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Conference on Disarmament Discusses Proposed Linguistic/Technical Updates to its Rules of Procedure to Reflect the Equality of Men and Women

Meeting Summaries

 

The Conference on Disarmament today discussed proposed linguistic/technical updates to its rules of procedure to reflect the equality of men and women.

Tatiana Valovaya, Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva and Secretary-General of the Conference on Disarmament, said that the proposed update would recognise the equality between women and men and the fact that both men and women could - and had- occupied the roles of representative, head of delegation, President, and Secretary-General of the Conference. As she had already noted in her remarks to the Conference last year, such a technical update should be an automatism, like correcting a spelling mistake. This purely editorial update would not substantively change or otherwise affect the rules of procedure of the Conference.

Ambassador Leslie Norton of Canada, President of the Conference on Disarmament, said today’s formal plenary meeting would discuss the proposed linguistic/ technical update to the Conference on Disarmament’s rules of procedure and consider adopting the draft decision that had been circulated for the English version of the rules of procedure. As President, she had taken up this issue based on expressions of interest from many delegations across the regions and in continuation of the valuable work that Australia had undertaken during its Presidency. The President had undertaken informal consultations, on a regional and bilateral basis with many delegations, circulated a draft decision, and held an informal plenary meeting on Tuesday this week to discuss this simple but important matter: whether the Conference could agree on including women in the language of the Conference on Disarmament’s rules of procedure, in the same way that men were included, and reflect on paper what was happening in practice.

Speaking in her national capacity, Ambassador Norton said that the fact was that the language of the Conference’s rules of procedure was not inclusive of women, at least not in the English language version. Referring to “he, him, his” did not in any way include women. It was as simple as that. The outdated language in the rules of procedure could be updated by way of a few simple fixes, as captured in the draft decision that had been circulated.

In the discussion, some speakers that this important but simple technical change was long overdue and should not be controversial. Many speakers supported any changes to ensure that the rules of procedure were gender neutral. They asked the President to table the draft decision today and any delegation that opposed it should voice this clearly. The draft decision was not controversial. It was important to recognise the structural inequality in the rules of procedure and to take steps to change them. Language mattered, and it mattered for women to feel represented. This was purely a linguistic issue and no new rights would be granted. It was of symbolic significance. The changes did no more than reflect the reality. A failure to reach consensus on this simple matter could send the wrong signal to the disarmament community, and it would be a sign that the Conference was indeed an anachronistic body.

Other speakers pointed out the divergent positions and concerns of different delegations. They said that it was very clear that there was no consensus in the Conference on Disarmament to consider this draft decision. There was no controversy on the principle of the equality of men and women, but there was also no consensus on the necessity to open and change the rules of procedure. This technical issue had already introduced an additional irritant to the work of the Conference and it would not improve the lack of trust. This issue was hardly a priority for the Conference, which was supposed to negotiate legal instruments related to its agenda. The introduction of this draft decision was premature, to say the very least.

Speaking were the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Spain, United States, Nigeria, Colombia, Mexico, Japan, Germany, Peru, Slovenia on behalf of the European Union, Republic of Korea, Chile, Norway, Iran, Switzerland, Austria, Venezuela, Russian Federation, India, Argentina, Zimbabwe, Syria, Ecuador, France, Pakistan, China, Australia, Angola, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and Egypt.

At the end of the meeting, the President said that she would adjourn for now and reflect on next steps.

The next plenary will take place at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 10 August.

Statement by the Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva and the Secretary-General of the Conference on Disarmament

TATIANA VALOVAYA, Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva and Secretary-General of the Conference on Disarmament , said that it was a honour to address the Conference today at this very important meeting that would consider the proposal by the Canadian Presidency for a technical, linguistic update to the Conference’s rules of procedure. The proposed update would recognise the equality between women and men and the fact that both men and women could - and had- occupied the roles of representative, head of delegation, President, and Secretary-General of the Conference. As she had already noted in her remarks to the Conference last year, such a technical update should be an automatism, like correcting a spelling mistake. This purely editorial update would not substantively change or otherwise affect the rules of procedure of the Conference. Nonetheless, it would succeed in sending a signal to the international community that the Conference recognised the fundamental principle of gender equality and that it had moved away from the unfortunate practice in which office holders were almost inevitably men.

Ms. Valovaya said the United Nations Secretary-General continued to emphasise that ensuring the equal participation of women in disarmament fora was essential for the attainment of sustainable peace and security. Their contributions must be acknowledged not just in speeches, but with concrete actions like the one under consideration today.

Statement by the President of the Conference on Disarmament

Ambassador LESLIE NORTON of Canada, President of the Conference on Disarmament, said that as she had mentioned during the informal meeting on Tuesday, today’s formal plenary meeting would discuss the proposed linguistic/ technical update to the Conference on Disarmament’s rules of procedure and consider adopting the draft decision that had been circulated for the English version of the rules of procedure. As President, she had taken up this issue based on expressions of interest from many delegations across the regions and in continuation of the valuable work that Australia had undertaken during its Presidency. The President had undertaken informal consultations on a regional and bilateral basis with many delegations, circulated a draft decision, and held an informal plenary meeting on Tuesday this week to discuss this simple but important matter: whether the Conference could agree on including women in the language of the Conference on Disarmament’s rules of procedure, in the same way that men were included, and reflect on paper what was happening in practice.

