So North Korea is Leading the Conference on Disarmament. So What?

So North Korea has assumed the rotating presidency of the Conference on Disarmament. Yes this looks bad. But worry not. Nothing nefarious will actually come of it.

A few of things to keep in mind about the Conference on Disarmament.

1) The Conference on Disarmament is a backwater in the UN system. It was created by member states in 1979 with the lofty goal of being the sole multilateral forum for negotiating disarmament. Since the 1990s, it has been the forum in which a Fissile Material Cut-Off treaty has periodically been discussed. But nothing came of it.

In recent years it has been overtaking by other multi-lateral organizations and institutions that actually have made decent progress on disarmament. The 2009 historic Security Council meeting on disarmament (which was the first time a United States personally chaired a Security Council meeting a US President); the 20010 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC; and the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference amounted to the most significant progress on multi-lateral disarmament in decades.

The Conference for Disarmament, for its part, basically does very little. Member states have not given much clout to the organization. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here is a summary from a recent meeting of the conference in which North Korea’s presidency was announced.

In his farewell address to the Conference, [Outgoing Canadian ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament Marius Grinius] said 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, including the negotiation of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. Mr. Grinius argued that the 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.

2) There are 65 members of the Conference on Disarmament.  It operates by its own “Rules of Procedure” independent of standard UN practices.  The “presidency” is a position that is rotated between members every few weeks.

So why is North Korea even a part of this body? Presumably it is because they are an armed country. And given that this body is a forum (albeit flawed) for disarmament negotiations, one would presumably want “armed” countries to partake on these talks.  That, after all, is what they are supposed to be about.

3) Finally, it is worth admitting that yes, this looks bad. It will no-doubt be picked up and passed around by the regular crowd of UN bashers as evidence of a wholly corrupt UN system.  (And you have to admit that it does make for a good point-scoring sound-byte.) But in the end, the fact that North Korea is holding the three week rotating presidency of a backwater multilateral body will not make a lick of difference on any substantive progress toward disarmament worldwide.