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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 15, May 1997

Geneva Update No. 35
By Rebecca Johnson


Half way through its 1997 session, the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva was still unable to agree its programme of work or get started on any negotiations. The main issues under consideration are:

i) a ban on fissile materials (fissban or 'cut-off');

ii) negotiations on (a phased approach to) banning the export, stockpiling, production and eventually use of anti-personnel (AP) landmines; iii) nuclear disarmament (with or without a specific negotiating mandate at this stage).

Other issues which have been on past agendas and have been raised, although lacking widespread support for immediate CD negotiations, are: security assurances from the nuclear-weapon States (NWS) to non-nuclear-weapon States (NNWS) not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against them; prevention of an arms race in outer space; transparency in armaments and issues relating to an arms register.

The most recent discussions focused on landmines, specifically on attempts to find a formula for considering the issue in the CD. It is now more likely that a Special Coordinator might be agreed than an ad hoc Committee. Appointment of a special coordinator would acknowledge that CD negotiations on this issue were ruled out before the end of 1997, when the Ottawa Process expects to have an international ban on the production, stockpiling, transfer and use of AP mines ready for signature.

Although negotiations on a fissban are advocated by many CD members, the issue is attracting less attention than landmines at present. Disagreement remains over whether and how the negotiations would address existing fissile material stocks, but the fissban is chiefly stymied by linkage with establishment of a nuclear disarmament committee, which the United States continues to rule out. John Holum, Director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) urged the CD to negotiate on both the fissban and a landmines ban, arguing that the CD is the forum where 'arms control negotiations, not merely discussions, are conducted.'

Several delegations expressed frustration at the lack of progress in the CD and made suggestions for what work should be prioritised. These included the United States, Ukraine, Egypt, Japan, Hungary, Morocco, Canada, Chile, Italy, Australia, United Kingdom, India, Poland, Germany and Sudan. Egypt proposed establishment of three ad hoc Committees: on agenda item 1 (nuclear disarmament), item 3 (prevention of an arms race in outer space), and item 4 (security assurances). Included in Egypt's proposal was the appointment of three special coordinators: on agenda item 6 (especially landmines), item 7 (transparency in armaments) and the CD structure and function, including the agenda and further expansion.

Grigori Berdennikov of the Russian Federation, the outgoing CD President, expressed regret that no consensus on the work programme had been forthcoming despite intensive consultations. The incoming President, Absa Claude Diallo of Senegal pledged to work at finding a compromise. She said that Senegal would join consensus on banning landmines providing that the CD did not ignore the issue of nuclear disarmament.

An increasing number of delegations doubt whether the CD will succeed in agreeing to start work on even one issue in 1997. The real question is whether understandings can be reached this year to allow the CD to convene its committees and perhaps start negotiations on something concrete in 1998.


Despite exhortations from Holum and a few others, who want the CD to convene a committee and immediately begin negotiations on some form of landmines ban, there is a marked lack of enthusiasm from two sides. Although they have not wanted to block the CD per se, advocates of the Ottawa Process were anxious that the CD could be used to derail their fast-track initiative to conclude a total ban on AP mines, including use, by the end of the year.

Mexico has been particularly blunt in its view that the CD would not achieve the necessary measure with the urgency that it requires. On the other hand, there are some ten or so States in the CD which rely on landmines for border defences and do not want to be forced into giving them up in the near future. These countries oppose the Ottawa initiative. Some oppose the concept of a landmines ban altogether, so oppose negotiations in the CD as well.

Others recognise the humanitarian concerns, but are heavily weighed down with military considerations. They view the CD as a better forum than Ottawa as it would approach negotiations at a slower pace, be more likely to address their concerns and give them time to adjust to the prospect of a total ban. For example, India's ambassador Arundhati Ghose argued that a pragmatic, phased approach to a global ban could allow the security concerns to be addressed of States which still use landmines 'for defensive purposes'. There are also those who regard the CD as a useful way to divert attention from the Ottawa Process or slow it down.

When in January the US threw its weight behind landmines negotiations in the CD, it was quickly backed by Britain, France and Australia. They argued that only the CD had the negotiating credibility to involve all the major mine producers and users (apart from sub-state actors). The US, Britain and France were uncomfortable with the fast-track approach, although they were under heavy pressure from domestic public opinion and needed to be seen to be doing something.

Following the landslide election win for Britain's Labour Party, the new Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, wasted little time reformulating a more positive approach. On 21 May, he announced that Britain would stop using or trading in all AP mines and would back the Ottawa Process for a total ban. London also dropped its support for replacing existing stockpiles with 'smart' mines intended to neutralise or destroy themselves within a certain time after being laid. The new policy mentioned the year 2005 as a final deadline for the total destruction of Britain's stockpiles of AP mines - or earlier if an international ban were to take effect before 2005. Until then (and to enable the military to develop alternatives) the armed forces were given some reassurance in a provision for consideration of exceptional need and use. Requiring any exceptional use to be reported to Parliament imposes additional constraints.

