Bad Faith at the Conference on Disarmament

The fundamental principles of gender equality and fairness were trampled last week at the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD).

The fundamental principles of gender equality and fairness were trampled last week at the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD). We have often reported on the ways in which liberal values and principles are under attack here in Geneva, so no surprise there; however, this latest tale is not only shocking but also raises some serious questions about the ability of the CD to get back to work—just as peace and security issues are firmly back on the global agenda.

Russia, Syria, Iran, Venezuela, and a few other countries have blocked the adoption of a resolution demanding to make the Rules of Procedures (RoP) of the Conference on Disarmament gender neutral— a proposal which was initially presented last year by Australia when it assumed the presidency of the CD.  

On July 28, Canadian Ambassador Leslie Norton, President of the Conference on Disarmament, circulated a draft resolution among the 65 members of the UN-affiliated body. The proposed text had a single corrective purpose: To reflect the equality of men and women by making the Conference’s Rules Procedure gender neutral. It reads:

The Conference on Disarmament decides to make the following linguistic/technical updates to its Rules of Procedure:
1.      The text of rules 10, 11, 13, 16 and 37 of the Conference’s Rules of Procedure that is crossed out is replaced by the bracketed text in bold, as noted below.
Rule 10: “If the head of the delegation which performs the function of President cannot be present, he [the head of the delegation] may be replaced by a member of his [the] delegation. If no member of the delegation holding the chair is able to perform the function of President, the delegation next in order of rotation shall temporarily assume this function.”

Rules 11,13,16 and 37 were similarly modified.

“My country is convinced that women’s empowerment and gender equality have a direct impact on maintaining international peace and security.” –Peruvian ambassador Silvia Alfaro

The argument in favour of the adjustment was simple: referring to “he”, “him” and “his” in the Conference’s rules is not inclusive of women, and thus does not reflect the make-up of the body itself. The outdated language could be changed with a few fixes, without any bearing on the substantive work of the Conference. “Such a technical update should be automatic, like correcting a spelling mistake,” said Tatiana Valovaya, the Director-General of the United Nations Office in Geneva (UNOG).

“Every action counts, when it comes to breaking down barriers to gender equality, and my country is convinced that women’s empowerment and gender equality have a direct impact on maintaining international peace and security,” argued the Peruvian ambassador Silvia Alfaro, in her opening statement.

But on August 5, when the Canadian diplomat presented her government’s resolution to the CD, it may in fact have been dead-on arrival as a group of countries had already decided to oppose it, and the rule of consensus that prevails at the CD meant it couldn’t be immediately revived.

Iran, Syria, Venezuela and Russia—the countries opposing the change—carefully avoided criticizing the principle of gender equality. They chose instead to contest the resolution based on technicalities, objecting to the fact that the resolution was in English, and claiming that there was no urgency to the change, which was distracting the CD from its substantive work.

By the end of the discussion, fairness and equality—the very principles embodied in the draft resolution—were defeated by plain bad faith and a slew of specious arguments. For a number of female members of the CD, insult was added to injury when the Russian delegate claimed that there was no gender inequality at the Conference.

Although her words are carefully chosen to suit a diplomatic exchange, you can feel the outrage from Chilean representative Pamela Moraga when she confronts Andrey Belosouv (the Russian Deputy Representative to the CD), calling him by his first name: “For the record, I also need to state, as my Peruvian colleague and my Mexican colleagues have stated, I respectfully disagree with the Russian delegation’s view that there is no problem with gender in the CD. Actions, Andrey, actions speak louder than words. When the Chilean author, Isabel Allende, lost her daughter, she stated, ‘this bends me, but it does not break me.’ This does not break us, Chair.”

The same anger was equally perceptible when the Mexican ambassador stated that her Russian colleague would “not be happy if she would refer (to him) as ‘she’. That's the issue for women. We want to be recognized—if there really is a political will to recognize gender equality.”

“This is one of the most disappointing things that I have witnessed in the CD during my seven years here in Geneva,” Robert Wood, the US Ambassador to the CD, told his colleagues. It had been, he added “a straightforward opportunity for this body to do the right thing, and yet we failed.

The Ambassador’s words reflect a significant worry among supporters of the resolution: if members are unable to agree on an issue which, although highly symbolic, has no consequences on the work of the CD , how will they be able to negotiate substantive agreements?

The Conference on Disarmament has been unable to agree on a program of work this year. Its last significant negotiation happened in 1996. Questions such as the enlargement of the CD, included in the Rules of Procedures, have not been taken up for now more than two decades. Criteria for membership, or for the rotating presidency, have also not been discussed—despite efforts by several countries.

“It is hard not to notice that the countries that have objected to making the language of the Rules of Procedures gender neutral are the same countries that have been putting obstacles in the way of reaching agreement on a program of work. This is a targeted effort to stall the CD,” Wood told The G|O. “This is dangerous, because what is at stake is the future of a body that was designed to reach agreements on controlling armaments. Although we haven't negotiated anything in over 25 years, there is a lot at stake. From the centrality of nuclear disarmament, to peace and security around the world, we cannot progress if this body can't show the way forward.”