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Aidan Liddle

UK Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament

Part of FCDO Outreach

11th October 2018 Geneva, Switzerland

Disarmament in Geneva: first impressions

I arrived at the UK Mission in Geneva at the end of July to take up my new post as Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament (CD). With my first session of the CD behind me, and before heading to New York for the UN General Assembly First Committee, I’ve been reflecting on my first impressions of the disarmament world in Geneva.

The CD gets a bad press in disarmament circles. It’s criticised for not fulfilling its principal task, negotiating treaties; it can’t even agree on a Programme of Work. I think that misses the point.

Multilateral disarmament’s story is one of periods of deadlock interspersed with political openings, like the late 1960s/early 1970s and the post-Cold War period. Negotiators can’t affect that; we don’t work in a political vacuum. Instead we must use this time for technical work that will allow rapid negotiations when the window of opportunity reopens, and for understanding and testing each others’ positions for movement.

That’s not easy. It can be difficult reaching consensus, even on texts that aren’t legally binding. That’s because, for many countries, it’s about fundamental national security. For others, nuclear disarmament is the most urgent issue facing humanity, and championing it part of their political identity. No wonder it’s a difficult conversation.

But the CD is the only forum where it can happen. It’s the only place where all nuclear possessor states, umbrella states, regional powers and disarmament advocates come together. So it’s the only place where effective measures that bind everyone can be negotiated.

Instruments agreed in the CD become cornerstones of the international system. So they’re worth waiting for. Patience is, after all, a diplomatic virtue.

And there are signs of movement. The agreement to set up five Subsidiary Bodies in 2018 was important. That the CD adopted reports – by consensus – for four of them was beyond most people’s expectations, and gives us a base to build on next year. As the second President for 2019, I’ll play my part in pushing for further progress.

Disarmament in Geneva is not just about the CD, though. There’s a whole system of disarmament instruments that we’ve already agreed that, like any machinery, needs constant maintenance. The treaties need to keep pace with technological and political developments. They need to be properly implemented and enforced. And the institutions that support them need to be sustainably funded and staffed.

That’s why strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention, engaging in the debate on how to respond to new technologies like Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems, and lending the UK’s expertise to support conventional weapons regimes like the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention and the Arms Trade Treaty will be priorities for me too. Not to mention the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review cycle – but that’s for another blog.

Lastly, I’m struck by the passion and expertise of the disarmament community here – in my own team, other delegations, the UN system, academia and NGOs. Harnessing that, and joining up with others in Geneva working for a more just, prosperous and peaceful world, will be really stimulating, important, and rewarding.

2 comments on “Disarmament in Geneva: first impressions

  1. Aidan, Sorry for this late response. I just came across your interesting note when looking to see if a report of the BTWC August MX meeting was available. You note the need to keep on with trying to strengthen the BTWC. My own work has been concerned with finding ways to increase the awareness and involvement of civil scientists in supporting the Convention. Currently I am interested in the attempt by China recently to find agreement on an international code of ethics related in part to the issue of dual use. How to you think such a proposal will be handled at the Meeting of States Parties?

    1. Malcolm – many thanks for your comment (and sorry for the delay in replying!). It’s an important question, and in general, we think this is an interesting idea. We feel though that these sorts of things are better led by the scientific community, not imposed by governments. As you say, it was one of the main issues discussed at the MX2 in August, and identified as one of the main areas for that group to work on for the rest of the intersessional period up to the Review Conference in 2021. It didn’t really come up at the MSP just before Christmas, however, which unfortunately didn’t engage much with – still less endorse – the outcome of the 2018 MXs. So the next main opportunity to take this conversation forward will be at the next meeting of MX2 this coming August. We’ll be fully engaged in that discussion, of course, with China and others; we think a discussion with national academies and professional bodies would be an important future step.

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About Aidan Liddle

Aidan Liddle has been the UK's Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament since July 2018, handling questions of nuclear, biological and conventional disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation. He joined…

Aidan Liddle has been the UK's Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament since July 2018, handling questions of nuclear, biological and conventional disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation.

He joined the FCO in 2003 and has served at the UK Representation to the EU in Brussels, at the British High Commission in Islamabad, and the British Embassy in Stockholm, as well as in various roles at the FCO in London.