By Ray Acheson*
During the final day of the Sixth Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) in Geneva on December 13-17, the constant refrain from the Russian delegation, “our position has not changed”, led to the systematic removal from the document of progress across all remaining substantive issues.
A reference to the humanitarian harm caused by cluster munitions, a decision to hold three days of discussions on mines other anti-personnel mines (MOTAPM), a decision to hold informal consultations and create a specific agenda item on incendiary weapons, and agreement on the number of days to meet next year on autonomous weapons systems (AWS) were all subject to the unrelenting, uncompromising Russian position.
In the end, “consensus” meant that everything that Russia did not like was removed from the document. Even language it had previously agreed to on cluster munitions was stricken, as were the decisions for focused work on MOTAPM and incendiary weapons.
In relation to the 2022 Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on AWS, Russia insisted on ten days maximum and so ten days is what the rest of the conference was forced to accept, even though everyone else participating in that discussion wanted more.
In each of these cases, Russia was supported by Cuba. Other delegations that also do not favour these streams of work were notably silent, perhaps allowing Russia to do the dirty work. Though the United States did voice its preference for two extra days of work on AWS and tried to present reasonable arguments for this, which Russia declared “artificial”.
“Loud” objections to the abuse of consensus
Some states fought back and called Russia out for its blatant abuse of consensus to get its way. In relation to the GGE, Spain argued that if the whole room apart from one delegation could agree to more days, then consensus would be to follow that trend, not block it. It said it is difficult to understand what consensus means and why a minority can use it to veto things.
Germany supported these remarks and others criticised these tactics across a range of issues. In joint statement, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxemburg, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, and Switzerland said those who invoke consensus “should do so responsibly and seldom, and only when all other avenues are exhausted”.
Austria said consensus shouldn’t be used to push back on progress already achieved and should not be used as a pretext for refusing the interests of the majority. Ireland likewise said using consensus to block agreement is a misuse of the practice, while Brazil, Chile, and Mexico jointly agreed that decisions should not be subject to veto.
They argued that the abuse of consensus is being used to prevent action and dilute the CCW of anything with humanitarian meaning, causing the Convention to lose legitimacy.
In response, Russia engaged in classic gaslighting tactics, which are extraordinarily gendered. It accused the states standing up for progress as being “very loud,” even as it took the floor again and again to assert, very loudly, “our position has not changed”.
The accusation of being “loud” is familiar to women, particularly racialised women, when voicing an opinion or position contrary to whomever sees themselves as holding the dominant position. It’s meant to make them feel like they have spoken out of turn or are disrupting proceedings, when in fact the opposite is true.
The gendered nature of this remark about loudness was underscored by a misogynist comment from Russia about how it would be difficult for its delegation to comply with the request for enhanced participation of its “cherished women” in the work of the GGE if one of the meetings was held on International Women’s Day in March.
Challenging patriarchal consensus with feminist cooperation
Thus, the tyranny of the minority once again prevailed through consensus. The patriarchal relations firmly established in this forum also persisted, as they do in so many others. In its closing remarks, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom noted, “Feminists have taught us to look for why things are the way the way they are—Why is the CCW deadlocked on certain issues? Why is the world so militarised? Who benefits from this, and who suffers?”
Examining these questions honestly means confronting many of the tired, but largely accepted practices, of disarmament diplomacy. At various times, a few delegations here and there have challenged the abuse of consensus in the CCW, the Conference on Disarmament, the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and in other multilateral fora where every state is given veto power over every decision.
But states have not engaged in a concerted effort to address this abusive procedural behaviour. The abuse of consensus continues, and so the frustration continues, and so these forums continue to let down the interests of the majority of states, and all of humanity. Indeed, this same week in New York, Russia used a similar approach to prevent a decision being taken to improve transparency in civil society accreditation to its own open-ended working group on cyber issues.
The alternative to the patriarchy of consensus, in which “power” and “strength” are demonstrated through a domineering, uncompromising approach to negotiation, is a feminist approach to cooperation, which tries in a genuine way to account for the perspectives, experiences, and concerns of everyone engaged in order to arrive at a decision that works for the majority without harming the minority.
Consensus in this sense is a process, a collective dialogue in which everyone’s position is equal and valid. This kind of approach would recognise that prohibiting and regulating AWS, discussing how to better protect human beings from incendiary weapons and MOTAPM, and recognising the humanitarian impacts of cluster munitions does not actual harm anyone, including the minority that oppose these issues.
A feminist approach would interrogate why these delegations are opposing action on these items, and work to resolve those underlying issues. In each case, it seems to be, as Mexico warned, about stripping away the CCW’s humanitarian purpose. If that’s the objective, why should these states be allowed to participate in, let along dominate, work in a forum that is mean to protect civilians, codify new humanitarian law, and facilitate disarmament? What other processes or mechanisms are needed to avoid these kinds of blockages when human life and well-being is at stake?
It is past time for a new approach in the CCW and other consensus-based disarmament forums. “The CCW does not emerge stronger out of this Review Conference,” said Austria. Efforts are needed now to make sure that this situation is not repeated in the next meeting, in the next review cycle, in the next treaty body. As with the harms caused by incendiary weapons or cluster bombs, and the inevitable future harms of AWS, the harms of consensus are well known.
It is time to change how we operate so we can prevent the harms that manifest from weapons and war.
*The writer is Director of Reaching Critical Will and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).