Second day of VERTIC-Wilton Park conference held

Posted by Andreas Persbo (andreas.persbo) on Jun 02 2011
VERTIC Blog >> Arms Control and Disarmament
David Cliff, Wilton Park, West Sussex
Today saw the second day of discussions at the VERTIC-Wilton Park conference in West Sussex. Four sessions were held in all, with the final two scheduled for Friday morning. The conference is operating under Chatham House rules, and so all remarks are made in anonymous personal capacities.
The first session of today dealt with issues surrounding the difficult question of how much verification is necessary to verify compliance with the obligations of various international treaties and other undertakings. Opening proceedings this morning was the independent international disarmament consultant Ralf Trapp and, following him, the Executive Director of VERTIC, Andreas Persbo.
In the discussion that followed the two speakers’ remarks, one of the principal items arising in the debate was that of fissile material stockpiles: specifically, the challenges of establishing confident baseline inventories for fissile material holdings in the nuclear-armed states of the world. Even if baselines are provided, the question was asked, who is best-suited to make determinations as to their accuracy? And with such long histories of production and in many cases such imperfect records, to what extent can accuracy be achieved in any case?
The verification of intent (or, rather, the problems of doing so) was another matter of intense consideration in today’s first session. Some participants questioned the extent to which the past behaviour of states can be used to predict future patterns, arguing that doing so entails a risk of decision-makers leaping to wrong conclusions – with potentially very costly consequences indeed. Ultimately, it was said, judgements regarding intent were political matters of trust between and among states, not technical verification matters.
Addressing the second session of the day – a session that looked at the acceptance of verification – was former VERTIC chief Trevor Findlay, now Director of the Canadian Centre for Treaty Compliance, and Nancy Gallagher, Associate Director for Research at the Center for International and Security Studies in Maryland, Virginia. One of the main topics arising in the subsequent discussion was that of the burden of reporting that some states find themselves struggling with after signing up to various international agreements.
Some in the room questioned how such burdens can be reduced, to allow states falling behind with their reporting obligations to catch back up. Participants heard some among their number argue that, in certain cases, part of the problem lay with governance structures and processes in the states in question. The provision of governance assistance to struggling states (possibly provided by individual countries, or perhaps coordinated among regional groupings), better coordination at the international level and the application of modern technologies to streamline reporting practices were all proposed as ways of reducing some of the strain.
Aside from verification burdens, the discussion period of the day’s second session also saw a debate over the development of verification and safeguards ‘cultures’ (i.e. a willingness to positively engage with, and submit to, verification) in some countries while not in others. And, in the context of arms control agreements, the question was asked whether we ought to think not only about ‘militarily-significant’ violations of treaties, but of politically-significant violations – which may be a lot lower – as well.
The day’s third session focused on the political and scientific ‘interface’ of verification: where the two meet and the myriad ways in which they interact and affect one another. The session was addressed by Edward Ifft of Georgetown University and Gabriele Kraatz-Wadsack, Chief of the WMD Branch of United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs. Much of the back-and-forth that followed centred on the challenges inherent in the process of verifying nuclear disarmament along the long road to zero. Baseline inventories, this time in the context of nuclear weapons themselves, emerged again as a key point of discussion. One of the particular problems identified was that of how to confirm that certain items are in fact what they are declared to be. Not only is this just a problem of verifying that items said not to be nuclear warheads really aren’t nuclear warheads, but in a dismantlement setting it relates also to the so-called ‘authentication problem’, i.e. verifying that items said to be nuclear warheads are the genuine artefacts.   
Participants also discussed the extent to which nuclear weapon design information could, and indeed should (or should not), be released to facilitate verified dismantlement efforts in the future. Is there a tendency to be too conservative, some asked, and to preserve information that is freely available – at least with a bit of looking in the right places – in the public domain? The possible need to revive the Trilateral Initiative – a project that was wound down by the US and Russia in early part of the last decade – was brought up also as a possible way of re-energising research on multilateral disarmament verification technologies, ultimately with a view to further investigating the various scientific and technical means of protecting classified weapon information while minimising any loss of inspector confidence.
The fourth and final session of the day dealt with the role of civil society in the development of verification regimes and heard opening remarks from both the chemical and biological weapons consultant Richard Guthrie and the Nuclear Disarmament Programme Leader at IKV Pax Christi, Susi Snyder.
Conference participants identified a number of important roles and functions for civil society actors involved in the promotion of verification processes, including education, implementation-tracking, holding governments to account and challenging accepted ways of thinking (with the final point applying especially during the negotiating phases of agreements). Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can play an important role in fostering and upholding societal pressure on governments to conform with international agreements to which they have agreed, participants argued – not to mention pressure to join agreements that they stand outside of.
But that, the conference heard, often takes considerable creativity on the part of NGOs – which, along with legitimacy and credibility (often gained, in part at least, through accountability), such organisations must seek to cultivate within themselves.
The final two sessions of the conference will take place tomorrow morning here at Wilton Park. Highlights will be posted on the VERTIC blog later in the day.

Last changed: Jun 03 2011 at 1:17 AM