• The Role of Parliaments in Arms Control, Disarmament, and the Non-proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

    The Role of Parliaments in Arms Control, Disarmament, and the Non-proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)  

    Mr Marc Finaud

    October 2011 View this publication

    GCSP Geneva Papers — Conference Series n° 22, 2011


    Geneva Papers – Conference Series 

    The Geneva Papers – Conference Series was launched in 2008 with the purpose of reflecting on the main issues and debates of events organized by the GCSP.

    It complements the Geneva Papers – Research Series (launched in 2011), whose purpose is to analyse international security issues that are relevant to GCSP training.

    The Geneva Papers – Conference Series seeks to summarize and analyse international security issues discussed in conferences or workshops organized by the GCSP. It promotes dialogue on cutting-edge security topics, such as the globalization of security, new threats to international security, conflict trends and conflict management, transatlantic and European security, the role of international institutions in security governance, and human security. These issues are explored through the multiple viewpoints and areas of expertise represented in GCSP conference proceedings and by speaker presentations.


    Executive Summary

    From 30 March to 1 April 2011, a high-level workshop was organized for parliamentarians from countries belonging to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Partnership for Peace (PfP). The topic of this event was “The Role of Parliaments in Arms Control, Disarmament, and the Non-Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)”. It was a joint initiative of the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF), the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP), the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, and the WMD Non-Proliferation Centre of NATO. Some thirty-five parliamentarians (including several former government ministers) from twenty-three countries attended the workshop along with the same number of staffers, government representatives, and independent experts (see List of Participants in Annex 3).

    The aims of the workshop were the following:

    • To promote the role of parliaments in arms control, disarmament, and the non-proliferation of WMD through awareness raising among members of parliament about their role in these important policy areas;
    • To increase transparency and accountability of arms control, disarmament, and the non-proliferation of WMD;
    • To exchange information on experiences, best practices, and tools related to the role of parliaments in disarmament, arms control, and the non-proliferation of WMD;
    • To provide parliamentarians (including staffers) with the latest information on the current status and prospects of future arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation of WMD;
    • To discuss and exchange views on strengthening the role of parliaments in disarmament, arms control, and non-proliferation of WMD.

    The workshop provided an opportunity to compare practices, depending on states’ policies and constitutional or institutional arrangements, in areas often regarded as technical or requiring secrecy, and are therefore generally left to executive handling. Considering that the issues involved in arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation are closely related to national security, defence expenditures, and procurement, but also to human security and the impact of arms reductions or the regulation of arms transfers on international security; there was a general consensus that parliamentarians, as elected representatives, had a critical role to play in those areas.

    After discussing the current status of WMD and efforts in their control or elimination, the workshop focused in particular on the following areas where the role of parliaments and their individual members could be strengthened: policy development; treaty-making, ratification, and implementation; sanctions and export controls; and governance.

    Under the Chatham House rule of non-attribution, the workshop allowed for a frank and substantive exchange of ideas on these issues. As a result of the discussion, several recommendations were formulated by participants with a view to strengthening the role of parliaments and promoting progress in those areas, stimulating or supporting government efforts and improving global peace and security. Those recommendations are summarised below, and listed in a “Catalogue of Good Practices” in Annex 1.

    Keeping in mind the main objectives of the workshop, recommendations were formulated in the following areas: the roles and responsibilities of parliaments in security policy; difficulties and constraints in the fulfilment of these roles; and instruments and best practices at parliaments’ disposal.


    1.     Roles and Responsibilities of Parliaments

    The workshop identified the following roles and responsibilities of parliaments:

    • Oversee the government and hold it accountable for its policy decisions. As one participant phrased it: “We need vigorous parliamentary scrutiny”. The nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima was mentioned as an example of failed oversight;
    • Challenge government policies and decisions, e.g. by parliamentary questions and motions;
    • Support government positions in negotiations on disarmament and arms control, e.g. by parliamentary motions. The Norwegian Parliament, for instance, backed its government ahead of the negotiations on NATO’s New Strategic Concept;
    • Make government activities more transparent. Transparency in turn contributes to creating confidence;
    • Contribute to policy shaping and policy making, e.g. by introducing parliamentary motions. The Canadian Parliament, for instance, in December 2010 unanimously called on its government to engage in negotiations for a Nuclear Weapons Convention;
    • Enact a legal framework in line with each state’s international commitments in the areas of disarmament, arms control, and WMD non-proliferation;
    • Make appropriate decisions on the budget, including the defence budget.

