidiary bodies, successive regular reports could be utilized to capture where there is consensus, no matter how modest. We need to build in incentives for reaching consensus rather than simply documenting differences. We also need to make our work, especially in the subsidiary bodies, more interactive. A regular process of self-reflection on what we are achieving could also help guide our work and ensure we do not lose track of the bigger picture.
Beyond process improvements, we might also consider beginning negotiations on an arms control measure of less complexity, where achieving consensus is hopefully less onerous. One idea that comes to mind is an agreement banning the use of radiological weapons.
The international community has historically recognized the value of pursuing a prohibition on [the use of] these weapons, including in the final document of the UN General Assembly’s First Special Session on Disarmament (SSOD-1) and in substantive work in the CD. However, that work remains unfinished.
Such an effort could be the much-needed jumpstart the CD needs to get back on track and would allow delegations to hone their negotiating skills for subsequent, more ambitious undertakings. The United States is currently considering a possible UN First Committee resolution to that end.
UNIDIR’s updated compendium provides us with a variety of small steps, long strides, and major reforms that could enhance the effectiveness of our forum’s work. We have no problem with starting small, so long as we do start. We are glad to see the paper will be published as an official working paper of this year’s CD. All of these types of documents that relate directly to our functioning as a body should be part of the official record.
The CD is the master of its own destiny. It is now up to us as member states – within ourselves, and in collaboration with each other – to rekindle the desire to move forward.
I thank you.
Seeking a More Effective and Efficient Conference on Disarmament
Food for Thought Paper by the U.S. Delegation to the Conference on Disarmament
May 15, 2023
Much can be done to improve the working methods of the Conference on Disarmament (CD) without changing the formal rules of procedure (RoP). In the current environment, such an approach focused on actual practices may represent the most realistic path to revitalize the CD’s work methods and, by this means, the CD itself.
The CD can take steps to enhance continuity. The CD needs to be able CD to carry over its work from year to year, avoiding unnecessary procedural hurdles, and incrementally capturing progress made in each session. Finally, the CD can take steps toward more interactive discussions of its disarmament agenda. There follow some concrete suggestions.
Streamline the Program of Work and Observer States
The CD’s practices for adopting a Programme of Work (PoW) are more than ripe for change, as the current process is cumbersome and needlessly repetitive, in that it requires the body to repeat the same task year to year, starting from zero. Rather than debating and crafting a PoW for each new session, the CD could adopt a comprehensive and balanced PoW, based on the CD’s extant agenda, that carries over from year to year unless the CD decides otherwise, thereby freeing up time and resources for delegations to address substantive agenda items.
Another way to streamline the PoW would be to allow the coordinators of the Subsidiary Bodies (SB) more agency in structuring discussions in the manner they think would be the most productive, rather than prescribing their working methods within the PoW. Similar to how Open-Ended Working Groups are managed, the coordinators should be able to propose tentative agendas and timetables, while considering the views of delegations in the process. (Note: This paper uses the term “Subsidiary Body” to refer to the format for substantive discussions of specific agenda items, but does not preclude the use of another term, such as “Ad Hoc Committee.”)
As with the PoW procedures, the CD also duplicates time and effort by relitigating prospective observer states’ requests to participate in each session. The CD should instead agree to carry over any previously approved observer from year to year. The CD could begin by building on the 2022 PRC presidency decision on observer states.
Allow Flexible Subsidiary Body Work
Another avenue to increase the CD’s effectiveness, and move beyond the current all-or-nothing approach, would be to continue SB discussions in an informal format, as suggested by the RoPs. The goal would be a more interactive format for discussing agenda items in substance and avoiding formal national statements (which would be left for the plenary).
In a similar vein, it would also be important to treat SB reporting to the plenary as non-binding. SB coordinators would have the freedom to determine themselves how best to report the results of the body’s work to the plenary. Reports would be considered as mere snapshots, seen through the eyes of the coordinator, of progress to date. To preserve and protect the informal, non-binding status of any conclusions reached, whether the coordinators brief the plenary orally, or submit papers under their own authority, those reports would be considered as reflecting only the views of the coordinator, pending further action by the plenary.
Such an approach would reduce the time spent trying to reach agreement on a consensus document, while ensuring there would be some record of the discussions held. The report of the SBs’ work would serve as the starting point to take discussions into the following year, allowing the discussion and deliberation process to proceed at its own speed and in its own direction until there is a way forward that can be agreed by consensus. This would reinforce the SBs as informal bodies structured to build trust and common understandings until such time as a consensus begins to emerge, leaving it to the plenary to decide on additional action.
Another option for SB reports could be to supplement the informal conclusions of the coordinator with an additional, formally agreed section of “agreed conclusions” comprising those ideas that all states are comfortable in supporting. Initially, it could be as simple as agreeing that a particular issue is important. The aim would be to avoid the past practice of long negotiations which, in the end, only report “some delegations’” or “one delegation’s” position on an issue. Such an approach could help reframe the discussion and incentivize delegations to seek even small areas of agreement. The focus would be on areas of agreement rather than disagreement, thereby promoting consensus.
Foster More Interactive Dialogue
CD plenaries often only consist of member states delivering national positions, without any substantive exchange and discussion of the issues. If delegations are ever to progress towards negotiations, they need first to talk through their disagreements to identify areas of convergence. The CD has currently locked itself into a process that is duplicative of the UN First Committee model of national statements and rights of replies, rather than focusing on dialogue and deliberation. The same holds largely true for the UN Disarmament Commission (UNDC), which has become more a negotiation of existing national positions on issues rather than a substantive exploration focused on making useful recommendations to the CD.
In continuing the practice of holding SB meetings in an “informal” status, we could expand use of informal discussion periods during formal plenaries so that delegates would be able to explore issues in more depth. For example, the plenary could transition to informal discussions following formal plenary panel presentations, which would provide an opportunity for delegations to ask questions and learn from the experts, as well as engage with each other, before they subsequently, in formal session, express their national views. Experts could also be invited to offer further thoughts on any “agreed conclusions” flowing from the SB process.
Furthermore, the CD could contribute to its own substantive debates through a more deliberate strategy of seeking synergies with other disarmament bodies. For example, the CD (through the UNGA) could ask the UNDC to explore a narrowly defined topic or even a specific kind of measure that we would like to consider. This would allow each body to play a complementary – rather than duplicative – role in these discussions and therefore accelerate our eventual progress on key disarmament issues. Such an approach would have the added benefit of addressing the functioning of the “disarmament machinery” through practical steps to achieve better outcomes.