The not so open-ended working group?


When the UN General Assembly decided to establish another Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on nuclear disarmament last fall, it stressed the importance of inclusiveness and welcomed ‘the participation of all Member States’. But how inclusive is the OEWG really?

By Aasmund Skjetne & Torbjørn Graff Hugo

According to the Indian delegation to the Conference on Disarmament (CD), the OEWG is not very inclusive at all. In their view, it ‘does not include all representative groups of states, in particular states whose interests are specially affected’. The fact that all the nuclear-armed states voluntarily decided to boycott the first session of the OEWG is apparently seen by New Delhi as a sign of exclusion. Moreover, India believes that ‘the OEWG, established outside the CD with an unclear mandate and with the GA Rules of Procedure, may not lead to an inclusive process or productive outcomes’.

While the uniform decision by all the nuclear-armed states not to attend the OEWG is lamentable, it is hard to take India’s complaint very seriously—not least because it seems to be based on the assumption that the CD itself is open and inclusive, despite limiting the membership to only 65 states and strictly controlling the participation of civil society. In the OEWG, which by definition is supposed to be an open and accessible forum, all states are invited and encouraged to participate, along with civil society and international organizations. India’s sense of exclusion from the debate could of course be genuine, and it is by all means possible that they truly feel that the focus of the discussions is troubling and therefore do not wish to join it. But for the states that do wish to constructively engage on the basis of the mandate of the OEWG—in particularly those that are excluded from even attending the CD—India’s stunt of a statement is more likely to come across as a badly disguised attempt at distracting the discussions and at undermining the OEWG’s legitimacy.

It seems quite obvious that if inclusiveness were to be understood as a discussion that everyone feels comfortable taking part in—or even listen to, then that would require a rather peculiar reinterpretation of the term. At the same time, no matter how disingenuous India’s comment was, it does raise an important question: How inclusive is the OEWG really?

The fact that a meeting is open to all UN member states is a good start, and to grant international organisations and civil society the right to both participate and speak takes it a step further. But inclusiveness should not be reduced to a simple question of who is allowed to attend. In my view, it should be understood as something broader, something not only concerned with the right to attend, but also with the ability to attend.

Inclusiveness should not be reduced to a simple question of who is allowed to attend. In my view, it should be understood as something broader, something not only concerned with the right to attend, but also with the ability to attend

From that angle, the OEWG’s scorecard looks somewhat less impressive, but for different reasons than those offered by India. First of all, the fact that it takes place in Geneva makes it difficult for a number of smaller states to take part in the deliberations. Many of the small island states, for example, simply do not have missions to the United Nations in Geneva, and even those that do may be precluded from attending due to overloaded portfolios.[1] They might squeeze out enough time to show up for the opening session, but find themselves forced to leave their seats empty for the actual discussions. This is of course also a question of priority, but with all else being equal, states with large missions will be able to cover more meetings and issues than states with small missions, or with no mission at all.

The first of these problems, the limited number of missions, could have been partly remedied if the OEWG had taken place in New York, where just about every UN member state has a permanent delegation. This would not necessarily have solved the issue of capacity, however. The smaller missions would still have had to juggle their limited time, and with a list of issues that is also considerable longer than in Geneva.

There is no simple solution to the problem of capacity, but as argued in one of ILPI’s background papers on the issue, there are at least two things states can and should do in order to increase the inclusiveness of developing states in multilateral disarmament meetings.

First, states with limited capacity should seek to coordinate their efforts more effectively. Especially within regions comprised of relatively likeminded states, such as the Caribbean or the Pacific Islands, the potential for a division of labour seems considerable. One state could for example attend the first day of the meeting, and another state could attend the second day, and so on. As long as reporting procedures are relatively compatible, and the group communication is properly set up, coordination should be possible to streamline in a way that increases the aggregated capacity of the group. For groups that already organize joint statements, this should in theory be even easier to put in place.

The second and perhaps even more important thing states should do is to ensure that meetings such as the OEWG have a sponsorship programme that can allow states with limited resources to send delegates either from capital or from other missions. This would boost the states’ ability to attend meetings and increase the legitimacy of the entire process. The numbers speak clearly on this point: Processes where sponsorship programmes are set up have much higher participation rates than the ones without it.

Graf-prediction of participation 580px

NOTE: The graph excludes the nuclear-armed states, since the decision to boycott the meeting is presumed to be unrelated to capacity or size of missions. Confidence Interval is set at 95%.

As the disarmament community digests the outcome of the first OEWG session and starts preparing for the May segment, states concerned about a lack of inclusiveness in the disarmament debate should not let themselves be distracted by criticism about the legitimacy of the forum, such as the one launched from the Indian delegation in the CD. Instead, they should search for concrete and practical ways to achieve a broader and more coordinated participation in the OEWG. The most important and urgent thing to do in this regard—especially given the fact that the next sessions of the OEWG will also take place in Geneva—is to ensure that states with limited resources can receive the support needed to be able to take part in the discussions.


[1] For example, the 12 UN member island states in the South Pacific have a total of 3 diplomats in Geneva; 2 at the Kiribati mission and 1 at the Solomon Islands mission. 6 of the 14 Caribbean UN member states do not have missions in Geneva either.