U.N. Budget Cuts: Why Not Eliminate the Conference on Disarmament?

by Brett D. Schaefer

A number of people have rightly highlighted the absurd fact that North Korea this week assumed the rotating presidency of the U.N. Conference on Disarmament. North Korea is, after all, one of the foremost facilitators of nuclear proliferation, a promiscuous peddler of nuclear technology.

Pyongyang has detonated two nuclear devices in the last five years. It is striving to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear weapons. Its actions have violated numerous U.N. Security Council resolutions, and the Security Council has duly condemned those actions, directed it to “suspend all [ballistic missile] activities [and] abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs,” and imposed sanctions on the country. The Council reaffirmed these criticisms and extended the sanctions only a few weeks ago in Resolution 1985.

To be fair, this was not an election. The Conference presidency rotates among the 65 member states of the Conference and North Korea was merely next in line. But what is North Korea doing on the body in the first place? Shouldn’t we question the false moral equivalence that pervades the U.N. to the point that the countries most obviously violating the spirit and purpose of a body like the Conference on Disarmament can blithely participate and even lead them?

We should also question the worth of the Conference on Disarmament, which was “confirmed in 1979 as the single multilateral disarmament negotiating forum of the international community.” A nice goal, but the activities of the Conference hardly seem highly regarded among by its delegates. As North Korea assumed the presidency, a number of delegates took the opportunity to relate their opinions of the Conference on Disarmament:

— The Canadian delegate observed “that he had heard many fine speeches over the years in the Conference on Disarmament, and it was easy to dwell on the fact that in the last 13 years the Conference had failed to move forward on its core disarmament responsibilities … [T]he Conference on Disarmament was on life support because it no longer was the sole multilateral negotiating forum for disarmament. Indeed, it was not negotiating anything and had not been for a very long time.”

— The British delegate noted “an increasing number had drawn the conclusion that the Conference on Disarmament was no longer ‘fit for purpose’… There was also something rather worrying about an institution whose membership proudly proclaimed that it was the only multilateral negotiating body when that was self evidently not the case, or talks about membership of the institution being ideally suited to disarmament when so many United Nations General Assembly members were kept outside. But these were simply symptoms of a much deeper malaise; an unwillingness to show the necessary leadership.”

— The Nigerian delegate wondered “why now that the Cold War was over was the Conference on Disarmament going around in circles, paralyzed and unable to move forward on even the most basic of items such as the programme of work? The Nigerian delegation found this upsetting and disappointing and if they continued with business as usual they worried the very relevance of the Conference on Disarmament would be called into question.”

The U.S. delegate did not bother to make a statement.

The Conference on Development is funded through the U.N. regular budget. Earlier this year the Secretary-General announced that he was urging his staff to provide suggestions for how to cut the regular budget by 3 percent. This 3 percent cut is insufficient, but if the Secretary-General is really interested in cutting under-performing, duplicative, or irrelevant parts of the budget, why not eliminate the obviously dysfunctional Conference on Disarmament? In the U.N. regular budget proposal for 2012-2013, it is slated to receive $4.64 million. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

— Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at the Heritage Foundation and editor of ConUNdrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009).

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