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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 17, July - August 1997

Geneva Update No. 37
Conference on Disarmament
By Rebecca Johnson


The Conference on Disarmament (CD) heard preliminary reports from the four special coordinators appointed at the end of June on the issues of landmines and three aspects of the CD's structure and functioning: the agenda, possible further expansion, and improving the ways the CD works. No further decisions were taken on ad hoc committees. This summer has seen a great changeover of ambassadors and delegation members. While some turnover is inevitable, it is clear that a number of capitals are using the present impasse to re-assess the resources they put into the CD.

At the weekly plenaries, the time is divided between government statements, mostly covering old ground, and thoughtful, sometimes humorous farewell speeches from outgoing ambassadors. US President Clinton's decision on 18 August to join the Ottawa Process and participate in the Oslo meeting to finalise a total ban on the production, export and use of landmines was formally welcomed in a statement from Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General.

The four special coordinators reported back from their consultations on 28 August. Ambassador John Campbell of Australia identified four possible options for future work on anti-personnel landmines (APL) but reported that CD members wanted to see the outcome of the Ottawa Process before deciding how to address the landmines issue in the Conference. Campbell's request to continue as special coordinator for landmines during the intersessional period, in order to prepare for a decision early in 1998, was not greeted with enthusiasm by the G-21 Group of Non-Aligned States, and is unlikely to be agreed.

As Special Coordinator on 'the improved and effective functioning of the CD', Ambassador Mounir Zahran of Egypt reported that CD members wanted generally to retain the present rules of procedure, group system and rule of consensus in decision-making. Zahran identified four issues on which further discussion would be needed: whether to make a distinction between matters of substance and procedure when applying the consensus rule; whether the agenda and programme of work should be adopted each year, as at present, or less frequently, on a biennial basis or longer; whether to provide a more descriptive annual report from the CD to the UN General Assembly; and whether to permit greater involvement of NGOs in the work of the Conference, such as allowing them to deliver statements at plenary meetings.

Ambassador Harald Kreid of Austria, Special Coordinator on CD expansion, reported that while no delegations opposed further expansion in principle, there was much disagreement over timing, scope and selection criteria. In particular, he noted the importance to several delegations of ensuring the optimum number for conducting negotiations, with balanced political and geographical representation. After describing the various considerations put forward, Kreid concluded that "at this stage a decision on the question of expansion appears premature."

The Special Coordinator on the review of the agenda of the Conference on Disarmament, Ambassador Péter Náray of Hungary, gave an overview of two 'main schools of thought' on the agenda, and then summarised the particular attitudes towards each individual item on the agenda adopted this year. The first school of thought (clustered round the non-aligned States) stresses the necessity for nuclear disarmament to remain 'the absolute priority on any future Agenda of the CD'. As this group advocates a strong relationship between the final document of the first special session of the UN General Assembly on Disarmament (UNSSOD I, 1978), the 'decalogue' and the CD's agenda, they consider that major changes to the priorities can only be introduced by a new special session on disarmament. The Non-Aligned Movement had proposed a fourth special session on disarmament to be held in 1999, but after the UN Disarmament Commission failed to agree on its agenda in April, it looks as if the United States will be successful in preventing the special session from being held before the year 2001.

The second school of thought (clustered around the Western group), argues that 'the agenda should be brought in line with the profound changes which have occurred in the world'. They believe that the present agenda is 'anachronistic and should be replaced by a new, updated, streamlined, forward-looking and realistic' agenda, focusing on items with a real potential for substantive or preparatory negotiations. They subscribe to the 'notion of balance between nuclear and conventional items' and tend towards the view that the priority now is to start negotiations on banning the production of fissile materials for explosive purposes (fissban) and on landmines.

There is no expectation that work can begin this year on any of the issues before the CD: fissban; nuclear disarmament; landmines; prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS); negative security assurances (NSA) from the nuclear-weapon States (NWS) to the non-nuclear-weapon States (NNWS); or transparency in armaments and the registration of conventional weapons (TIA).