Speaking in her national capacity, Ambassador Norton said that the fact was that the language of the Conference’s rules of procedure were not inclusive of women, at least not in the English language version. Referring to “he, him, his” did not in any way include women. It was as simple as that. The outdated language in the rules of procedure could be updated by way of a few simple fixes, as captured in the draft decision that had been circulated. The proposed linguistic update to five of the rules in the English language served to reflect, on paper, what already happened in practice: that both women and men could – and did – occupy the roles of representative to the Conference, head of a Conference delegation, President of the Conference, and Secretary-General to the Conference. The rules of procedure were an important document for the Conference and reflecting the equality of men and women therein was a simple but important message to everyone reading the rules, including diplomats, students, academics, and the public more generally. Language was a powerful instrument and the non-discrimination of, and inclusion of, women was directly relevant to the work that the Conference carried out.

Discussion

Speakers said that this important but simple technical change was long overdue and should not be controversial. Many speakers supported any changes to ensure that the rules of procedure were gender neutral. They asked the President to table the draft decision today and any delegation that opposed it should voice this clearly. The draft decision was not controversial. It was important to recognise the structural inequality in the rules of procedure and to take steps to change them. Language mattered, and it mattered for women to feel represented. This was purely a linguistic issue and no new rights would be granted. It was of symbolic significance. The aim of the draft decision was not to just ensure that the rules of procedure reflected the reality of the functioning of women in the Conference today. It was essentially a matter of principle for many who worked in the Conference.

Australia was thanked for doing a lot of work on this issue during its Presidency last year and Canada was thanked for taking the issue further to this point. The Conference’s Secretary-General, Tatiana Valovaya, was thanked for her participation in the meeting which was a sign of her full support for the requested changes, which the large majority in the Conference also supported. It was hoped that the Conference would adopt the decision by consensus. It was repeatedly stressed that the overwhelming majority of delegations supported this proposed decision. The changes did no more than reflect the reality.

Some speakers said that while they were frustrated that the Conference had not been able to adopt a programme of work at this session, they supported the decision on introducing gender specificity in the work of the Conference. The current session was almost over and while the Conference had not had an opportunity to make progress of substantive issues, it should use what little time was left to adopt the draft decision that made purely linguistic changes to the rules of procedure. A failure to reach consensus on this simple matter could send the wrong signal to the disarmament community, and it would be a sign that the Conference was indeed an anachronistic body. A number of speakers pointed out the divergent positions and concerns of different delegations. However, they underlined that it was a simple, technical matter and disagreed that it would open Pandora’s box as feared by some speakers. The fact that a number of delegations spoke of Pandora’s box being opened reflected the lack of trust in the Conference, which was stopping this body from carrying out its mandate.

A number of speakers said that it was very clear that there was no consensus in the Conference on Disarmament to consider this decision. They said that there was no controversy of the principle of the equality of men and women, but there was also no consensus on the necessity to open and change the rules of procedure. It was a ruse to make it seem that the Conference was active. The present rules of procedure had not stopped the participation of women in the work of the Conference, including its Secretary-General and its President. The Conference should now focus on substantive issues. It was regrettable that there was no agreement in the Conference on a balanced programme of work as there was a lack of political will on the substantive work of the Conference.

Speakers who expressed disagreement with the draft decision noted that it was only presented in one language, English, and there were changes in the Spanish version of the rules of procedure that would need to be made that were not covered by the English draft text. This discussion needed to be continued. The work of the Conference demonstrated that gender discrimination was not an issue in this forum. This technical issue had already introduced an additional irritant to the work of the Conference and would not improve the lack of trust. There was no consensus on this issue, while there were many new issues that required the attention of the Conference. This was hardly a priority for the Conference, which was supposed to negotiate legal instruments related to its agenda. The introduction of this draft decision was premature, to say the very least. Consensus was the soul of the work of the Conference, an expressing of equality and mutual respect between Member States. Broad consultations between Member States were needed and the opinions of all parties must be respected. For many years, the issue of politicization had affected the climate of work in the Conference. All countries must fight this politicization and restore mutual trust.

Towards the end of the meeting, the Netherlands asked the President to ask delegations if there was any objection to making changes to the English version of the rules of procedure as per the draft decision. A number of delegations supported the request of the Netherlands, while others pointed out that a number of delegations had said they were not ready and that consideration must be given to their position. It was clear that there was no consensus. There was consensus on the full participation of women in the Conference but there was no consensus on the necessity of changing the rules of procedure. The President of the Conference was encouraged to further consider this issue and to take great caution before taking action. The issue should remain on the table but it needed further serious consideration.

Ambassador Norton, the President of the Conference, said this discussion had provided a lot of food for thought for the table. She asked if Member States agreed to request the secretariat to review the rules of procedure in all the official languages and to reflect on them on the basis of the draft text sent out on 28 July.

A number of speakers said that it was the prerogative of Member States to look at the rules of procedure, not of the secretariat. It was repeated that there was no consensus on the draft decision while there was consensus on gender equality. The attempt to impose this draft decision contravened the rules of procedure based on consensus, and this was not acceptable. Time must be given in order for the idea to mature. It was reiterated that the Conference on Disarmament did not have any problem concerning gender discrimination or gender equality.

Other speakers regretted that some States had tried to bog down the discussion on the issue of translation, instead of focusing on gender equality. Agreeing to the proposed changes should have been very easy, but here they were with another indicator as to how dysfunctional the Conference had become. It was disappointing that despite the overwhelming majority of Member States supporting the draft decision, the Conference had not been able to adopt it. A handful of Member States chose to block the consensus today and the Conference did have an issue with gender equality. Actions spoke louder than words.

Ambassador Norton said she would adjourn the meeting for now and would reflect on next steps.

 

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