UNSSOD III: Setback for Multilateralism

Thirty Japanese monks in orange robes sit on the sizzling New York pavement, banging drums and chanting. In the building behind them, Palestinian pacifist Mubarak Awad holds a press conference, explaining why Israel had deported him the day before. Across the street, Mother Teresa lopes along in sandals, waving at surprised espresso-drinkers. These are routine scenes around the United Nations. But the Special Session on Disarmament is not routine; it is only the third such session ever.

By Metta Spencer | 1988-08-01 12:00:00

THE FIRST AND Second Special Sessions on Disarmament ("UNSSOD I and II") showed the size of the peace movement. In 1982 one million people marched to Central Park. Fewer march for UNSSOD III, which perhaps should have been postponed until after the U.S. elections.

There's less public interest this time, though 100,000 people did march to Central Park. Similar rallies were held in major cities around the world. Twenty-three heads of government have come to speak -- the most ever. New Zealand, Australia, the Soviet Union, Norway, and Canada have brought members of nongovernmental disarmament organizations ("NGOs") as observers or full delegates. I was one of about twenty Canadians to spend a week each with our delegation as "Special Advisers" who were not really expected to advise. We sat in the closed Working Groups that proposed text for the Final Document. Our biggest kick was writing, with the New Zealanders, a clause calling for more use of women's expertise.


The purpose of the month-long Special Session was to create a Final Document to guide future multilateral disarmament efforts. To be sure, disarmament is discussed every year anyway at the U.N. However, in those sessions the objective is to win votes. Special Sessions, on the other hand, purposely avoid voting at all, seeking instead a consensus.

A consensus document is usually a wishy-washy thing, representing the lowest common denominator of international opinion. On the other hand, such documents have greater authority than can be attained by voting. General Assembly resolutions, even those passed by overwhelming majorities, are routinely disregarded by any nation that does not like them.

Diplomatic efforts at consensus are usually as slow as glaciers. One can hope only to advance an inch here, a quarter-inch there. However, at times brilliant consensus documents have been developed. The Final Document of UNSSOD I was extraordinary and forward-looking. It priorized disarmament goals in terms of urgency: nuclear weapons; other weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons; and finally, conventional weapons. It urged the halting of nuclear weapons tests and recommended the establishment of nuclear weapons free zones. UNSSOD II, on the other hand, was considered a failure, since no Final Document was adopted because of the absence of a consensus. Now UNSSOD III also fails.


UNSSOD III began at the end of May with a week of speeches by leaders of the various countries. By the second week, while speeches continued, three working groups were also beginning to meet, revising a text, phrase by phrase. In addition, each chairman consulted behind the scenes. In the end, none of the Working Groups reached consensus, and each Chairman's synthesis had to be presented only as his own report.

Finally, during the fourth week, the Committee of the Whole reconvened to consider the final draft proposed by its Chairman, Ambassador Mansur Ahmed of Pakistan. It was the subject of intense consultation for days, in a vain attempt to hammer out a text to which no delegation could raise major objection.

To the press, the momentous events were the addresses by top-ranking ministers. Unlike the Working Groups, these events were open to the public, though from where we sat on the floor, only about fifty people at a time could usually be seen in the visitors' gallery. This changed from minute to minute, according to the prominence of the speaker. Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze delivered his electrifying speech, full of bold new ideas, to a packed and thrilled gallery. Canada's Joe Clark half filled the gallery; and a little later, the U.S.'s George Shultz again almost packed it. During Shultz's speech, armed men in blue shirts stood at the front rail of the gallery, facing the audience instead of Shultz.

After a speech, delegates line up to congratulate the speaker -- a noisy practice that goes on while the next person is at the rostrum. The more prominent the speaker, the longer the congratulatory queue (Joe Clark attracted a respectable thirty admirers), and the quieter his audience. Shultz's audience was hushed, though his speech merited no such rapt attention. In fact, it put me to sleep, so I had to read it later. I should have paid attention. It contained clues as to what would happen next.


