Dysfunctional Disarmament

GENEVA – As the United Nations Conference on Disarmament begins a seven-week session in Geneva, its future is on the line. Whereas countries and civil-society initiatives are on the move, the Conference has stagnated. Its credibility – indeed, its very legitimacy – is at risk.

The “CD,” as it is informally known, has long served as the world’s only multilateral forum for negotiating disarmament. Its many impressive accomplishments include the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. Much of this progress was achieved during the Cold War, proving that it is possible to create global legal norms even in times of deep political division.

Yet today, all is not well at the CD. It operates under a consensus rule, and its member states have different priorities. Some want negotiations on nuclear disarmament; others want to ban the production of fissile material for weapon purposes; and still others insist that such a treaty should also cover existing stocks. Some want a treaty on security guarantees for non-nuclear-weapon states to assure them against the threat or use of nuclear weapons; others want a treaty to prevent an arms race in outer space.

But, instead of compromise and the give-and-take of good-faith discussions, there has been paralysis. There was a brief glimmer of hope in 2009, when the sense of paralysis led the Conference to consensus on a program of work. Unfortunately, that agenda was never implemented. As a result, the CD has failed to make any substantive progress for 15 years. We simply must not let one lost decade turn into a second.