Within the context of the CD, however, it appeared that Britain's position had altered little. Citing statements made by the Foreign Secretary in the British Parliament, that Britain would impose a moratorium on the operational use of landmines "while we participate constructively in the Ottawa Process and push in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva for a wider ban", Ambassador Sir Michael Weston emphasised on May 22 that "lest there be any room for doubt about our position with respect to work on this issue here in the Conference on Disarmament: the United Kingdom continues strongly to support the immediate establishment of an ad hoc Committee on anti-personnel landmines with a negotiating mandate." He went on to back the Australian proposal for a Special Coordinator.

France had also been showing signs of a more positive approach towards the Ottawa Process, with the likelihood that its newly elected government will be even more inclined to back a fast-track ban. The US desire to see landmines negotiations commence in the CD in 1997 now looks unlikely to be fulfilled. Increasingly it appears that the maximum that can be expected from the CD this year is the appointment of a Special Coordinator to consult the 60 delegations about what the CD might do on this issue.

In March, Chile, Poland and Finland had proposed appointing a special coordinator to conduct consultations on 'the most appropriate arrangements' for dealing with the issue of AP mines (CD/1452). The special coordinator would take into account all related matters and could consult with delegations on whether the CD should address this issue, and if so, how. Choices would include: no action by the CD at all; a deliberative function, to oversee and discuss without actually negotiating; convening a committee with a negotiating mandate; the nature of the mandate and its objective, specifically whether the CD would negotiate a ban itself or dovetail with the Ottawa objective (for example, by addressing verification). If the CD decided to negotiate, it would have to choose whether to go for a ban on exports only, as advocated by some CD members, a phased approach beginning with a ban on exports, or a total ban, as advocated by participants in the Ottawa process.

Hoping to go beyond a special coordinator and get a CD committee established, Hungary and Japan followed up on May 15, proposing a draft mandate for an ad hoc committee under agenda item 6, to 'negotiate an effective, legally binding international agreement to ban the use, stockpiling, production and transfer' of AP mines (CD/1455). However, most debate has centred on a proposal for a special coordinator tabled by Australia on 22 May. Australia has been a staunch backer of the US position wanting CD negotiations on landmines (by implication entailing a less enthusiastic approach to the Ottawa process). Wishing to avoid dealing with the CD's programme of work as a complete package, Australia aimed to bypass the linkage problems by proposing a special coordinator on this one issue, thereby detaching it from 'ongoing efforts' to get agreement on an overall programme of work.

The original Australian proposal was as follows (CD/1458, 22 May, 1997):

"Draft decision

Without prejudice to its ongoing efforts to establish the Programme of Work for its 1997 session and in order to facilitate them, the Conference on Disarmament decides:

1. To appoint a Special Coordinator to conduct consultations on the most appropriate arrangement to deal with the question of anti-personnel landmines under agenda item 6.

2. The Special Coordinator shall take into consideration all relevant proposals, present and future.

3. The Special Coordinator shall present an early report to the Conference on Disarmament."

During various consultations under the auspices of the CD President, Grigori Berdennikov, the opening paragraph of the proposed decision at one point made reference to agenda item 1 (nuclear disarmament) and then dropped it again, at US insistence. This 'chapeau' was then amended to read: "Without prejudice to, and within the context of its urgent ongoing efforts to establish a Programme of Work for its 1997 session and to set up mechanisms, as appropriate, for other agenda items of the Conference, and in order to facilitate these efforts, the Conference on Disarmament decides..." There is still no agreement on the wording, although no delegation has ruled out or threatened to veto the appointment of the special coordinator.

A special coordinator could be a helpful compromise at this point, removing the illusion that the CD is in a position to conduct negotiations on landmines this year, but keeping alive the possibility of a role in the future. For the CD to appoint a special coordinator is tacit acknowledgement that it is unable to move on this issue at present. This could clear the way for the Ottawa Process to conclude its negotiations as planned and may bring in States which wavered between the CD and Ottawa options. Deciding on a special coordinator now would not preclude the CD from engaging in negotiations on landmines at a later date, either to work out verification arrangements or to undertake negotiations on a phased ban that would draw in States like China and Russia, which are opposed to the Ottawa approach.


On 15 May, John Holum, for the United States, put forward a strong argument for the CD to commence fissban negotiations. He argued that guaranteeing that fissile material stocks 'available for use in weapons will not and cannot grow' would be a constraint specifically on the NWS. He warned that the recent moratoria undertaken by the NWS were 'eminently reversible', unless codified in a global, binding and verifiable treaty. Such a treaty, he said, could be simple and straightforward and was achievable now. Urging the CD to begin negotiations on the basis of the Shannon mandate, Holum presented the choice starkly: "we can continue to talk about nuclear disarmament in the abstract - or we can get on with it in practice."

