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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 18, September 1997

The CD on The Brink
By Jozef Goldblat


The Conference on Disarmament (CD) is in deep crisis. Throughout its 1997 Session, which ended on 10 September, it was engaged in acrimonious exchanges - replete with intimations of bad faith - about what it should negotiate. Considerable time was wasted on sterile arguments about the distinction between agenda and programme of work, as well as on scholastic debates about the difference between the humanitarian law of armed conflict and the law of disarmament. Several weeks were spent on drafting a report about the CD's failure to do what the international community expects it to do.

Spells of inactivity are not uncommon in the history of the CD and its predecessors. However, stagnation has never been as dangerous for the Conference as it is now. During the Cold War, a multilateral disarmament negotiating forum was one of the few channels of communication between the Superpowers and their allies; there was, therefore, a general interest in preserving it. After the Cold War, the same States can, and in fact do, communicate with each other directly, at governmental and non-governmental levels, on a variety of subjects, including security and arms control; they could, therefore, do without the CD.

A Diagnosis

The reasons for the present deplorable state of affairs are multiple. They can be found in the outdated set-up of the CD membership, inherited from the bi-polar world; in the inability of the CD to negotiate, or even discuss in depth, more than just one arms control measure; and in its inflexible rules of procedure. The requirement of consensus, understood as the requirement of unanimity, enables any participant to block decisions on any matter, substantive or procedural, and to paralyze thereby all CD activities.

This virtual right of veto has frequently been resorted to in order to prevent examination of issues of paramount importance to a number of States. It has also been used to thwart the appointment, or extension of the mandate, of co-ordinators eliciting the views of delegations on issues under discussion; to hinder the establishment of working committees for items figuring on the CD agenda, or the appointment of chairmen of these committees; and even -oddly enough - to challenge the authority of the CD President to convene meetings for informal consultations. It was grotesquely abused when a delegation prevented the CD from informing the United Nations that consensus on the text of a treaty had not been reached.

The recent expansion of the CD membership has not improved the situation. If another substantial enlargement takes place, as requested by some, the CD may lose the capacity to negotiate any measure. It would then become a deliberative body supplementing the largely useless UN Disarmament Commission.

A Prescription

If there is to be meaningful progress in the field of multilateral disarmament, the negotiating machinery must be thoroughly revamped; patching it up would not suffice. The author of this article is of the opinion that the 'single' negotiating body should be replaced by specialized open-ended negotiating conferences, to be convened by countries interested in, or directly affected by, various arms control measures. The so-called 'Ottawa Process', set in motion by Canada and a group of like-minded States to deal with the problem of landmines, has demonstrated that such an approach may bear fruit.

There is no reason why global arms control problems must be dealt with in one international forum, while global economic or environmental problems are dealt with in several fora. To be effective, the suggested conferences would have to be autonomous, not accountable to other international bodies, not even to the United Nations. The UN General Assembly may, of course, recommend signature and ratification of treaties, but it has no authority, and should not be given authority, to invalidate agreements reached by groups of States.

One of the major weaknesses of the CD could be avoided if the arms control conferences adopted flexible rules of work. The rule of consensus should not apply to either procedural or organizational matters. It is even arguable whether it should apply to substantive matters. There is no risk in adopting veto-free procedures, because no conference or organization can impose treaty obligations upon sovereign States through a voting procedure. Treaty texts, negotiated internationally, are not automatically binding on negotiating parties; they remain to be signed by respective governments and subsequently approved by legislative bodies. It has happened more than once that States have failed to ratify, or even sign, treaties which were elaborated with their participation. India and Pakistan still refuse to join the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), worked out in the 1960s by the Eighteen-Nation Committee on Disarmament (ENDC), of which both States were members. China, France and dozens of other countries, which had not taken part in the ENDC negotiations, joined the NPT many years after its entry into force. Those who consider that a given arms control treaty is incompatible with their national interests will not endorse it. In other words, universal adherence to agreements cannot be guaranteed, whatever the composition of the negotiating body, and whatever its rules of procedure.

Keeping the CD Alive

It is difficult to abolish an international institution, even one in a state of lethargy. Radical changes in the arms control negotiating machinery, such as those described above, could not be quickly carried into effect. Since it was the First Special UN General Assembly Session Devoted to Disarmament that, in 1978, gave its blessing to the then constituted Conference on Disarmament, the earliest opportunity for bringing about changes may present itself at the next, fourth, Special Session. This session, however, is not likely to be convened before the year 2000. It is, therefore, necessary to continue with the present routine for at least three more years. To keep the sick CD alive during these years, an early solution is required to the current controversy over the subjects of negotiations.

The measures which enjoy the support of most delegations include the cut-off of the production of fissile materials for weapon purposes, and constraints on the transfer, manufacture, stockpiling and use of anti-personnel landmines. The latter measure is unlikely to be dealt with by the CD after the expected signing of the convention, recently drawn up in Oslo, unconditionally banning all anti-personnel landmines. The cut-off measure is linked by a number of delegations to the establishment of an ad hoc committee to negotiate nuclear disarmament. This linkage is strongly opposed by the nuclear powers, especially by the United States which argues that the only realistic way to pursue nuclear reductions is through the bilateral US-Russian START process and, eventually, through a process involving other nuclear-weapon States.

On the nuclear issue, however, there is room for a compromise. One could set up a nuclear disarmament committee consisting of the five declared nuclear-weapon States, instead of all CD members. This committee would meet independently of other organs of the CD, but would have the obligation to submit regularly - say, twice a year - a detailed report on its work for general discussion in the CD. A similar procedure was resorted to in 1962, when the ENDC created a sub-committee, composed exclusively of the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States, to negotiate a test ban treaty, and partly also in the late 1970s, when the United States and the Soviet Union pursued their bilateral negotiations for a ban on chemical weapons on the 'periphery' of the CD, but presented reports on these negotiations to the CD.

While it is true that the nuclear powers have an international obligation to negotiate nuclear disarmament and to bring these negotiations to a conclusion, they are not obligated to do so within the CD. On the other hand, all States, especially those which have foregone nuclear weapons forever, are justified in their demand to have a droit de regard with respect to nuclear disarmament. The suggested formula would give them this right.

The agenda of the proposed five-power nuclear disarmament committee cannot be determined by outsiders. One might, however, expect talks related to the elimination of tactical nuclear weapons which, because of their first-use characteristics, are likely to be employed early in an armed conflict started with conventional means of warfare, and which pose serious dangers from the point of view of nuclear proliferation. Accession of China, France and the United Kingdom to the US-Russian 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty might also be taken up by the five nuclear powers. All such transactions could take place without prejudice to the US-Russian Strategic Arms Reduction Talks.


If, within the next months, no compromise is achieved to break the present deadlock and make possible the resumption of serious negotiations in the CD, States may drastically lower the level of their representation at the Conference and eventually cease to attend it. The single multilateral negotiating body would then die a natural death.

Jozef Goldblat is Vice-President of the Geneva International Peace Research Institute.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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