On 19 March, the first-ever Informal Civil Society Forum on the Conference on Disarmament (CD) was held in Geneva. Despite having recently ceased our reporting on the CD, we felt it was important to participate, as this was one of the rare opportunities where civil society gets to interact with the CD member states.

Informal interaction between states and civil society on disarmament issues

Michael Møller, Acting Secretary-General of the CD took the initiative to convene the meeting, which allowed for much needed interaction between states and civil society on the issue of disarmament and the working of the CD.

The objective of the forum was to “generate ideas and inject different perspectives into the discussions on the agenda items of the Conference through informal interaction among States and civil society representatives.” 

Møller and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who addressed the forum by video message, both emphasised the essential role civil society plays in all areas of disarmament and the need for the CD to embrace civil society. They also congratulated WILPF and its members on our 100th anniversary and contribution to “the cause of humanity”.

The forum consisted of five interactive panels comprised of representatives of CD member states and civil society. The first four panels discussed core issues of the CD: nuclear disarmament, the fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT), negative security assurances (NSA), and the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS). The fifth panel discussed the way forward for the CD and civil society.

Being SMART on nuclear disarmament

On the first panel, covering nuclear disarmament, Susi Snyder of PAX, former Secretary General of WILPF, outlined the evolution of global and national nuclear stockpile levels, and the general effect, as well as limitations of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to date.

She then introduced “SMART” objectives for nuclear disarmament: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time bound, concluding with two recommendations:

  1. Be SMART, negotiate a new legal instrument that explicitly prohibits the development, production, acquisition, possession, transfer, deployment, threat of use, or use of nuclear weapons, as well as assistance, financing, encouragement, or inducement of those acts.
  2. Be BOLD, Bright Opinionated Leaders of Disarmament efforts.
Keeping outer space free from weapons
Gabriella from WILPF's Reaching Critical Will speaking on the PAROS panel

Gabriella from WILPF’s Reaching Critical Will speaking on the PAROS panel

On the fourth panel, Gabriella Irsten of WILPF’s disarmament programme Reaching Critical Will discussed key issues on the topic of prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS).

WILPF believes that outer space should remain free from weapons and be protected against weaponisation, militarisation, and irresponsible behaviour. It is extremely important to keep space for peace in order to facilitate humanitarian needs, such as telecommunication, disaster mitigation, resource management, and development.

Why are we failing to protect space?

The international community and traditional multilateral forums, such as the CD, have failed to achieve any tangible results in protecting space. This is largely because international discussions tend to apply the consensus rule, or the idea that all governments need to be fully on board before agreements can be made.

The limited membership in the CD is another obstacle standing in the way of progress on the space issue. The EU International Code of Conduct process has shown that there exist certain tensions between states with more advanced space programmes and emerging space actors. Therefore, it is essential that all states have a voice at the table.

Establishing priorities in space security discussions

Space security is about socioeconomic concerns and about providing essential services to people. It also has significant humanitarian implications.

It is therefore key that international organisations, such as humanitarian organisations and civil society, are included in the discussion for a more comprehensive view of what priorities the international community needs to address.

Inclusion of these actors will advance our understanding of how to deal with space security, including as a part of the larger global security environment, instead of isolated from it. Unfortunately, such exchanges are not currently taking place in the CD.

Has the CD lost perspective of human suffering and global injustice?

WILPF’s Mia Gandenberger discussing the way forward for the CD and civil society

Mia Gandenberger, also of WILPF’s disarmament programme, participated in the fifth panel, which focused on the way forward for the CD and civil society. Since its inception, WILPF has been challenging militarism, working for peace, and supporting multilateralism. However, RCW/WILPF recently decided to stop reporting on the CD.

This decision was not taken lightly, and was motivated by significant and protracted issues. The CD has failed to engage in substantive work in the last 17 years and, despite this, keeps refusing to change its working methods and rules of procedure, to increase membership, or engage civil society. This makes the conference largely disconnected from the outside world.

WILPF feels that the CD has lost perspective of the bigger picture of human suffering and global injustice. Maintaining its existing structures that reinforce deadlock and keeping it operating inside a vacuum seems to be more important for some members states than fulfilling the objective for which the CD was created: negotiating disarmament treaties.

Changing the CD or addressing disarmament issues elsewhere

There still remains much to be done in the areas of disarmament and demilitarisation, whether it be nuclear disarmament, stopping the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, preventing the development of killer robots, improving regulation of the arms trade, reducing enormous military spending, or ensuring the use of gender analysis in disarmament.

While the CD continues to fail to function as it was intended to, such issues are being and will continue to be addressed outside of it, often led by civil society.

WILPF strongly believes that progress is not possible within the CD in its current form. This leaves the international community with two options: 1) Change the CD or 2) address such issues elsewhere.

The CD’s “we do not want progress here” attitude

The Civil Society Forum showed that civil society and governments can and should have increased interaction regarding the CD’s core issues, and that it is not just possible, but more productive to do so outside of the formal CD setting.

Without civil society pressure there are very few immediate consequences for governments failing to act. Preventing civil society participation in the CD is directly saying: “we do not want progress here.”

The Forum was still quite state oriented with every panel starting with government representative reading out prepared statements and civil society representatives having to share the last minutes at the end.

Also, framing the panels in accordance with the CD’s core issues might be redundant, since the CD’s failure to work for the last 17 years is in part due to the failure of states to think creatively about whether these are the issues or approaches most conducive to progress.

Adapting the CD and the UN system to today’s reality

The CD is in need of reform, just like many other parts of the UN, e.g. the UN Security Council, which also lacks broad and equal participation, as well as the misuse of veto rights.

WILPF believes that the CD should therefore be included in the overall re-structuring of the whole UN system and adopting it to today’s threats and overall reality.

For a list of panelists attending the CD, visit Reaching Critical Will’s website.