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Strengthening the framework for multilateral arms control and disarmament: A new role for the First Committee?

New York, 3 October 2006
Ian Anthony, SIPRI

1. The problem to be addressed

In May 2006 the Australian Ambassador for Disarmament pointed out that a number of recent cases have underlined how much more effective bodies like the IAEA have become at detailed detective work, dissecting the activities of states to reveal inconsistencies. Nevertheless, she went on to note, even with these improvements in the machinery of monitoring and analysis we are unable to deter some states from activities that are inconsistent with their commitments and in certain cases unable even to establish a shared assessment.

It has been widely recognized that there are serious difficulties in achieving the objectives that have been established in multilateral arms control treaties and agreements. While some have pointed to so-called ‘loopholes’ in the relevant documents, it is easier to sympathise with the perspective put forward by Swedish representatives in the First Committee in 2005, that it is not so much the content of the international legal framework that needs to be in focus, but the behaviour of states in relation to it.

The difficulty is well known. The 2005 Review Conference of the NPT achieved practically nothing. The final declaration from the UN World Summit in September 2005 was not able to say anything about arms control and disarmament. Experienced observers are already asserting with confidence that at best the forthcoming conference to review the Biological Weapons Convention will produce modest results.

While this could lead to a pessimistic or negative assessment of recent tendencies in world armament, in fact governments have begun to find creative ways to work together to try to achieve important arms control objectives in spite of the difficulties noted above. A range of measures of different types have linked the efforts of many countries in activities carried on outside the traditional multilateral processes but aimed at implementing norms contained in arms control and disarmament treaties.

These are important processes that deserve the widest possible support because they address the issue of compliance, which is the most serious current challenge facing arms control.

One approach that SIPRI has particularly studied and supported is the provision of international non-proliferation and disarmament assistance. States with the necessary capacity have provided financial and technical assistance to find, secure, collect and (wherever possible) destroy leftover and unwanted WMD and related materials. The Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction agreed in 2002 by the group of eight industrialized countries exemplifies this approach. Under the Global Partnership a basis for cooperation was established to identify and pursue projects, in the first instance in Russia, intended to support the objectives of the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Biological Weapons Convention and the NPT.

Another part of this is loosely coordinated effort was set in motion in April 2004 by the United Nations Security Council when it passed its Resolution 1540. This Resolution makes it a responsibility for every state to introduce criminal penalties against companies or individuals that illegally possess or try to trade in WMD, and it demands that every state should have effective physical protection measures, export controls and transit controls in place for the most dangerous items and technologies.

There have been significant developments in the World Customs Organisation, which has agreed a Framework of Standards to Secure and Facilitate Global Trade (known as the SAFE initiative). The adoption and implementation of these standards should help to block unauthorised access to proliferation-sensitive materials and equipment as they are moved from place to place for legitimate purposes.

These efforts, and others that could be added to the list, support the goals of multilateral arms control and disarmament. They can also help to address the new concern that the non-state groups which have planned and carried out acts of mass impact terrorism will acquire ever more dangerous and destructive capabilities.

2. The process of peer review

At this point I would like to turn to the question of what role the UN First Committee might play in relation to the processes briefly sketched above.

It has long been standard practice for academics to submit their work for scrutiny by others who are experts in the field. The purpose of peer review is to improve the quality of an activity in two ways.

First, in any complicated activity it will probably be difficult to establish an approach that does not have weak spots of one kind or another. Through a peer review like-minded experts can help uncover these weak spots and suggest remedies for the problems identified. Moreover, it may be difficult to keep up with all of the new technologies and techniques in a given field and peers can help in this regard as well.

Secondly, peer review undoubtedly imposes discipline. Showing work to others is likely to reveal some weaknesses, but it is also an opportunity to demonstrate strengths. The knowledge that a review will happen offers a strong incentive to maximise positive achievements and eliminate weaknesses in advance in accordance with a clear time line.

At the same time peer review is not a form of verification. Reviewers make observations and recommend changes, but the party being reviewed is not obliged to accept the substance of the review. An author would be wise to consider points raised by a reviewer, but the full responsibility for the content of the work remains his alone.

Peer review carries no stigma, quite the contrary—it would be the failure to submit to peer review that would be regarded as unacceptable behaviour.

Peer review is a process that has been adopted as a part of regulation. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development is perhaps the pioneer, and the OECD has carried out reviews of individual members policies and efforts for many years. Five or six programmes are examined each year, so that every OECD member finds that some aspect of its economic policy is critically examined approximately once every four years.

In the OECD mixed teams are formed that include representatives of the OECD Secretariat who work alongside officials from two OECD members that are experts in the particular policy area under review. The country being reviewed provides a memorandum setting out the main developments in its policies and programmes in the given area.

The OECD team visits the capital to interview officials, parliamentarians, as well as civil society and NGO representatives of the donor country to obtain a first-hand insight into current issues surrounding the efforts of the member concerned.

The result of the field visit is a report that assesses how members are implementing agreed OECD policies and principles in practice. The report will also point to potential alternative approaches and male reference to the experience of others that have addressed similar issues in the past. Such reports not only provide a valuable resource for the country that is reviewed but also for others who have access to it and, not least, for the inspection team.

