Change or perish

The WMD Blog

For the second time in four years, states interested in discussing nuclear disarmament are circumventing the Conference on Disarmament. The CD must change or perish.

By Kjølv Egeland
27 January 2016

The Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva—often presented as the world’s ‘sole multilateral negotiating body for disarmament’—was created as a successor to the Committee on the Conference on Disarmament at the First United Nations Special Session on Disarmament (UNSSOD-1) in 1978. The creation of the CD was seen as a victory for neutral and non-aligned states at the time, as it increased their representation and made conference presidency rotate among all members (in the CD’s predecessors, presidency had been monopolised by the two Cold War superpowers). The intention of the Non-Aligned Movement, which was responsible for calling the 1978 Special Session together, was to increase transparency in disarmament affairs, and to wrest the agenda out of the grip of the powerful few. It may sound crazy today, but the creation of the CD in 1978 represented a burgeoning democratization of multilateral disarmament, which was furthered when an additional 23 states were granted membership in 1995, and then another 4 in 1999, bringing the total number of members up to today’s 65.

Geneva Conference, representativeness vs effectiveness

Yet the expansion of members has come at a great cost, as the non-aligned’s greatest strength has become their greatest weakness. Due to the retention of rules of consensus that are both conservatively interpreted and applied to procedural as well as substantive matters, the overall increase in the forum’s membership has not implied a gain in political power for the numerically superior non-aligned and neutral states, but a plummeting of the regime’s effectiveness. What was intended as a movement towards greater transparency and inclusion, has ended up as a stultifying tyranny of the least interested. Not only has the CD failed to produce an agreement since 1992 (three years before the last round of expansion), the forum has not held a proper substantive session—that is, its members have not even agreed on what to talk about—for close to two decades. And what does the international community have to show for it?—A forum that may be more representative than its predecessors, but still only counts about one third of the United Nation’s total members.

For certain non-aligned states, which value the CD as ‘their’ creation, the CD’s poor track record is an uncomfortable truth. (For the states that prefer the status quo the situation is, of course, ideal.) Thus, a number of states blame the standstill not on the institutional architecture, but on a lack of political will among the CD members. This is of course true—there is a lack of political will—yet a lack of political will is not a 21st century phenomenon: certain states will always be opposed to whatever proposal is on the table. The problem is that with the expanded membership base, all else equal, the probability that one country or other will block the agenda is greater than at any time before. I am not claiming that the expansion accounts for the deadlock alone—the temperature in the relations between the great powers is another obvious determinant of whether agreements are produced—but the expansion has certainly not helped.

Three major multilateral agreements have been reached in the Conference on Disarmament and its predecessors: The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968, the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972, and the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1992. (After three years of negotiations, consensus on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty proved impossible to reach within the CD. Thus, Australia introduced the last draft to the General Assembly for adoption.) This will have to stand as an assertion, but I believe that none of those agreements would have been possible to achieve, or at least been even more difficult to negotiate, in the CD of today. The NPT, for example, was negotiated by eighteen states. Once those states had agreed on a draft, they sent the text to the UN General Assembly, where it was adopted by an overwhelming majority of the United Nation’s members. But four states voted against. Logically, if just one of those states had been represented in the negotiating forum in Geneva, the NPT we know would not have been adopted.[1]

What is the international community to do with this sorry state of affairs? The obvious answer is to circumvent the CD. As Norway’s then Foreign Minster Jonas Gahr Støre announced in 2011, given the deadlock of the CD, Norway would attempt to ‘establish a parallel track under the mandate of the UN General Assembly (with its rules of procedure). The intention with this initiative […] is to signal that it is in fact possible to imagine alternatives to the current impasse.’[2

The open-ended working group alluded to by Støre was successfully organised in 2013, and, with the recent adoption of a Mexican-led resolution creating a similar working group to be convened this spring, such forums appear to have entered the mainstream of the non-proliferation and disarmament regime.

Robert Wood, discourse police

Predictably, this development has been resisted by those benefitting from the prevailing rules and practices—the ‘discourse police’ as Iver Neumann calls them—who have attempted to frame the open-ended working groups as alien to the disarmament machinery. But the trend towards more democratic forms of international politics is unmistakeable across both time and issue areas. The CD was itself, in part, a product by this force. And if it does not adapt, it will be undone by it.

Rumours that the United States is now mobilising to bring the CD out of its coma suggest that at least one of the CD’s key members has realised that the CD is not irreplaceable. The open-ended-working-group process has, in other words, not just produced results of its own: by signalling that ‘it is in fact possible to imagine alternatives to the current impasse’, it has also provoked movement within the CD.

A charm offensive by the United States might be enough to unlock the CD for a time, but without substantial changes to its rules and practices, the CD will eventually be replaced.


The views set out in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Law and Policy Institute (ILPI).


[1] Several of the members of the ENDC abstained during the vote in the UNGA. See
[2] Author’s translation from the Norwegian.