The more optimistic among the diplomats and observers hope that the CD can use its time now to build consensus so that work on one or two key issues could begin in 1998. Their wishes do not look likely to be realised. As debate on the work programme during the two-day plenary at the end of the second part of this session showed (1), there are at least four factions vying for dominance. Simply put, at opposite poles are the NWS (with the exception of China), who say 'anything but nuclear disarmament', and a group of delegations within the G-21 group of non-aligned States, who insist 'first and foremost, negotiate a time-table for nuclear disarmament'. The latter group is akin to the 'group of like-minded States' which opposed the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995, but in the CD India plays a prominent role. Then there are the NNWS from the Western Group, Eastern Europeans and some non-aligned States who argue for the CD to fulfil the Shannon mandate and start negotiating a fissban as a first step.

The demand for fissban negotiations became blurred at the beginning of 1997 by the United States' determination to have the CD deal with the issue of landmines, perceived by many as an early attempt to divert support from the Ottawa Process and maintain 'big power' solidarity with China and Russia. Although the Clinton administration appeared to want a fissile materials cut-off treaty (FMCT) as well, the consequence of its initiative on landmines was that attention and pressure were diverted from the fissban issue. In his plenary address on 31 July, the Deputy Director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), Ralph Earle II, claimed that "The CD has a window of opportunity to negotiate a fissile material cutoff and a ban on APL." However, in the view of many other delegations, neither they nor the Conference have the resources to negotiate two detailed agreements simultaneously.

Those for and against the CD addressing landmines cut right across the boundaries drawn by the nuclear issue. To add to the complications, the opponents to the CD taking up landmines in 1997 comprised both advocates of a total ban, which preferred the fast-track Ottawa approach, and governments who wanted to retain the right to make and use landmines, at least in some circumstances. Countries which advocated the total prohibition of landmines production, export, stockpiling and use were unenthusiastic about doing it in the CD, because they considered that the structure and procedures of the Conference would hinder the rapid and effective achievement of such a ban.

Now that the Ottawa Process looks certain to conclude a total ban accepted by some 80-100 countries, the CD may end up dropping the landmines issue, leaving it to the Convention on Certain Weapons (CCW) and the Ottawa Process to fill in the holes between them. Alternatively, the Conference may decide on a role for itself in negotiating a step by step process towards a total ban, as promoted by Britain, France and the United States, beginning with a verifiable ban on exports that would include all major producers, such as China and Russia, which have no present intention of signing the Ottawa treaty.

Fissban Still Deadlocked

Despite the rhetoric of support from a number of western countries, the fissban seems further away than ever. Most of the non-aligned (and many other NNWS, privately) do not see much point in a fissban that does not address the existing stockpiles of plutonium and highly enriched uranium. At the very least they want the convention to be able to audit the quantities and locations of storage. The NWS, India and Israel oppose the inclusion of stocks, although India's position has recently shifted. Instead of rejecting consideration of stocks per se, India now argues that negotiations on any fissban must be within a framework of commitment to the total elimination of nuclear weapons.

Several levels of compromise would have to occur before the CD will be in a position to open negotiations on a fissban next year. The NWS, particularly the United States, would need to agree to some mechanism for addressing the wider issues of nuclear disarmament in the CD. The G-21, especially India, would need to accept initial discussions on this without a mandate to negotiate the time-bound elimination of nuclear weapons. Both sides would need to accept that the question of whether a fissban will address or exclude stockpiles will need to be discussed during the negotiations and cannot be settled before negotiations start.

The NWS could help the process along by opening discussions among themselves on transparency and accounting, with a view to resolving some of the political and technical questions that will arise. If it were possible for the States concerned to compromise their positions sufficiently, fissban negotiations could then get started. But unless the underlying political problems are resolved, the multilateral negotiations will be difficult and time-consuming, with the likelihood of duplicating the entry-into-force problems that beset the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996.

The different attitudes towards existing stocks of fissile materials and India's demand to place a fissban in the context of a time-bound framework for nuclear disarmament reveal fundamentally different perceptions of the purpose of halting fissile material production. It will not be possible to conclude a multilateral fissban successfully without resolving the competing interests of those who seek non-proliferation as a step towards nuclear disarmament and those who advocate non-proliferation as a means of freezing the nuclear status quo at current levels.

