Article 36 has endorsed a statement coordinated by Reaching Critical Will on disarmament machinery and the rule of consensus.

Article 36 considers that abuse of the rule of consensus by a handful of states has played a significant role in preventing progress on disarmament. This phenomenon has been most apparent in disarmament and arms control processes where the rule of consensus has been adopted as a formal rule (in the case of the Arms Trade Treaty most recently) or as a kind of custom (in the case of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons).

Too often, consensus has meant in practice that each state wields a veto. This has led to the paralysis  in the Conference on Disarmament, which has failed to undertake negotiations on disarmament for over a decade. It has also led to lowest common denominator outcomes, like the United Nations Programme of Action on Small Arms, which while establishing some important precedents, was undermined by the demands of a few sceptical states for weaker provisions and a non-legally binding status.

As noted in this statement, it is vital that the views of the majority of states prevail where matters of human life are at stake. Challenges such as a global treaty banning nuclear weapons must not be held back by a handful of (nuclear-armed) states, when the will of the majority demands that it be taken forward.

First Committee 2012 civil society presentations

Disarmament machinery and the rule of consensus

As many member states have pointed out during this Committee’s meetings, the Conference on Disarmament  (CD) has just ended yet another year without any substantive work. The Disarmament Commission flounders. The arms trade treaty negotiations held in July failed to reach agreement even on a significantly watereddown text. Even where agreement has been reached, such as the small arms review conference in September, the contents are weak or perfunctory—especially considering the non-legally-binding nature of the Programme of Action.

What is the common denominator at all of these fora and processes? The abuse of consensus.

When ordinary people think of the word “consensus,” we conjure up images of effective and concerted action, people, and institutions committed to forward movement to solve some of the most intractable problems plaguing local communities or the community of nations. Sadly, as many of you know from the long hours you spend in often frustrating meetings on disarmament and arms control issues, “consensus” at the UN is often more a barrier to commitment than the engine of its development.

During the past fifteen years of deadlock in the CD, countless diplomats have come and gone. Their farewell statements are typically full of laments and frustration at what might have been. Many have invested
incredible efforts in the CD, employing all their skills of practical diplomacy to overcome the challenges of the stalemate. Their governments have spent millions in tax-payer revenue to fund their posts. But their efforts have been fruitless as the rule of consensus has solidified into a veto.

Some in civil society along with governments have repeatedly warned that blind faith in, and strict interpretation of, the consensus rule have badly damaged UN-affiliated disarmament machinery. The abuse of
the consensus rule in combination with lack of political will has ensured that no real negotiations are taking place.

The blame for failure to achieve consensus in these meetings is usually placed on the so-called “spoilers” or “blockers”. However, the “spoilers” are usually those that benefit from the status quo in some way and/or that are suspicious of the international community setting norms and rules that could affect the way they conduct business.

The failure to reach agreement or truly substantive outcomes in each of these processes privileges the interests of each of those states that do not want to eliminate their nuclear weapons, that want to preserve
the possibility of putting weapons in space, that want to continue to buy or sell conventional arms regardless of their intended or probable use, that that don’t want stricter regulation of the licit arms trade or to combat the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. The current stalemates therefore only further the interests of the very few.

While some governments argue that the rule of consensus protects their security interests, it in fact functions to undermine the security of the majority—both governments and peoples—that must rely on the rule of law rather than the balance of terror to protect them. In the CD, for example, the nuclear weapon possessors are the only states using the rule of consensus as a veto. Thus it protects those that possess nuclear weapons, which they use as an instrument of power in their relations with other states.

This state of affairs negates a basic principle of the UN and especially its General Assembly—the sovereign equality of states—by allowing the interest of one or more states trump the interests of all the others. The
proper exercise of sovereign choice is when a state decides whether or not to adhere to an international agreement, not in being allowed to prevent that agreement from ever being achieved.

This misuse of consensus also results in increased investment in military-industrial complexes. The trend of growing military expenditure has been rightly criticized by many delegations at this session of First
Committee, but many of these same delegations do not support initiatives to get the CD back to work or to negotiate an arms trade treaty without a unanimous consensus rule. Without multilateral development of the rule of law on disarmament and arms control, the nuclear weapon possessors and other major arms producers and exporters will continue to pour massive funds into weapons and war while poverty and inequality increase throughout the world. The militaries and weapons industries will continue to consume the resources that could otherwise be spent on developing viable mechanisms for collective security and socioeconomic development.