In the OECD a report might address an area such as gender equality or the delivery of development assistance. However, the European Union has recently adopted the idea of peer review in an area directly related to arms control. The implementation of the common and uniform legislative basis for dual-use export control in all member states in an enlarged EU was reviewed in 2004. To carry out the review officials from the European Commission were joined by national experts in mixed teams that twinned individuals from countries which have been members of the EU for some time with new members.

The review revealed discrepancies regarding implementing legislation, industrial awareness programmes, the technical capacities available to national authorities to evaluate licence applications and classify items, and as regards the intelligence infrastructure. The review also found that the application of the dual-use regulation differed with regard to the use of catch-all controls, the implementation of denial exchanges, intangible technology transfer controls, and transit and trans-shipment controls.

In the OECD the reports of review teams are available to all members. The OECD has developed a reputation for pulling no punches, and if a state with a negative review takes no steps to address identified problems then that will undoubtedly be taken into account by others in bilateral dealings. However, beyond this peer pressure the question of how to respond to the contents of a report is left to the state under review.

The European Union has taken an additional step by preparing a set of common recommendations and referring them to the highest political level for a decision on how to proceed. The result is a clear statement by senior political leaders that reducing the differences in national implementation of a uniform set of rules should be a high priority in the work programme of the EU in the next few years.

3. Applying a peer review in the United Nations

Would it be possible to apply an adapted version of the peer review approach to the work of the United Nations in the field of arms control and disarmament? It is a question that I am not qualified to answer as it requires a degree of procedural knowledge that I do not have. However, there are two areas where on the face of the matter there would be a good case for such an effort.

The first would be peer reviews of national implementation measures across the range of nuclear, biological and chemical weapon related multilateral arms control and disarmament treaties. The second would be the national implementation of the obligations contained in UNSC 1540.

In regard to arms control a system of peer review could allow for a tailor-made approach to assessing national implementation that takes into account the different sizes, capacities and policy idiosyncrasies of states. To illustrate, the assessment of national implementation of the NPT could take into account all three inter-related ‘pillars’ of disarmament, non-proliferation and the peaceful use of nuclear technology. A country assessment could be adapted to the specific conditions pertaining to nuclear weapon possession, the role of nuclear in energy policy and the approach of the country to nuclear research.

Work carried out in recent years has provided a great deal of material that could facilitate peer reviews. For example, in the framework of the Chemical Weapons Convention states drafted an Action Plan on National Implementation that identified many of the elements that should be put in place to comply fully with the CWC.

Discussing the implementation of the Action Plan within the OPCW almost inevitably carries the overtone of how to reach a judgement about CWC compliance. What consequences would flow from a finding that there are serious shortfalls in national implementation? A peer review—which clearly a cooperative and not a coercive effort and that has the objective of improving the quality of implementation—would yield much food for thought but equally carries no such overtones.

In the case of biological weapons a programme of work was agreed in 2002 that would lead-up to the 2006 Review Conference. This work was organized so that a number of key topics would be in focus. The first topics considered were the adoption of necessary national measures to implement the prohibitions set forth in the Biological Weapons Convention (including the enactment of penal legislation) as well as national mechanisms to establish and maintain the security and oversight of pathogenic micro-organisms and toxins. As a result, national experts prepared and agreed checklists of the critical legal and practical elements to be considered under national implementation of the BWC. The key substantive elements of a BWC peer review can therefore be said to exist already.

In regard to UNSC 1540, a great deal of preparatory work has been carried out by the special committee established under the Security Council to assist with the implementation of the resolution. Many states have submitted the reports called for under the resolution containing a catalogue of national measures that implement the resolution. These reports have been analysed by the experts working for the 1540 Committee, so that a detailed report on the current state of implementation is now prepared.

The broader participation that a peer review would involve would increase the sense of common ownership and participation in an activity that started life in and has been led by the Security Council. Moreover, in a complex resolution like UNSC 1540 a peer review carried out by mixed teams could help in ensuring that the necessary legal and technical expertise is available to evaluate national implementation—something that is difficult for a committee of the Security Council to achieve with what are inevitably limited resources.

4. A possible way forward to a UN peer review process?

The First Committee would, on the face of things, have the elements needed for a successful peer review.

The creation of mixed teams offers an opportunity in at least two senses. First, the teams can draw on the diverse technical knowledge of the states that make up the Committee—in essence the entire international community. Second, by teaming experts from countries with diverse economic and technical and capacities and with different political perspectives the peer review might begin to break down a number of firewalls that have, regrettably, begun to form in recent years.

A secretariat already exists at the United Nations that can help with the organization and administration of the process. However, the issue of what resources would be needed to carry out an ambitious process of peer review would inevitably have to be addressed. As noted above, in recent years the idea of international non-proliferation and disarmament assistance has begun to take root in a number of locations. Many states with the necessary financial and technical capacities now see a self-interest in supporting joint practical measures that facilitate the achievement of shared objectives.

Would it be possible to apply an adapted version of the peer review approach to the work of the United Nations in the field of arms control and disarmament? As I noted above, it is a question that I am not qualified to answer. I would simply like to offer the suggestion for consideration as the First Committee moves forward with its important work.