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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 21, December 1997

The CD Agenda and Future Work
by Rebecca Johnson


The Conference on Disarmament (CD) is in deep crisis - everyone says so! Certainly, it has not started negotiating anything since finishing the comprehensive test ban treaty (CTBT) in August 1996, and did not manage to set up any ad hoc committees during the whole of 1997. But did this signify the brink of terminal decline, or a fallow time, when it was better not to plant until the soil (political and structural conditions) had been replenished sufficiently to grow sturdy crops?

Some commentators point to the success of the Ottawa Process in achieving a treaty banning the production, stockpiling, transfer and use of anti-personnel landmines in under a year. They argue that such specialised negotiating conferences could be convened on various arms control issues, independently of the CD.(1) That ignores the particular conditions which gave rise to the fast track ban on landmines: a powerful public opinion lobby, backed by prestigious international institutions such as the Red Cross and UNICEF; a simple and compelling humanitarian message conveyed by an aroused media in harrowing pictures and stories that gripped liberal consciences; a determined and effective initiator - Canada - with strong domestic support, able to split traditional alliances and bring in heavyweight regional support, especially from Africa and Europe; and a significant number of countries who possessed the weapons in question, but recognised their declining utility, to lend credibility to the number of signatures on the resulting Treaty. With this kind of critical mass, the Ottawa Process worked. The Treaty will undoubtedly contribute to an international norm, even if some of the heavyweight producer and user States hold out against joining. What other weapons systems or practices can be addressed in this way?

Disarmament is a process, of which particular treaties are end-products or staging posts on the way. In general, the point at which the CD gets a mandate to negotiate, is when a treaty is already within sight of a successful outcome. The major part of the political bargaining takes place prior to negotiations proper. To judge the CD solely on the grounds of what it has on its negotiating plate is therefore to miss a vital component of its role, namely to prepare the ground for negotiations.

It can do this in two ways: by focusing, sustaining and intensifying pressure through diplomatic channels for measures achieving high support in the UNGA and international public opinion; and by convening expert groups to examine technical or verification questions, providing advance multilateral involvement in resolving problems that are real or presented impediments to agreement, such as baseline data and verification. A good example is the Group of Scientific Experts (GSE), which continued to work on the seismic verification of nuclear testing during decades when the CD had little prospect of getting nuclear test ban negotiations underway. When negotiations finally began, the GSE was able to contribute its collective experience and expertise to the international monitoring system of the CTBT. In the lean years, there were critics who complained the GSE was little more than 'make-work', but the regular exchange of information and ideas among the scientists and diplomats associated with the work helped keep the issue alive and provided important technical underpinnings for the verification regime.

The Work Programme

The CD has several issues on its plate, some for negotiating and some for discussion, but cannot come to agreement on what it will do, or how. Three issues are the subject of specific proposals for negotiations: fissile materials production ban (fissban or FMCT), nuclear disarmament and landmines. Other issues looked at unsuccessfully during 1997 include security assurances (NSA), transparency in armaments (TIA) and prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS).

Deadlock on negotiations

Fissile Materials

In 1995 the CD agreed a mandate to negotiate a FMCT, but has never convened a committee to start work on the issue. This is still a front-runner pushed by the Western States in the Conference. The obstacles take two main forms. Pakistan, Egypt and others argue that the measure should not merely be a cut-off of future production, but a genuine fissban covering stockpiles. India, which, like the nuclear-weapon States (NWS) had favoured a basic cut-off rather than a fissban, now refuses to enter into any negotiations unless the CD concurrently negotiates on nuclear disarmament. The NWS want only a cut-off treaty, one that does not deal with stocks or 'past production'. The Western NWS and Russia are against the CD convening an ad hoc committee on nuclear disarmament. Stalemate. There are a number of possible procedural solutions, such as convening an ad hoc committee on nuclear disarmament with two working groups, one of which negotiates the FMCT, or having the P-5 negotiate a sidebar agreement setting in place greater transparency and controls over their military stocks. Such compromises, however, are unlikely to work unless the underlying political difficulties have been resolved, particularly the role sought for a fissile material production ban in contributing to nuclear disarmament or only in curbing horizontal proliferation.