Rajiv Gandhi was an eloquent speaker, calling for a binding plan of action for general and complete disarmament by the year 2010. He also called for early negotiations on a new treaty to replace the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which would bind the nuclear weapon states to eliminate all nuclear weapons by the year 2010 and bind all non-nuclear weapon states not to acquire any. India never signed the NPT (which it regards as discriminatory) and subsequently tested a "peaceful nuclear explosion." If Gandhi is to restrain the growing political forces at home that want India to develop a nuclear arsenal, he needs strong international support for his proposals. Unfortunately,, he got only weak support at UNSSOD III, since he was opposed by the U.S. and Britain.

The question of "horizontal" versus "vertical" proliferation became a big controversy at UNSSOD III. The conflict was not between East and West, but between the U.S and allies versus some nonaligned states, especially India.

Instead of talking about reducing the arsenals of the nuclear weapon powers, Joe Clark and George Shultz both talked about keeping nuclear weapons technology from spreading among other nations. This, in itself, is an admirable objective. How-

ever, the nonaligned nations have ample reason for mistrust. In 1968, when the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was being negotiated, they were asked to promise never to acquire nuclear weapons. In exchange for this pledge, they extracted a promise from Britain, the U.S. and the USSR to cease the arms race and conclude a Comprehensive Test Ban (CTB) Treaty. (This last promise was specified only in the NPT preamble, since the nuclear powers resisted being pinned down in its articles.) Now neither the U.S. nor Britain will consider a CTB.

Canada's actual voting practices each fall have been making it easier for those two countries to refuse such negotiations. At the last General Assembly, Canada supported only the weakest of three CTB resolutions, calling merely for a "study" instead of real negotiations. When we asked for an account of these votes, we heard only lame excuses. The main one was that, since the United States will not now accept a CTB, it would be useless for Canada to offend them by voting according to our long-held principles and policies. The officials suggest that, by showing solidarity, perhaps they can sway the U.S. administration in the long run to change its mind. We were hardly convinced.


In another area also -- verification -- Canada's contribution to UNSSOD III was of mixed value. Since the Soviet change of heart on verification, it has been easy to reach a consensus on the principles. The Six Nations proposed the creation of an integrated monitoring and verification system under U.N. auspices. The U.S., on the other hand, favors reciprocal, bilateral verification for its agreements with the Soviet Union, while grudgingly admitting that multilateral verification is necessary for multilateral treaties, such as a Chemical Weapons Convention or the Non-Proliferation regime. To define a U.N. role, Canada and the Netherlands jointly proposed that a study be undertaken by the U.N., defining the role and methodology of multilateral verification. Some delegations saw this as undercutting the stronger proposal of the Six Nations, but reluctantly accepted it anyhow for the sake of consensus.

Canada completed the Session with its good international reputation intact. The delegation had arrived in New York better-prepared than average and with a number of proposals ready. Ambassador Roche says that the planning had benefitted from input of the Consultative Group, though few of the Consultative Group's recommendations were actually put forward. Canada was a leader in expanding the U.N. role for women and NGOs. The draft document that was almost signed on the final night of the session incorporated those proposals.


No Final Document was adopted. Meetings went on throughout the last night, until finally only six clauses lacked consensus. Ambassador Maj-Britt Theorin of Sweden said sadly that, with only four more hours of work, they might have succeeded. This seems unlikely. The consensus was blocked by the American delegates, who couldn't get new instructions in time to change.

Almost as important as the document itself, however, are the side effects of the process. The failure of UNSSOD III was far from total. If a Final Document had been adopted, it would have been phrased only in generalities. While the nonaligned countries compromised greatly, the U.S. was unprepared to budge at all. The thing to do is plan another UNSSOD for, say 1991, when a new U.S. administration may be ready to look at its place in multilateral institutions. Anyway, consensus-building work has value, even when it is not fully attained. There is value in bringing officials together from nations of diverging perspectives, for this develops new ideas and greater mutuality.

Likewise, there is value in bringing peace activists together with public servants. Working together on clauses, partying and singing together in a raucus Italian restaurant, we improved the basis for future dialogue. Saying goodbye, we wished each other well. Such a way of handling our differences is peace.

Metta Spencer is Editor of PEACE Magazine.

Peace Magazine Aug-Sep 1988

Peace Magazine Aug-Sep 1988, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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