The Conference on Disarmament (CD)* has met in vain for years. After the successful negotiation of the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963, the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1970 and, more recently, the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1992, the forum increasingly stagnated. The last time the Conference agreed to negotiate was in 1996 -- this time for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly but has yet to enter into force.

Ever since, the so-called "single multilateral disarmament negotiating forum of the international community" has been unable to undertake substantive work. In 2009, a Programme of Work was approved, but the CD failed to implement it.


Serious institutional problems in the CD derive from a cold war inheritance:1 the CD's rules and agenda have made it almost impossible to enable transparent and multilateral decision making.2 The lack of review mechanisms prevents accountability and institutional reform. The consensus rule, however, remains the greatest obstacle in the CD. In fact, in an increasingly multipolar world, this rule allows individual states to preserve the status quo at the expense of collective progress towards disarmament.

Sergio Duarte, the United Nations High Representative for Disarmament, has stressed the lack of political will. When Member States have been willing to negotiate, the argument goes, the CD has produced results. Perhaps it is the minimal prominence given to disarmament in domestic politics that explains why governments seem to care little about the CD.4 There are jokes about the fact that, while speeches at the UN Human Rights Council are closely monitored by foreign ministries, those at the CD usually go unchecked. These two dimensions are closely interlinked: good institutions can help enable decision making by providing incentives and accountability, which translate into political will. The opposite also holds true.


The problems of the CD are part of a learning process towards sustainable governance, linking international and domestic spheres at the global level. While diplomats and policy makers stand at the forefront in tackling the problem, roots run deep into local politics. Global institutions have difficulty crafting sound policies while at the same time satisfying national and, sometimes, parochial constituencies. When bargaining at international fora, governments remain largely dependent on domestic coalitions, public opinion, and, in the case of democratic countries, voters.

And when was the last time that nuclear policy, rather than unemployment or health care, dominated election campaigns within any of the democratic nuclear powers? Not surprisingly, disarmament is not a primary concern for electorates or for their representatives. The lack of high-level political involvement means that experts and bureaucrats are often left to deal with the issue, and they often excel at perpetuating old practices and ideas in which they have been trained.5 Take, for example, the regrettable taboo imposed on debates on security and disarmament. Behind the label of "national security," military plans and diplomacy go unaccounted for. Let civil society contribute to human rights, development, or humanitarian issues, but not to disarmament-one can almost hear the experts say. However, this mentality shelters experts from public scrutiny and limits their capacity to think "outside the box."

Indeed, contrary to common practices in many Geneva-based United Nations bodies, including those working on the disarmament of conventional and biological weapons, such as the Governmental Expert groups on the Convention on Conventional Weapons and on the Biological Weapons Convention, the CD does not welcome the substantive participation of civil society. In 2010, for the first time in history, a non-governmental organization was allowed to address the Conference during official proceedings. If governments are ever going to move towards disarmament, greater public awareness, civic engagement, and civil society participation are required.


The September 2010 High-level Meeting on Revitalizing the Work of the Conference on Disarmament and Taking Forward Multilateral Disarmament Negotiations, convened by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, recognized many of these issues. The meeting emphasized the role of weak structures and mechanisms, and the lack of commitment and political will, both of which were sustaining the deadlock in the CD. Governments suggested reviewing the rules of procedure, setting a deadline for the CD before taking negotiations elsewhere, calling for a Fourth Special Session on Disarmament, and broadening civil society participation. These proposals reflect biased and diverging priorities regarding the content of possible negotiations, yet they constitute an important step in openly acknowledging the problem.
Given the far-reaching implications of the current situation, I will propose four major changes that are required for sustainable progress in the CD:

  • Increased civil society participation. Greater visibility and political leverage derived from more open debates and participation can push governments to allocate more effort and resources, as well as political will, to multilateral bargaining. Civil society has contributed in the past to mobilizing public opinion and consolidating political support, for example, in the negotiation of international legal instruments banning landmines and cluster bombs.6
  • Broadening the agenda from national to human security. Disarmament nego-tiations continue to legitimize a vision of national security based on zero-sum gains and an overly-militaristic scope. Issues such as the underlying costs of weapons systems (and their negative effects on economic performance and development),7 the serious environmental threat implicit in nuclear deterrence strategies,8 and the incongruence between weapons of mass destruction and international humanitarian law should be brought to the forefront of the debate.9
  • Strengthening accountability mechanisms among governments, domestic constituencies, and legislatures. Increasing dialogue and engagement among parliamentarians, government officials, and civil society, for instance through ad hoc conferences, can contribute to holding governments accountable for their performance in disarmament negotiations.
  • Reforming the CD or seeking alternative multilateral avenues. The disproportionate weight given to the priorities of individual States is at odds with the legitimacy that the UN Charter places in majorities and with the current need for multilateral decision making. In cases of deadlock, the UN General Assembly, as the world's foremost multilateral body, has successfully facilitated bargaining processes. Given the legitimacy the CD derives from the UN General Assembly, a new Special Session on Disarmament could push the CD towards reform.10

Pursuing disarmament through multilateral engagement is difficult. As global problems become increasingly complex and intertwined, we must urgently learn from the failures of existing global governance institutions and mechanisms. Amidst the challenges of disarmament and international security, we must learn to make multilateralism work in order to "complete our education," as Arnold Toynbee said in 1933, "and we cannot do this at our leisure, for time is of the essence of the problem.a race between belated wisdom and premature death by suicide."


1 M. Krepon, "The Conference on Disarmament: Means of Rejuvenation," Arms Control Today, 36 (2006).
2 J. J. Gómez Camacho, "From Aspiration to Reality: Nuclear Disarmament after the NPT Review," (Remarks during the Middle Powers Initiative Conference, Geneva, 14 September 2010).
3 L. Cannon (Statement at the High-Level Meeting on Revitalizing the Work of the Conference on Disarmament and Taking Forward Multilateral Disarmament Negotiations, New York, 24 September 2010).
4 J. J. Gómez Camacho (Middle Powers Initiative Conference, Geneva, 14 September 2010).
5 M. N. Barnett and M. Finnemore, "The Politics, Power and Pathologies of International Organizations," International Organization, 53, 4 (1999): 699-732.
6 N. Short, "The Role of NGOs in the Ottawa Process to Ban Landmines," International Negotiation, 4: (1999) 481-500. The Oslo Process led to a Convention on Cluster Munitions adopted in Dublin by 107 States on 30 May 2008: J. Borrie, Unacceptable Harm: A history of how the treaty to ban cluster munitions was won, (UNIDIR, December 2009).
7 Report of the UN Secretary-General, "The relationship between disarmament and development in the current international context," (2004), and the Sustainable Disarmament for Sustainable Development Program (2005-2010) of the International Peace Bureau.
8 E. Harrel, "Regional Nuclear War and the Environment," Time, 22 January 2009; see also A.H. Joffe, "Environmental Security and the Consequences of WMD Production: An Emerging International Issue," Disarmament Diplomacy, Issue No. 54, February 2001 (Acronym Institute).
9 J. Borrie and M. Randin, Alternative Approaches in Multilateral Decision Making: Disarmament as Humanitarian Action, (UNIDIR, 2005); and J. Borrie and M. Randin, Disarmament as Humanitarian Action: From Perspective to Practice, (May 2006).
10 Discussion with Miloš Koterec, Geneva, 31 August 2010.