At the beginning of 1997, the US tried to put landmines on the agenda. At first this was opposed by two different groups: from those who disliked the concept of a landmines ban and from those committed to the Ottawa process, who feared that the CD would be used to derail the fast-track approach and would then fail to produce a credible alternative in a reasonable period of time. As the year wore on and it became clear that the Ottawa Treaty would be achieved, the CD was able to appoint a special coordinator on the issue.

After his consultations, Ambassador John Campbell told the CD that "a clear majority of delegation members of the Conference are in favour, or at least not opposed to, appropriate work commencing in the CD on landmines." The preferred mandate appeared to be a step-by-step or phased approach, beginning with work on exports, imports or transfers, as proposed by the United Kingdom in January 1997. However, Campbell noted that at least two delegations opposed work on landmines in the CD and others preferred a different approach.(2) With the United States continuing to push indefatigably for landmines to be addressed in the CD, and many delegations fearing the consequences if the CD spends another year without a programme of work, it is possible that a landmines committee might be convened in 1998.

Nuclear Disarmament

It is the policy of the non-aligned group of CD States - the G-21 - to call for an ad hoc committee on nuclear disarmament. Twenty-six delegations from the G-21, supported by others, proposed a mandate for the committee to be convened to start negotiating a 'phased programme of nuclear disarmament for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons within a specified framework of time', with working groups to negotiate i) a binding commitment to the objective; ii) a time-table for further steps; and iii) a fissban, based on the 1995 Shannon report.(3) However, the Director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), John Holum, had already made clear his view that the CD lacked the "capacity", stating: "It will set back disarmament. We cannot and should not agree to it. That is true today. It will be equally true next year, and five years in the future."(4) At present it does not look as if the United States wants either landmines negotiations or a fissban badly enough to relax its opposition to a nuclear disarmament committee and let any of the proposed compromises go ahead (such as a committee without a negotiating mandate or a committee with a working group mandated to negotiate a fissban or FMCT). Nor is it clear that India, playing its own hardline game from the other side, would agree to any practical compromise. The prognosis continues to be stalemate.

Other Issues for Consideration


For years the CD item on preventing an arms race in outer space (PAROS) seemed to be a hangover from the Cold War. With new developments in laser technology, and pressure from the US Congress to weaken the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, the militarisation of space has garnered renewed interest and concern. This year's resolution in the UN General Assembly, which called for the CD to re-examine and update the mandate for establishing a PAROS committee, was backed by 128 countries, including the non-aligned, Russia, Japan, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.(5)

Security Assurances

Pakistan obtained 116 votes for its UNGA resolution calling for the CD to "actively continue intensive negotiations" on guarantees to non-nuclear-weapon States that nuclear weapons will not be threatened or used against them.(6) Among the 51 countries which abstained were the NATO States, Russia and South Africa. The purpose of such a resolution is to harmonise and extend the security assurances given individually by the five nuclear powers into a legally binding treaty. Many western delegations question the necessity for this, while others, such as South Africa, consider that the NPT is a more appropriate forum for addressing security assurances, regarding them as a benefit for adherents of the non-proliferation regime. At the 1997 meeting of NPT Parties, South Africa pushed hard for time to be allocated in the future for the NPT review process to consider security assurances more specifically.

India's traditional resolution calling for a treaty prohibiting the use of nuclear weapons received 109 votes in favour, with 30 against (mostly NATO) and 27 abstentions. It is no accident that India and Pakistan, which remain outside any non-proliferation agreements, sponsor these resolutions, which seek to bypass the conditions imposed on assurances granted in the context of nuclear-weapon-free zones and the NPT.

Transparency in Armaments

Judging from the difficulties in the UN First Committee on transparency, it will continue to be difficult to get agreement on what the CD should do on this issue. The traditional resolution, backing the implementation and further development of the UN Register of Conventional Arms, achieved 155 votes, with 11 abstentions.(7) However, there was opposition in the form of abstentions from China and several non-aligned members of the CD to paragraphs calling for a group of governmental experts to be convened in 2000 and for the CD to continue work.

