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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 18, September 1997

The Conference on Disarmament:
Conclusion of 1997 Session

'Conference on Disarmament Concludes 1997 Session,' United Nations Press Release, DCF/315, 9 September 1997

Editor's note: the following press release, provided by the UN Information Service, takes the place of Rebecca Johnson's Geneva Update, which she was unable to submit due to other work commitments.


"The Conference on Disarmament ended this morning its 1997 session, following months of intense debate over which subjects deserved its immediate attention.

The Conference adopted its report to the General Assembly as orally amended this morning. Before the adoption of the report the representatives of India and Cyprus offered statements. The delegation of the United States addressed the Conference after the adoption of the report.

The Conference, the international community's sole multilateral negotiating body, began its annual session in January with an agenda that has remained virtually the same for years. The only change in this year's agenda was the deletion of the item on a nuclear test ban, following the adoption by the General Assembly last year of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty drafted in the Conference.

As in previous years, a number of members, including those in the Group of 21 non-aligned countries, considered that the Conference should give priority to the question of nuclear disarmament. But other members, among them countries in the Western group, argued that the forum should put the emphasis on negotiations to ban anti-personnel landmines and the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. In the end, no agreement was reached on a programme of work, although an agenda was adopted three weeks into the session.

The Conference was able, nonetheless, to appoint 'special coordinators' to explore issues related to the establishment of a possible mandate on the question of anti-personnel landmines; expansion of membership; reconsideration of the agenda, and improvement of the functioning of the Conference.

Describing the current stalemate in the Conference, Peter Naray (Hungary), Special Coordinator on the agenda, said last month that one group of delegations had stressed that the Conference had failed to address the agenda items related to nuclear disarmament. They pointed out that nuclear disarmament should remain the absolute priority of any future agenda, in accordance with, among other things, the outcome of the 1978 First Special Session on Disarmament of the General Assembly, which gave birth to the Conference. In their view, any major changes in the present agenda could be introduced only by another special session of the Assembly. But the other current of opinion on the question enjoyed equally wide support, Mr. Naray continued. In the view of another group of delegations, the agenda should be brought into line with the profound changes in the world in the last few years. These delegations were of the opinion that the Conference, as an autonomous body, was free to set new priorities and draw up a new agenda. Delegations belonging to this school of thought indicated that their priority was to start negotiations in the Conference on a treaty to ban the production of fissile material, or cut-off.

Many of the delegations advocating work on a cut-off treaty also called for the beginning of negotiations within the Conference for the banning of anti-personnel landmines. The closing of the 1997 session comes as over 100 countries meet in Oslo, Norway, to conclude a draft treaty on the total prohibition of anti-personnel landmines in time for it to be signed in December in Ottawa, Canada. Among supporters of a ban on landmines, proponents of the Ottawa process argued that the Conference would take too long to agree on a treaty. Others countered that the Conference was better placed to conclude a universal document on those weapons by taking into account the concerns of all countries involved. A number of Conference members none the less pointed to what they considered the complementarity of the 'Ottawa process' and the Conference.

According to John Campbell (Australia), Special Coordinator on anti-personnel landmines, a majority of members are in favour of, or at least not opposed to, appropriate work commencing in the Conference on anti-personnel landmines. While serious caution had been expressed by some delegations, he said, the mandate with the most supporters was one which would have the Conference adopt a step-by-step approach to the elimination of landmines beginning with work on exports, imports and transfers. Most delegations would prefer to decide on a specific mandate in early 1998, he added.

The Special Coordinators on effective functioning and on expansion of the membership, respectively Mounir Zahran (Egypt) and Harald Kreid (Austria), told the Conference near the end of the 1997 session that further consultations were needed on those issues.

Mr. Zahran felt that the aim of expansion of the Conference is to ensure a more representative membership and any further expansion of membership might provide an opportunity to change or adapt the Conference's methods of work. Further consultations were needed on whether to adopt the agenda and programme of work on a biennial or pluri-annual basis, and whether to provide for greater involvement of non-governmental organizations in the work of the Conference. His personal assessment is that informal, open-ended consultations on the improved and effective functioning of the conference was useful and constructive.

The Special Coordinator on Conference expansion, Mr. Kreid, said that due to the brevity of time and the divergence of views expressed, he does not feel that the moment has come for him to formulate a concrete proposal for the admission of new members on which the Conference can take a decision. While there is no delegation opposed to expansion in principle, there were divergent views as to the appropriate timing, scope and possible selection criteria for new members. At a time of prolonged dispute within the Conference on its programme of work and in the absence of substantial negotiations, the admission of new members will hardly be the proper signal.

