If its members wish to reclaim the place for the Conference on Disarmament that was envisaged by its founders, they must return to seeking multilateral agreements.
The deteriorating international security environment continued hindering the multilateral disarmament machinery throughout 2019. The unresolved matter of the issuance of visas affected disarmament organs at the United Nations Headquarters, resulting in the cancellation of the annual session of the United Nations Disarmament Commission and a delay of the substantive session of the First Committee of the General Assembly. The States members of the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva failed to overcome the deadlock that has lasted over two decades.
The work of the First Committee was overshadowed by growing tensions among major powers, particularly between the United States of America on one side and China and the Russian Federation on the other. Yet, despite the challenging global security environment and the considerable time devoted to addressing matters not necessarily related to its substantive work, the First Committee fulfilled its mandates for the year, approving 59 draft resolutions and decisions under various agenda items.
Separately, the States members of the Conference on Disarmament continued their efforts to begin substantive work, building on momentum created during the 2018 session. However, although proposals for a programme of work for 2019 were introduced by three presidencies of the Conference—Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Ukraine and Viet Nam—the Conference did not reach agreement on a proposal and, again, failed to start substantive work. With little prospect of adopting a programme of work, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which assumed the second presidency in mid-February, sought to establish new subsidiary bodies and special coordinators with a view to structuring the current session to build on progress from the previous year. Yet, despite the efforts of the United Kingdom presidency, agreement on its proposal proved elusive.
Nevertheless, consultations held under each of the six presidencies in 2019 enabled the Conference to discuss and examine various possibilities and potential language for a programme of work. In particular, during the presidency of Viet Nam, the Conference considered alternative approaches inspired by a suggestion put forward by the Netherlands to return to an earlier conceptualization of the programme of work. In a broader effort to commence substantive work, the Conference also held extensive thematic discussions on all core agenda items, while continuing to consider its working methods and the possible expansion of its membership. Despite more than two decades of paralysis in the Conference, a growing level of interest in its work was apparent from the requests of 50 States—a record number—to attend the 2019 session as observers.
Elsewhere, the United Nations Disarmament Commission was unable to hold its substantive session for the first time since 2005, dealing a blow to the effort to revitalize the multilateral disarmament machinery. Following its successful adoption in 2017 of recommendations on confidence-building measures in the field of conventional weapons, the Commission had started a new three-year cycle in 2018, addressing one fresh substantive agenda item, entitled “Transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space activities”, alongside an existing item on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. The Commission was unable in 2019 to complete its organizational session and, therefore, could not hold its substantive session from 9 to 25 April, as mandated by the General Assembly in its resolution 73/82 of 5 December 2018. Nevertheless, Member States held informal discussions on the two agenda items of its current three-year cycle in a bid to advance the deliberations on those issues.
Additionally, the Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters held its seventy-first and seventy-second sessions, addressing two substantive agenda items. Regarding the first item, “Measures to mitigate civilian harm resulting from contemporary armed conflict”, the Board, inter alia, recommended encouraging the General Assembly to further consider the issue of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, potentially leading to mandates for the further development of criteria, indicators and methodologies to measure the reverberating civilian impacts of such use. In addition, the Board recommended developing a systematic approach and consistent methodologies to pool data on the effects of such use of explosive weapons, possibly including economic effects in order to underscore the multidimensional impact. On its second substantive agenda item, “The role of the disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation regime in managing strategic competition and building trust”, the Board encouraged the Secretary-General to continue his high-level engagement with the five permanent members of the Security Council on the importance of cooperation aimed at reducing strategic competition and nuclear risks. The Advisory Board also highlighted the potential value of further engagement by the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs to identify options aimed at reversing current impediments to progress on disarmament. In that connection, its members called for a forthcoming study by the Office for Disarmament Affairs to include a review of the state of existing disarmament machinery.