This year Egypt put in a rival resolution on transparency, which focused on weapons of mass destruction (WMD), arguing that inventories and information should be provided on holdings of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, as well as conventional arms. Declarations of biological and chemical stockpiles and facilities are part of those treaties, so the primary aim of this resolution is to have nuclear arms included. Egypt's resolution was opposed by NATO States, Russia and Australia. Some said they supported the principle of transparency but feared that the UN Register would be weakened if it were made to deal with all weapons at this point.

Supporters of a nuclear arms register have pointed out that the concept does not require the UN Register itself to include WMD. They suggest that if transparency procedures on nuclear arms were set up under other auspices, they would not interfere with the UN Register of Conventional Arms, but would instead enhance its credibility. Stigmatising the UN Register for being selective and discriminatory has been a favourite excuse from countries that do not wish to participate in greater transparency.

What Should the CD Do?

First, some questions need to be asked about the intended post Cold War role and objectives of the Conference. Does the international community need one sole multilateral negotiating forum, or is this a Cold War relic that should be replaced by 'specialised open-ended negotiating conferences', as Jozef Goldblat argued.(8) To whom are the 60-odd CD member States responsible? What is the relationship between the CD and the UN, and does this need to be clarified, reformulated or made more accountable? Can the 'Cold War' attributes such as the group system be updated without the CD falling apart (further)? Does the CD need a wholly new mandate, and if so, is this best provided internally, by a fourth UN Special Session on Disarmament (UNSSOD IV), or through some other agreed mechanism? What are the limits of consensus and negotiating rules for an arbitrarily selected group of States with wide variations of polity and political/security interests? How much negotiation can the CD manage effectively? What ratio of negotiations and other tasks (deliberations, expert groups etc.) should the CD aim for?

Already some governments have begun questioning the level at which they have been resourcing their delegations in Geneva. If the impasse continues, there is a risk that delegations will be downgraded and expertise will be dispersed, making it difficult for the CD to regain the credibility which its negotiations of the CWC and CTBT have achieved over the past decade. Negotiations and deliberations are not mutually exclusive if there is an objective in sight. Only when there is no agreement on purpose and goal do deliberations degenerate into rituals of hot air. This is the problem of the UN Disarmament Commission, which now serves little or no useful purpose. The CD can avoid a similar fate if it is prepared to accept some overhauling of its structure and agenda.

In making the suggestions below, I am aware of how difficult it is to change even the cosmetics of established rituals and practices that have evolved over years in international institutions, to accommodate bureaucratic sensitivities and the wide variance of political interests and assumptions of power. However, it is sometimes useful for relative outsiders to say what they see, in the hope of stimulating a constructive debate on alternatives to a failing system.


1. If it does not wish to be bypassed by frustrated States (as in the adoption of the CTBT and the Ottawa Process), the CD must itself establish an accountable mechanism for getting around deadlock on adopting its work programme or a completed treaty. The rule of consensus is important for the process of negotiations, but requiring full agreement in order to start or conclude makes unnecessary hostages. Substantive problems have a better chance of being dealt with in the context of actual negotiations than prior to their commencement; and if not, a State can stand aside from the decisions and refuse to sign any formalised agreement. Those States that wish to adopt a treaty or start negotiating on the basis of an agreed mandate, however, should not be prevented by the particular national interests of one or a few States. Experience shows that no State is obliged or forced to sign a treaty even if it participated in negotiating it. In Disarmament Diplomacy 17, I argued for a mechanism of accountability vis-à-vis the United Nations, but that is not the only viable approach. (9) The important thing is to find agreed ways through the structural difficulties of consensus-based negotiations in a forum of diverse States with asymmetric interests, power and resources, so that the structure facilitates rather than impedes the development of compromise and agreement.

2. The Cold War group system does not work and should be abolished. For the purposes of rotating posts, a regional model would do as well. For the purposes of managing decision-making, if the strictly regional groupings are deemed unacceptable, a looser structure of alliances (which might vary for different issues) could operate, with each group selecting a spokesperson to represent them in the Bureau.