In an effort to revive the prospects of the neglected cut-off, Ralph Earle asserted the importance of the FMCT in "the overall process of nuclear disarmament". He cited the importance of codifying the voluntary policy declarations by the NWS into a legal and verifiable obligation, "making the reversal of those policies far more difficult." Earle also urged the CD to "consider the reinforcing impact that an FMCT would have on parallel efforts to dismantle nuclear warheads, to place fissile material that is determined to be excess to national security requirements under safeguards and to achieve even deeper nuclear weapons reductions leading toward their eventual elimination. These efforts could be harmed if unsafeguarded fissile material production is not banned." He concluded by emphasising that "without a cut-off treaty, the chances of achieving the ultimate goal of nuclear disarmament would be decreased significantly." But for most of the non-aligned States the problem lies not only in new production, but in the fissile material being retained for 'national security requirements', begging fundamental questions about the nuclear haves and have-nots.

Though many accept Earle's arguments on the benefits of a fissban, there is real scepticism about the motives of the NWS and the limitations of a basic cut-off treaty. Their cynicism has been fuelled by the recent disclosure of US Department of Energy documents which indicate the extent of US nuclear weapon modernisation programmes under the CTBT, signed in September 1996. (2)


The pressure to deal with landmines in the CD has relaxed considerably. It is clear to all that the Ottawa Process is on track to finalise a draft 'Convention on the prohibition of the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel mines and on their destruction' by December. Whatever happens in the CD now will not materially affect the Ottawa Process. At the CD plenary on 21 August, the United States announced its intention to participate fully in the Oslo meeting of the Ottawa Process, scheduled for September. Katherine Crittenberger said that in view of the growth in support for the Ottawa process and to "take advantage of the momentum behind the Ottawa process" the US had decided to participate in the Oslo meeting and would "work to secure an agreement that achieves our humanitarian goals while protecting our national security interests." Crittenberger also reiterated the US support for step-by-step negotiations in the CD.

The US move was welcomed in a statement from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, but prompted a sharp response from China's Ambassador Sha Zukang, who indicated that China would have to rethink whether the CD should be enabled to play any role in restricting APL. On the reported understanding that the P-5 would 'stick together' against the Ottawa process, China had compromised its early position of complete opposition to landmines being addressed in the CD, and had shown flexibility towards the proposal for a phased, step-by-step approach, beginning with a ban on exports and transfers. First France and Britain, and now the United States, have deserted the apparent P-5 solidarity to join the Ottawa process. Under intense pressure from public opinion and a well-organised landmines campaign, the US had found it increasingly difficult to hold out against the Ottawa Process. By joining now, the US may hope to exert influence on the emerging treaty, especially with regard to the scope and entry-into-force provisions.

In its present form, the draft landmines convention which will be considered at Oslo categorically prohibits the use and production of anti-personnel mines (APM) 'under any circumstances'. There has been considerable discussion of exceptions for particular circumstances, as a number of countries including the United States prefer, but this has been fiercely resisted by the majority of Ottawa participants. According to the present draft, mines will be able to be transferred or retained only for the development and teaching of mine detection, clearance and destruction. The convention will include an obligation to destroy all anti-personnel mines and provide for certain rights and responsibilities of international cooperation and assistance. In its present form the convention does not place heavy emphasis on verification, but relies on transparency measures and procedures for consultations and clarification in the event of questions concerning compliance. Transparency measures would involve the declaration by participating States of the types, quantities and locations of mines and minefields, the status of programmes for decommissioning or converting mine production facilities and for destroying existing mines. Entry into force would be on the basis of ratification by 40 States, but this provision may come under heavy pressure in Oslo.

Ambassador John Campbell of Australia, appointed Special Coordinator for the CD on landmines, has been consulting with delegations about the possibilities for the CD to work on landmines in 1998. In his two reports to the CD, on 14 and 28 August, Campbell identified four possible options for dealing with APL in the CD:

i) a comprehensive mandate along the lines proposed by Japan and Hungary on 15 May (CD/1455), with the objective of negotiating an effective, legally-binding international agreement to ban the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of APL;

ii) a phased or step-by-step approach under an overall comprehensive objective, such as that proposed by the UK on 30 January (CD/1443), starting most probably with a ban on exports, imports and transfers of APL;

iii) a partial approach, according to which an ad hoc committee would consider discrete issues, such as exports and transfers and/or verification, but without the overall declared objective of seeking the total elimination of landmines.

iv) an ad hoc committee 'simply to review and discuss the world situation regarding landmines', but with no negotiating mandate.

Of these four options, Campbell said, the mandate with the most support was option ii), for a phased approach, beginning with consideration of a ban on exports, imports and transfers. However, it was clear from his consultations that there was no point in pushing for a decision on a mandate before the outcome of the Ottawa Process is known. Most delegations would prefer to decide on a specific mandate in early 1998.