    One participant summarised the role of parliaments as “bringing democracy and the rule of law to disarmament”.


    2.     Settings and Constraints

    Parliaments are working within a political and legal framework when fulfilling their roles and responsibilities. This framework may be more or less forthcoming or challenging:

    • Constitutional and political constraints:
      • In presidential systems, parliaments may have limited impact on security policy; they may be by-passed by presidential decrees;
      • In authoritarian systems, parliaments have severely limited influence on government policies;
      • Parliaments may have only reactive powers. This restricts their oversight function. Ex-post control of weapons exports is an example in that respect (“We are always one step behind”, one participant said);
      • Budgetary authority may be limited to accepting or rejecting the budget as a whole. This reduces the possibility of shaping policies;


    • Limited access to information: “The acquisition of expertise may be a major challenge”, one participant stated:
      • Parliaments may have limited access to independent information. They may depend on government sources and may thus have limited capability to challenge government positions;
      • Parliaments might not have independent support structures at their disposal (e.g. parliamentary research services similar to the US Congressional Research Service);


    • Media pressure: media pressure on parliament and government may favour short-term policies. This makes the conduct of policy more difficult in any area. It may, however, affect security policy, arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation more severely as these policy areas need more long-term coherence;


    • Specificities of security policy: “security policy is special”, as one participant phrased it. Security policy is characterised by secrecy and technicalities, which makes it difficult to challenge the security establishment;


    • Self-inflicted limitations: parliaments are not only constrained by outside factors. There are also self-inflicted conditions like lacking or insufficient technical expertise and missing political will to fully exert parliamentary oversight in security policy. One participant spoke of “passivity”.


    Besides the aforementioned constraints, further factors impact positions and actions taken by parliamentarians, such as party policies and individual profiles. The workshop, for instance, opposed “realists”, who are in favour of an incremental approach towards disarmament, and “idealists”, who projected the vision of a world without arms.


    3.     Instruments and Best Practices

    To live up to their responsibilities and overcome the aforementioned constraints, parliaments have a range of instruments at their disposal (“tool box”). There are different target groups of parliamentary activity, such as government, civil society, and third countries. These target groups have to be addressed with specific instruments:


    • Parliament
      • Specialised parliamentary institutions may enhance impact on government policies. The following specialized bodies were presented at the workshop:
        • Arms Control Committee (United Kingdom);
        • Subcommittee on Disarmament, Arms Control, and Non-Proliferation (Germany);
        • “Enlarged Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence” (Norway). This committee allows parliament to discuss and shape foreign and security policy with government in “real time”. The committee meets in confidentiality
      • Parliamentary motions:
        • Parliamentary motions may be used to urge the government to act. They are especially effective if based on a unanimous decision. An example was given in section 1 above (Canada);
        • Motions may also serve to strengthen a government’s position, e.g. in negotiations. An example was given in section 1 above (Norway)
      • Parliamentary questions:
        • Tough questioning may induce policy shifts. At the workshop, an example in the area of weapons export policy was given.


    • Civil society: civil society is another target group for parliamentary action.
      • Parliaments have the task to inform and educate citizens and civil society on security issues;
      • Parliamentarians will try to influence public opinion ahead of public votes or referendums in plebiscitary systems (e.g. Switzerland);
      • Parliamentarians may use tools like cultural or spiritual events to reach specific constituencies or to address specific problems. One participant explained how he had used such events to raise awareness on the need for nuclear disarmament in his country.


    • Third countries: parliaments play a role in foreign policy. They may use parliamentary diplomacy to:
      • Contribute to confidence building;
      • Promote regional security;
      • Promote democratisation;
      • Exchange experiences with parliaments of other countries and learn from best practices of others.


    • NATO: several participants called for a reinforced engagement of parliaments with NATO policies. The NATO Security Concept and, more specifically, tactical nuclear weapons, nuclear deterrence, and extended deterrence were mentioned as examples for parliamentary intervention. The following options were identified:
      • Influence governments’ policies on NATO (see instruments above);
      • Work through the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.


    • “Missing tools”: the “tool box” at the disposal of parliaments may lack instruments. This is principally due to three reasons:
      • Limited constitutional authority;
      • Limited expertise;
      • Limited political will to fully exercise existing authority.


    As one participant noted, the impact of parliaments on government policy depends on a “triple A”: authority, ability, and attitude. Parliaments need the necessary constitutional authority to effectively oversee and influence governments in the area of security policy. They also need the necessary know-how as well as the political will to fulfil their roles and live up to their responsibilities.