The Conference on Disarmament decided that the dates for its 1998 session would be: first part from 19 January to 27 March; second part from 11 May to 26 June; and third part from 27 July to 9 September 1998. In order to promote substantive progress during its next session, the Conference had requested the current President and the incoming President to conduct appropriate consultations during the intersessional period and make recommendations that could help to commence early work on various agenda items. Those consultations might, among other things, take into account views presented and discussions held in the 1997 session.


Arundhati Ghose (India) said, in a farewell address, that she did not share the apprehensions about the future of the Conference on Disarmament, and its apparent imminent collapse. The Conference on Disarmament, she said, is not an organization, it is a forum, to be used when there is need for it. It was set up by States to negotiate treaties, which, while responding to the needs of international security safeguarded vital national security interests as well. Agreement to negotiate such treaties was reached, when views coincided on the bases and the objectives of a Treaty. A Treaty or a negotiation that was forced on States, by 'persuading' reluctant States to accept what they were not committed to for whatever reason was tenuous at best and certainly not sustainable in the long run.

Ms. Ghose drew the Conference on Disarmament's attention to the case of the CTBT where, she said, a non-consensus text had been presented for adoption by the General Assembly. For India, the Ambassador said, it was the first time it had voted against a multilateral disarmament treaty. Disarmament issues which involve the security interests of all or many countries, cannot be decided upon by a group of countries - however large - by the adoption of a resolution in the General Assembly. We know that well and it is frequently pointed out to us. What treaties can we address ourselves to then, and where, which will safeguard our interests, she asked, adding that there had been some talk of the need of flexibility but flexibility on national security interests was, perhaps, asking for too much.

Ms. Ghose said she believed that what members had done this year in the Conference on Disarmament was necessary and might continue to be necessary for a longer period - it was inevitable. This year, 61 countries had tried to identify issues on which their views of their security concerns coincide. Those priorities, at the moment, at least, differ. This was not deadlock or failure, but simply disagreement on the bases or objectives of the negotiations on specific issues. Perhaps there were others on which we might find agreement - if we do - the Conference on Disarmament would be there for our use.

Sotos Zacheos (Cyprus) outlined his Government's commitment to the Programme for Preventing and Combatting Illicit Trafficking in Nuclear Material which had been agreed by the P-8 governments at the Nuclear Safety and Security Summit in Moscow in April 1996. The Government of Cyprus planned to implement the programme in all aspects of the prevention, detection, exchange of information, investigation and prosecution in cases of illicit nuclear trafficking. To this end, the Government was seeking technical assistance in training of personnel and suitable equipment to meet its obligations under the programme. As part of Cyprus' overall commitment to preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the government had decided to join, from April 1997 the IAEA's database programme for collecting and sharing information on trafficking incidents and to accede to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials.

Mr. Zackheos concluded by highlighting President Clerides proposals for the demilitarization of the Republic of Cyprus which the Government saw as its contribution to the efforts for conventional weapons disarmament as well as a genuine answer to the security concerns of all Cypriots. Moreover the implementation of such a move would lead to stability in the sensitive eastern Mediterranean region.

Katherine Crittenberger (United States) said it was clear that the divisions within the Conference on Disarmament reflected genuine foreign policy differences and priorities among member states. However, she said, these divisions and the Conference on Disarmament's lack of progress should not reflect on the Conference on Disarmament as an institution. It could be no more productive than its members allowed it to be.

Policy differences notwithstanding, the United States representative said, there also seemed to be a fundamental lack of desire and will to achieve substantive results. With or without the Conference on Disarmament, the United States is moving forward on arms control issues and is hard at work in the field of nuclear arms control and disarmament. The recent agreement reached between the United States and the Russian Federation after several years of hard work on Theater Missile Defense issues is just the latest example of tangible progress. The United States continue to believe that the most expeditious way to ensure continued progress in nuclear disarmament, at least for the foreseeable future, is for the United States and the Russian Federation to continue bilateral negotiations.

