In ordinary times, the work of the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament, a UN body that negotiates international arms-control agreements, draws little attention. Then came this week’s news that Syria, a country with a well-known propensity for using chemical weapons against civilians, would assume the organization’s rotating, four-week presidency. The temporary post gives Syria the power to take the lead on issues the Conference is working on—meaning that the already deadlocked body will have an even harder time achieving meaningful results.
The Conference and its predecessors have built the architecture of the global nonproliferation system, which includes the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, the global conventions to ban the use of biological and chemical weapons, and the comprehensive test ban treaty. Handing Syria the reins of an organization responsible for the most important global accords on disarmament is a bit like asking the Saudis to lead a commission on women’s rights. During the country’s more than seven-year-long civil war, the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against its own people on multiple occasions—with virtually zero consequences. But its use of conventional weapons has perhaps wrought more suffering. The Syrian conflict has killed more than 500,000 people, flattened entire cities, and created more than 5 million refugees.