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Making the Conference on

Disarmament Work
By Ms. Charity Porotesano
Published: October 14, 2013

Action taken in the aftermath of a catastrophic
attack is an action already too late. Think about
Syria and the chemical weapons attack. Think
about the innocent lives lost and what could
have been done to prevent it.

As governments around the world reacted to
the Syrian crisis, one thing was clear
weapons of mass destruction (WMD) have a
distinct ability to mobilize world leaders into
action. But reaction is not prevention.

States must continually work to ensure that
attacks do not occur in the first place. For this
reason, multilateral forums are essential. They
provide a space for states to work together to
prevent atrocities before they are carried out.
When it comes to WMD, this forum already

The Conference on Disarmament (CD) is the
worlds foremost multilateral disarmament forum
designed to negotiate, on a consensus basis,
treaties that prevent catastrophic attacks. Yet,
its track record is contested, inconsistent, and
like all fragile relationships troubled by trust

Like any relationship, it has had its high points.
The successful negotiation behind the
Biological Weapons Convention, the
Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Chemical
Weapons Convention, and the Non-Proliferation
Treaty attests to the CDs capacity as a
multilateral institution.

But in more recent times, the relationship has hit
a rough patch, plagued by arguments and
entrenched positions. Participants have been
using the consensus rule to block negotiations
on the next logical disarmament step, the Fissile
Material Cut Off Treaty (FMCT). And as a result,
the CD has been stuck at an impassefor 17
years now.

To overcome this impasse, many nuclear and
non-nuclear states have decided to extend
disarmament discussions to outside forums.
The United Nations Permanent Five (P-5) states
on the Security Council have begun holding
their own conferences on the issue. Newer
bodies also are emerging, including the Open
Ended Working Group (OEWG), where non-
nuclear states hope to engage in freer, more
creative discussions.

At first glance, discussions outside the CD may
appear a good idea. But on closer inspection,
they will prove otherwise. As these states have
begun working outside the CD, they have
merely formed groups with like-minded peers,
reinforcing viewpoints they already share and
leading to little in the way of a breakthrough.

Charity Anna Porotesano is a 2013 2014
Young Pacific Leader on Disarmament. She is
also a former Truman Fellow and a recent
graduate from Grinell College. She hails from
American Samoa.
Insights and Analysis from Next
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In March, United States (US) Ambassador
Laura Kennedy announced that the P-5 is
committed to upholding the step-by-step
negotiating approach of the CD and will not
participate in the OEWG. Two months later, the
OEWG responded by saying it remained
committed to finding an alternative process to
the step-by-step approach. These statements
only serve to underscore the existing division
and mistrust between nuclear and non-nuclear

These trust issues will persist, whether or not
disarmament is negotiated in the CD. Despite
the deadlock in negotiations that have given
rise to these outside forums, there is still no
other viable alternative to the CD. In 17 years,
no new framework has arisen to replace it. The
CD remains the strongest forum for multilateral
disarmament, hands down, specifically
because it brings every single nuclear state and
many of their non-nuclear neighbors to the
same table. This fact cannot be overstated.

In my home of American Samoa we do
something similar. Traditional leaders - our
chiefs set up village council meetings to
discuss issues. Ideally, consensus is reached
and the high chief makes a final decision. But
theres more to it.

This system works because of how the
relationship has evolved over time. Village
residents accept the decision because they
respect the high chiefs wisdom. Our chiefs still
wield a lot of power over communal issues.
Knowing that they must work together in the
future, families rarely challenge the chiefs
authority. Issues are usually resolved quite
quickly, because no one wants these matters to
move beyond their control and into the courts.

This type of system reminds us that although
leaders are expected to make decisions based
on good faith what really drives individuals to
act are the relationships within the decision-
making apparatus. There is an unspoken social
and political pressure to handle issues quickly
and communally, before they spiral beyond our
control. The CD would be wise to remember
If the FMCT is to have any chance of moving
forward, state negotiators must first work on
establishing more trust in their relationships
and the CD is still the best place to do so.
Stronger trust fosters better collaboration. It
helps future negotiations, and it will help to
strengthen enforcement of the landmark
conventions the CD has already put in place to
make this a safer world.

There are an estimated 17,300 nuclear
weapons still out there, presumably in less than
a dozen countries; so action is very much
needed. In order for treaties to hold these
nuclear states accountable, and in order for
next steps like the FMCT to be taken, the
participation of all states in the decision-making
process is essential. This is why the CD exists.
This is why there is no better solution.

As U.S. President Barack Obama stated in his
2009 disarmament pledge in Prague, This goal
will not be reached quickly perhaps not in my
lifetime. It will take patience and persistence.
But now we too, must ignore the voices who tell
us that the world cannot change. We have to
insist, Yes, we can.

The views expressed are those of the author