Campbell concluded that, from 55 bilateral consultations, "a clear majority of delegation members of the Conference are in favour, or are at least not opposed to, appropriate work commencing in the CD on landmines." He also noted that at least two delegations needed further instructions and that two remained opposed to work in the CD.

Unofficial soundings among many of the delegations suggest that while overt opposition may be limited to a few, among those whom Campbell characterised as 'at least not opposed to' the CD taking up the issue of landmines, there is less enthusiasm than the Special Coordinator's report seems to indicate.

  • Very few seem to regard the Japan/Hungary comprehensive mandate feasible for the CD at this time.
  • As Campbell noted, if the CD is to address landmines, the phased approach has more backing than others. The United States, Britain and France are particularly strong advocates of starting this step-by-step option. Russia has said it could accept this approach. China had begun to acquiesce in this approach, but may revert to its earlier opposition in view of the US 'defection' to the Ottawa process.
  • There is also some support for an experts group to be set up by the CD to consider verification and technical issues concerning various levels of APL restrictions and prohibitions.

However, two other groups of views will need to be accommodated.

  • Mexico continues to argue that the CD should prioritise nuclear disarmament and not work on landmines at all, a position supported to a greater or lesser degree by a number of other G-21 States.
  • China appeared at one time to be flexible towards the option of working on an export ban, but its fundamental position is that the CCW remains the correct forum for addressing landmines. China also argues that the priority should be de-mining, mine-clearance and rehabilitation of the injured, which is best done by other international organisations. China's view is shared by a number of other countries, none of whom are enthusiastic about the CD taking up landmines at all.

In addition to China and Russia, there are a significant number of governments which consider mines to be an essential component of their armoury. Few if any will expose themselves in outright opposition to the CD taking on landmines. At present, the persistent refusal by some of the NWS to consider the G-21 demand for an ad hoc committee on nuclear disarmament provides the non-aligned members of the CD with both cause and excuse for refusing an ad hoc committee on landmines.

Nuclear Disarmament

Earle condemned linkages drawn between one area of work, such as fissban or landmines, and another, particularly nuclear disarmament. However, he acknowledged for the first time that there was a conceptual distinction between the demand for a nuclear disarmament committee, backed by all members of the G-21, and the demand that the immediate task of such a committee should be to negotiate the elimination of nuclear weapons in a time-bound framework or by a set date, a position advocated by 26 of the G-21's members (29 States, now that 'Zaire' has been dropped from the CD).

Once again, Earle reiterated the US view that "The only realistic way to pursue nuclear reductions is through the bilateral START process and eventually through a process involving other nuclear-weapon States." France and Britain, which do not engage in the START process, have long argued the same. Russia, which until early 1997 gave support (or at least non-opposition) to the G-21 call for a nuclear disarmament committee, is now reported to be opposed, sharing the US view that the CD could derail or jeopardise the START process. However, the START process is presently imperilled by the failure of the Duma to ratify START II. China has consistently given support to the G-21 demands and also voted in favour of the Malaysian resolution to the UN General Assembly in December 1996 (51/45M).

The special coordinator's report on the agenda from Náray again underlined that for a significant number of countries, nuclear disarmament remains the absolute priority for work in the CD. This has been reiterated time and again in official documents, working papers and plenary statements from the G-21. 'Cessation of the nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament' is presently item 1 on the CD agenda. Some delegations have suggested deleting the first part, so that the agenda item would simply cover nuclear disarmament. Some would favour merging this with agenda item 2, on 'prevention of nuclear war, including all related matters'. Some Western countries argued for a new agenda item covering 'non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament' to 'better reflect existing realities and the progress made in the field of disarmament and non-proliferation'. However, most of the G-21 would oppose this, fearing a shift in focus to the threshold States and away from the obligations of the declared NWS to negotiate the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.

While the new governments in Britain and France may be more flexible on establishing nuclear disarmament talks in the CD, Russia's position on nuclear weapons issues has been hardening over the past two years. The key to any possibility of movement on this issue remains the United States. Although all recent public statements have reiterated US government opposition to a CD role on nuclear disarmament, there are indications that the question is the subject of debate among sections of the Administration. As with the zero yield decision in the CTBT negotiations or the recent shift towards the Ottawa Process, the fact that a clear message against multilateral involvement in nuclear disarmament is being currently broadcast on all wavelengths does not preclude a future compromise. If the US changes position, it is likely to do so without much warning, choosing a time when conditions on Capitol Hill are more favourable. At that time it would expect to carry Britain and France, but may encounter stronger opposition from Russia.