For India, Arundhati Ghose said that the issue of stockpiles, the inclusion of tritium and the problem of surplus stocks were some of the 'grey areas' of the Shannon Report, which "appeared even more grey after two years". India considered that these could be clarified if the CD adopted a work programme that put the fissban mandate into the context of a multilateral disarmament process.

Nuclear Disarmament

In addition to Senegal, India and Egypt, others also stressed the importance of addressing nuclear disarmament in the CD. Although Canada regarded the NPT as the primary forum for addressing nuclear disarmament issues and strongly backed immediate negotiations on a fissban, Ambassador Mark Moher called for establishment of 'a mechanism, perhaps an ad hoc Committee' for substantive discussion on nuclear disarmament, with a view to identifying if and whether further measures could be negotiated in the CD.

The G-21 Group of Non-Aligned States has been attempting to get agreement on a joint proposal for a mandate for a nuclear disarmament committee. Although they are in agreement over the need for an ad hoc committee, they disagree over what it should do. The majority of G-21 members are pressing for a negotiating mandate. They want negotiations on nuclear disarmament in a specified framework of time and mention several measures for concurrent consideration, as proposed in the August 1996 Programme of Action, which had been backed by 28 of the 30 non-aligned members.

Several members, including Chile, Morocco and South Africa, have argued that the G-21 should not specify a negotiating mandate at this time. Their position echoes Canada's in calling first for discussions on what nuclear disarmament measures the CD could address, with a view to working out an appropriate negotiating mandate when the objectives are clearer. However, India seems determined to ensure that fissban negotiations do not take place without an agreed framework on nuclear disarmament. Pakistan is holding out for a strong mandate to be proposed at the start, arguing that negotiations on that mandate can begin when the NWS respond to it. There are some concerns that any proposal for negotiations on a timetable for nuclear disarmament would be dismissed out of hand, losing the opportunity for dialogue with the NWS over the mandate.

The three Western nuclear powers have so far refused to consider an ad hoc committee on nuclear disarmament. China and Russia indicated in previous years that they would not oppose, although Russia is now thought to be less than enthusiastic. Opposition has been strongest from the United States. Holum's 15 May statement underscored that the US had no intention of compromising on this: "The real obstacle to nuclear disarmament negotiations here is not the willingness of the parties, but the capacity of the forum. It will not work. It will set back disarmament. We cannot and should not agree to it."

The Clinton administration feels itself to be vulnerable on disarmament questions, as evinced by the recent difficulties in Congress over ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the restructuring of ACDA into the Department of State. Holum's statement was partly intended to head off any possible shift by Britain or France, and partly to repudiate the strategy of linkage employed by some CD members.

With deadlock in the CD and more western countries expressing support for a nuclear disarmament committee - or at least some form of mechanism to address nuclear disarmament questions in the CD - the US is coming under increased pressure to compromise. Holum's hard-line statement was intended to convince CD members that neither linkage nor time would wear down the US resolve against a nuclear disarmament committee. Instead, he argued, "the way to extend nuclear disarmament today is through the same painstaking step-by-step process that has produced such dramatic results in recent years." Bringing nuclear disarmament to the CD would, in Holum's view, halt all actual progress "for the sake of a long argument over the ultimate destination, and when we must arrive there."


For different reasons, each of the proposed issues before the CD is opposed by at least a few CD members, thwarting consensus. The linkage asserted between the proposed fissban negotiations and nuclear disarmament has logic and history but practical drawbacks. Like the CTBT, this is also falling victim to South Asian and Middle Eastern regional politics, as well as concern that the measure should not merely reinforce the nuclear status quo. Without understandings or mechanisms to address stocks or nuclear disarmament either in the CD (which the Western nuclear powers oppose) or in parallel talks, perhaps among the P-5, it is difficult to see how fissban negotiations can get started in the CD. The G-21 are concentrating on trying to get agreement for a negotiating mandate for a nuclear disarmament committee, but there is significant opposition within their own ranks. Stalemate continues, as the United States unequivocally rejects a role for the CD in promoting nuclear disarmament. Most energy has therefore been devoted to the landmines issue, with no success.

It does not look as if the CD will have an effective work programme this year. At best, it might get agreement to open consideration on a fissban in preparation for getting negotiations underway in 1998, but that would require a considerable political breakthrough, which is not presently on the horizon. It might be possible to appoint special coordinators on landmines and/or nuclear disarmament as a way of partially addressing these issues while putting them off for alternative or later consideration. Such devices can only serve the CD temporarily.

Following the successful negotiations of the 1992 CWC and the 1996 CTBT, the Conference will not be greatly harmed by a fallow year in 1997. If no breakthrough is possible and the stalemate continues into 1998, however, the CD could lose credibility and authority as a multilateral forum for disarmament negotiations. It is therefore vital that CD members negotiate with sufficient flexibility now so that they are in a position to undertake a programme of work early next year.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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