The current situation also undermines the security of conflict-affected people, not to mention civil society’s capacity to engage on behalf of the citizens of these sovereign states. What security do ordinary people
threatened by the existence of nuclear weapons, the use of conventional weapons, and situations of armed violence have? How do they exercise their right to security and safety? Is there a way for civil society to
participate more substantively in UN disarmament and arms control processes? It has been possible outside of the UN—why not inside?

Creativity and new approaches must be a requirement from all those states that say they are in favour of nuclear disarmament or an arms trade treaty. Continued discussion on whether or not the problem is the
machinery itself or lack of political will is pointless. Many states do not seem interested in changing the status quo and the existing machinery is incapable of pushing ahead. This cannot be used as an excuse to do nothing. It is not acceptable to sit back and wait for political will to magically appear.

Unanimous agreements are important to strive for, but cannot be a pre-condition that prevents any progress for decades. Moving forward outside deadlocked fora to advance disarmament and protection of civilians is not to undermine the international system. At this point, it’s the only way to protect the security interests of the ordinary people everywhere that are being threatened by the status quo. Given the plethora of current disarmament and arms control challenges demanding urgent action, the UN machinery must evolve or it will eventually—soon—become obsolete.

There are a few resolutions at this First Committee that attempt to stimulate progress and move disarmament processes forward.

Austria, Mexico, and Norway have tabled a resolution that calls for the establishment of an open-ended working group that would convene in Geneva for up to three weeks during 2013 in order to “develop
concrete proposals to take forward multilateral negotiations for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons.”

This is a strong option for moving forward with multilateral nuclear disarmament: it meets the demand of the vast majority of governments for tangible work on this issue and it is in fact a more robust multilateral option than any that could be offered within the confines of the CD, where only 65 governments can participate. An open-ended working group would invite the full participation of all UN member states and perhaps civil society participation.

The NAM has called for a high-level meeting on 26 September 2013 in the margins of the next General Assembly session. While it will good to bring the same high-level attention to disarmament as the GA has
previously brought to other issues, this meeting will need to have tangible outcomes in order to add any value to the multiple discussion forums currently available.

Canada has tabled a resolution that would establish a 25-member Group of Governmental Experts to study elements of a fissile materials treaty. A GGE could address technical issues that could in turn contribute to effective fissile material control within a dedicated treaty, or a convention or framework agreement on nuclear disarmament. However, establishment of a GGE, and more broadly negotiation of a fissile materials treaty, must not serve as a pretext for delaying work on the larger imperative of elimination of nuclear weapons. The bottom line is that initiatives like the Austria-Mexico-Norway proposal and the NAM proposal that shake up the status quo will benefit the majority of people and governments of the world over the few states that seek to retain their tools of violence.

On the other hand, we are disappointed that the resolution tabled on extending the negotiations for the ATT stipulates that the conference will continue working under the rule of consensus. In July, operating under the rule of consensus meant that the treaty text was weakened to accommodate the concerns of a small minority, who were in the end still unprepared to accept the treaty. Operating under the same rules of procedure next March risks another failure, or a weak treaty. It must be the views of the vast majority of states that win out, not the few who seek to block, weaken, or delay an outcome.

A handful of countries should no longer be allowed to hold back the rest of the international community in tackling some of the most dramatic problems of our age. Stalemate and watered-down outcomes must
urgently be replaced by alternatives that can proudly be deemed “successful” for genuine human security and social and economic justice. Governments and civil society alike should not continue to settle for less.

Statement drafted by Ms. Ray Acheson, Reaching Critical Will of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, with the input of other civil society representatives.

Statement endorsed by:

Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy
Article 36
Control Arms
Global Action to Prevent War
IKV Pax Christi
Instituto Sou da Paz
International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA)
International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW)
Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy
Mayors for Peace
NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace and Security
Nuclear Age Peace Foundation
Oxfam International
Pax Christi International
Peace Action New York State
Permanent Peace Movement
Project Ploughshares
Soka Gakkai International
The Simons Foundation
Western States Legal Foundation
Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF)


Posted in: Conference statements,
Tagged: , , , ,