Iran and Turkey block rivals from UN disarmament forum

Turkish soldiers in armoured vehicles in a military operation in northern Syria, 2019. Keystone / EPA / STR

Talks held to bring an end to years of deadlock over disarmament got off to a hostile start at the United Nations (UN) this week when two member states blocked rivals from participating.

The annual Conference on Disarmament, which held its first meeting on Tuesday, opened with controversial manoeuvres from Iran and Turkey who blocked other member states from taking part in the forum.

Turkey stopped longstanding rival Cyprus from attending the talks as an observer while Iran blocked Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in a marked departure from typical UN protocol.

Iran's delegate said Saudi Arabia has used the forum as a platform for a “distraction and disinformation” campaign, calling the capital Riyadh “the largest military offender in the region.”

The actions by Iran and Turkey were widely criticised by other participants, sparking concern over whether the forum would be able to fulfil its purpose as the world's only multilateral conference on disarmament. “As a general principle, exclusion undermines the fundamental concept of multilateralism,” said Tatiana Valovaya, director general of UN Geneva, at the opening meeting.

“If we are going to start picking and choosing then I think this will be the beginning of the end of multilateralism,” the UK's ambassador to the conference Aidan Liddle told the virtual meeting. The UK was joined by many other member states including the United States, the European Union and India in urging Iran and Turkey to reverse their decisions. Although UN members have the ability to block other countries from observing forums, they rarely do so.

US representative Marshall Billingslea said the conference had played “an important role in safeguarding peace and security in the past and one which could do so again in the future, [though] the behaviour of Turkey and Iran this morning calls that into doubt.”

“We have a global arms control infrastructure that has been deeply corroded by the actions of countries such as Iran, but also by the actions of nations such as the Russian Federation and China,” he added. In what he called a “new era of arms control ... only multilateral solutions will have the potential to be enduring.”

Sixty-five member states are due to take part in the talks, which will be held virtually over the next two months. Agreements in the forum are made on consensus and are therefore often impeded by arm-producing states. The last major deal it agreed was the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Ahead of the hostile opening meeting, the conference’s current president Ambassador Marc Pecsteen of Belgium said it hoped to set out a work programme “after too many years of deadlock”.

Speaking during Tuesday’s meeting, Valovaya said she was “disappointed” with how the conference had begun, but looked ahead to the forum’s agenda, which would be “marked by important events for the global nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control regimes.”

“In this sense, the hardest challenges but also the greatest opportunities lie ahead,” she said, calling for members to find “the sense of urgency necessary to contribute to their success and reverse the dangerous trends witnessed over the past few years.”

A number of conventions that were not discussed in 2020 due to Covid-19 disruption will feature high up on the forum’s agenda this year, including the Biological Weapons Convention and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, hailed as a long-awaited resumption to global nuclear discussions.

Postponed talks on the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, which drew concern from human rights activists and UN secretary general Antonio Guterres, are also due to be held. Guterres was joined by human rights campaigners around the world last August in calling for a ban on “morally repugnant and politically unacceptable” lethal autonomous weapons, or “killer robots”, after the forum’s meeting on the convention was delayed due to the pandemic.