The final part of the CD's 1997 session began on 28 July and will close on 12 September.


The Ad Hoc Group of States Parties to the 1972 Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction (BWC), met in Geneva from 14 July to 1 August to continue their work on strengthening verification. Following five previous meetings, held between 1995 and 1997, the Ad Hoc Group now for the first time has a rolling text for a draft protocol. The draft protocol, which covers confidence building and transparency, compliance measures and exchange of information for peaceful purposes and international cooperation, will be the subject of further negotiations in the Ad Hoc Group from 15 September to 3 October.

Cuba Accuses the United States

The States Parties to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), of which there are presently 138, held a formal consultative meeting on 25 and 27 August to consider an allegation by Cuba of a suspected violation by the United States in 1996. The importance of this allegation lies not only in its serious subject matter, but because it is the first test of the procedures adopted at the Second Review Conference for consultation and clarification among States Parties. The future credibility of the emerging verification regime may depend on the way in which Cuba's allegation and the evidence from both countries are treated in this test case.

Cuba alleged that on 21 October 1996 a small US-registered fumigation aircraft, normally used for crop spraying for narcotics eradication, was seen by a Cuban plane releasing a 'white or greyish mist' while flying high over Matanzas Province, in the western region of Cuba. Two months later, the potato plantations in that region were found to be infested by an insect blight called 'Thrips palmi karny', which, according to the complaint, had not been known in Cuba before then. The infestation later affected fields of corn, beans, pumpkins, cucumbers and other crops.

The United States 'unambiguously denies' the allegation. In his statement to the BWC Parties on 25 August, US representative Donald A Mahley agreed the presence of the aircraft, but argued that it was configured so as to render it "incapable of carrying or dispensing insects as the Cuban government has alleged." He said that the plane was en route to Colombia via Grand Cayman after undergoing maintenance. The pilot released a plume of visible smoke as a safety precaution because he was not certain whether the Cuban civilian plane, which was flying below him, was aware of his presence. The US provided considerable technical evidence to back up its case that the plane could not have sprayed any infestation and that the Thrips palmi insect could not have survived in the plane's fuel-saturated tanks in any case.

The US argued that, though the Thrips palmi insect was indigenous to Asia, it had affected a number of Caribbean islands since 1985, and therefore could have spread to Cuba by wind dispersion or by inadvertently being carried in cargo from ships and aircraft from infected countries or islands. Some parts of Florida have also been affected by Thrips infestations. Mahley said that while the US had "no reason to doubt the accuracy" of Cuba's claim that the Thrips infestation had only been detected in the western province after December 1996, "it is not possible to determine conclusively the first appearance of an insect because of environmental and propagational variables." He concluded: "Simple failure of border quarantine is an obvious possible source of infestation, as is Hurricane Lili or numerous earlier windstorms. But one is absolutely certain - the current infestation in Cuba was not caused by a cloud dispensed from a US aircraft overflying Cuba on October 21, 1996 or at any other time."

Cuba registered its first complaint with the US on 26 December, 1996, asking for clarification. Since then, there have been several exchanges on this subject between the two countries. Dissatisfied with the answers it had received, Cuba formally registered its complaint of a potential violation of the BWC with the UN Secretary-General on 29 April 1997 (A/52/128). The US rebutted the allegation on 6 May. Cuba submitted its counter-arguments and provided supplementary information on 27 June (A/52/213).

On 25 August, Cuba and the United States each gave their statements of evidence to the BWC Parties. After two days of consultations between the two countries, mediated by the United Kingdom, which chaired the meeting, a deadline of 27 September was set for any States Parties to raise questions or make submissions regarding the Cuban and US arguments and evidence. These would then be incorporated into a report by 31 December 1997.


1. The verbatim record of this important plenary has now been published, as CD/PV.770, 26 June 1997.

2. Christopher E Paine and Matthew G McKinzie, End Run: the US Government's Plan for Designing Nuclear Weapons and Simulating Nuclear Explosions under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, Natural Resources Defense Council, Washington D.C., August 1997.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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