1. Landmines: in view of the success of the Ottawa process, with over 140 signatories by the end of December, it would be counterproductive if the CD were to spend the time and energy of the international community in ways that undermined or were inconsistent with the Ottawa Treaty. Rather than tie up the CD's resources in negotiating partial and incremental measures to parallel the comprehensive landmines ban already concluded, it would be far better to establish an open-ended implementation process alongside Ottawa, open to all States, with a view to developing information exchanges and addressing the concerns of hold-out States, and related issues, thereby providing a ladder by which they can gradually clamber on board. Putting landmines into the CD at this late date is just a face-saver for a few countries and runs the serious risk of undermining the Ottawa regime as it is getting established.

2. Ban on production of fissile materials: if the NWS refuse to concede anything on either stocks or nuclear disarmament, they should recognise that they will not now be able to bind India and Pakistan to a cut-off through multilateral negotiations. In that case, they should take the issue off the CD agenda and do it among the P-5. Alternatively, if the five could offer parallel arrangements on stocks and recognise that the CD has some role in nuclear disarmament, even if not in negotiating a nuclear disarmament treaty at this stage, it is worth continuing to try to get a fissile materials ban through the CD. Such an approach would also demand compromises from the G-21 States, especially India and Pakistan.

3. Nuclear disarmament: in the near-term, political pressure should be brought onto the P-5 to negotiate 'qualitative agreements', including de-alerting, transparency, no modernisation, no increase of arsenals and so on. Such negotiations would be likely to be more successful if conducted in a special committee comprising the P-5, rather than in the multilateral arena. However, for the talks to be successful, they should be regular and ongoing. Geneva would be the ideal venue, with the back-up of missions and personnel with the appropriate political and technical expertise. Recognising the legitimate interest of the countries which renounced the possibility of acquiring nuclear weapons by joining the NPT as NNWS, the CD should also establish an ad hoc committee on nuclear disarmament, with perhaps a technical working group, to identify and facilitate future measures, receive progress reports from the P-5, and lay the groundwork for a future nuclear weapon convention.

4. Security assurances: for political reasons this cannot be resolved within the context of the CD, and has become a theological football which takes up time and energy to no great effect.

5. Transparency in armaments: very important issue, but might be more effectively addressed outside the CD (although the CD could be used to monitor the register, if desired).

6. PAROS: In light of the renewed concerns discussed earlier, this issue needs to be re-addressed and should cover both space-based installations and ground based laser developed for firing at satellites and targets in space. To prevent further erosion of the ABM regime, the Treaty should be further multilateralised, and Britain, France and China should be urged to join it as soon as possible.


The international community needs the CD for multilateral negotiations as well as the option of alternative negotiating fora for specific issues. If the CD were to be jettisoned or (more likely) allowed to fall into slow decline, it would take a long time to set effective alternatives in place. The present structure, however, has become a barrier to effective work and needs to be overhauled. The CD also needs to define its purpose and capabilities more clearly and not be afraid of playing a complementary role to other negotiating initiatives, if they prove to be more appropriate at certain times or for certain issues. With regard to nuclear disarmament at present, for example, the opportunities for achieving further progress among the P-5 are much higher than getting a multilateral negotiating mandate in the CD. CD members should look at how the forum can interact with and enhance such initiatives, while identifying measures that can be successfully addressed by the Conference.

The dates for the 1998 session are:
19 January to 27 March;
11 May to 26 June;
27 July to 9 September.

Notes and references

1. See for example Jozef Goldblat, 'The CD on the Brink', Disarmament Diplomacy 18, September 1997.
2. John Campbell, Ambassador of Australia, to the CD Plenary on August 28, 1997, CD/PV.776. See also Campbell in CD/PV.774 (August 14, 1997).
3. Report of the Conference on Disarmament to the General Assembly of the United Nations, September 9, 1997, CD/1476.
4. John Holum, Director of ACDA, to the CD Plenary, May 15, 1997, CD/PV.763.
5. UNGA Resolution 52/37 (formerly L.19 of the UN First Committee).
6. UNGA Resolution 52/36 (formerly L.41 of the UN First Committee).
7. UNGA Resolution 52/38R (formerly L.43 of the UN First Committee).
8. Goldblat, DD18, op.cit.
9. R.Johnson, Making the CD More Accountable, Disarmament Diplomacy 17, July/August 1997.
Note: This article is based on the author's paper to a United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) meeting in Geneva on 19 January, 1998.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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