The United States government hoped the situation would change next year and that the Conference on Disarmament would find one or more issues on which to begin substantive negotiations. Her country believed that the obvious and feasible choices for negotiations were a Convention on the Prohibition of the Production of Fissile Material for Nuclear Weapons or Other Nuclear Explosive Purposes and steps towards a global ban on anti-personnel landmines. She rejected the idea that anti-personnel landmines were somehow a 'small' issue as they killed or maimed 25 thousand people each week. Mrs Crittenberger drew the delegates' attention to the memorial outside the gates of the Palais des Nations - a chair with a shattered stump in the place of one of its legs - symbolising lives and limbs shattered by anti-personnel land mines. She urged the Conference on Disarmament to do its part in contributing to the elimination of this scourge.

The United States representative criticised what she called an 'all or nothing approach'. The result, she said, was that concrete progress on specific and timely issues, ripe for multilateral negotiation had been held hostage to demands to negotiate multilaterally nuclear disarmament in a time bound framework. Mrs Crittenberger noted that 1997 had been the first year in which the Conference on Disarmament had been unable to convene an ad hoc committee or undertake any substantive work. She said the United States delegation had been flexible and shown a willingness to discuss topics it did not particularly wish to discuss. Without flexibility and a significant change in attitude the prospects for the Conference on Disarmament in 1998 would be no better than the failure in 1997.

Report of Conference

The Conference on Disarmament adopted its report as amended by the delegation of Mexico. The delegation of Mexico stated that the views of his Government were that the consultations by the Special Coordinator on Anti-Personnel Landmines constituted a procedural issues and were not part of the substantive programme of work of the Conference on Disarmament.

Conference's agenda adopted for its 1997 session included cessation of the nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament; prevention of nuclear war, including all related matters; prevention of an arms race in outer space; effective international arrangements to assure non-nuclear-weapon States against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons; new types of weapons of mass destruction and new systems of such weapons; radiology weapons; comprehensive programme of disarmament; and transparency in armaments. Following the adoption of the agenda, the President stated that it was the President's understanding that if there was a consensus in the conference to deal with any issues, they could be dealt with within the agenda.

Throughout the session, successive Presidents of the Conference conducted intensive consultations with a view to reaching consensus on the programme of work. However, it was not possible to establish any negotiating mechanism on any of the substantive items on the agenda, nor to establish any other mechanisms, apart from the appointment of the four Special Coordinators. The four Special Coordinators were John Campbell (Australia) on anti-personnel land mines, Harald Kreid (Austria) on expansion of membership, Mounir Zahran (Egypt) on improved and effective functioning of the conference, and Péter Naray (Hungary) on the review of the Conference's agenda.

With regard to the cessation of the Nuclear Arms Race and Nuclear Disarmament, the Conference did not establish an Ad Hoc committee on this agenda item during its 1997 session. Several proposals were made under this agenda. A number of delegations proposed the reestablishment of an Ad Hoc committee on the prohibition of the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other explosive devices. Other delegations proposed that an Ad Hoc Committee be established on nuclear disarmament, under which the prohibition of the production of fissile material would be included. Other proposals were made for the appointment of a special coordinator on nuclear disarmament. Also, the Conference did not reach consensus to reestablish an Ad Hoc Committee on the 'Prohibition of the Production of Fissile Material for Nuclear Weapons or Other Nuclear Explosive Devices', which was proposed by the German delegation.

On the proposals for the 'Cessation of the Nuclear Arms Race and Nuclear Disarmament', the Group of 21, supported by a number of other delegations, submitted a Programme of Work for the Conference calling for the establishment of an Ad Hoc Committee on nuclear disarmament to commence negotiations on a phased programme of nuclear disarmament for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. However, the proposals did not command consensus and the conference did not establish a Committee to deal with the issues. The delegation of Japan presented a proposal for the appointment of a special coordinator on nuclear [disarmament] while the Iranian delegation suggested the appointment of a special coordinator to seek the views of its members on the most appropriate arrangement to deal with the issue. Also, the delegation of Egypt proposed a possible mandate of an Ad Hoc Committee on Nuclear Disarmament. Those proposals were not put for a decision by the conference.

Concerning agenda items on 'Prevention of Nuclear War, including all Related Matters', 'Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space', 'Effective International Arrangements to Assure Non-Nuclear-Weapon States Against the Use or Threat of Use of Nuclear Weapons', 'New Types of Weapons of Mass Destruction and New Systems of Such Weapons; Radiological Weapons' and 'Comprehensive Programme of Disarmament', the Conference did not establish Ad Hoc Committees, nor [had] it received new documents on these issues. ..."

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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