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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 22, January 1998

Geneva Update

CD Adopts Agenda But Not Yet a Programme of Work
By Rebecca Johnson


The Conference on Disarmament (CD) adopted its eight-point agenda at its first plenary of 1998, chaired by Ambassador Lars Norberg of Sweden. Despite a flurry of proposals on nuclear disarmament, a fissile materials production ban (fissban), landmines, outer space and security assurances, the Conference has not, however, managed to agree on its programme of work. (The CD distinguishes between the 'agenda', a generally phrased shopping list based on the 1978 decalogue, and work programme, which identifies the committees and coordinators agreed for particular subjects of negotiations or discussions.)

South Africa had considerable impact at the beginning of the session with a proposal for an ad hoc Committee to address nuclear disarmament issues but without a negotiating mandate at this stage. This compromise proposal was immediately supported by New Zealand, Brazil and Canada, although Canada also put in its own proposal for a programme of work covering several issues. Other non-aligned countries, including Myanmar, Egypt, Mexico and Bangladesh, have expressed cautious interest in South Africa's constructive approach, recognising that though it does not go as far as they would like, it could provide a way to ";cut the Gordion knot";(1) of the CD impasse. A short statement from US President Bill Clinton was read at the first meeting, emphasising the American view that the CD should commence work on a fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT) and landmines.

There appeared to be a positive mood during the first weeks, generated by a sense that the CD might confound its critics and start substantive work in 1998 after all. However, by mid February, following interventions from the Russian Federation, Syria and Iran, the mood of constructive compromise began to fade as delegates feared that hardliners would seize hold of the debate and bog things down again. There is growing optimism, however, that agreement is close on appointing a special coordinator to consider the issues pertaining to the militarisation of space, an updating of what has previously been designated 'prevention of an arms race in outer space' (PAROS). The CD is also close to consensus on an ad hoc committee or special coordinator on negative security assurances, although South Africa is holding out on the grounds that the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review process would be a more appropriate forum for addressing this issue.

Getting Started

The Secretary-General of the CD, Mr Vladimir Petrovsky, opened proceedings with a statement from UN General Secretary Kofi Annan. This ";emphasized that nuclear disarmament must be pursued more vigorously, particularly by nuclear-weapon States [NWS], with a view to the progressive reduction and complete elimination of nuclear weapons at the earliest date";. Annan expressed ";serious concern at the spread of various types of conventional weapons, especially landmines and small arms which are extensively used in regional and sub-regional conflicts.";

Annan's statement also welcomed consensus on the reorganisation of the Secretariat and re-establishment of the Department for Disarmament Affairs, especially the fact that ";a distinguished and experienced disarmament expert, Ambassador Dhanapala of Sri Lanka, has agreed to head the Department.";

The CD Agenda

The agenda for 1998 was identical with that adopted in 1997:

"Taking into account, inter alia, the relevant provisions of the Final Document of the First Special Session of the General Assembly devoted to disarmament, and pending the conclusion of its consultations on the review of its agenda, and without prejudice to their outcome, the Conference adopts the following agenda for its 1998 session:

1. Cessation of the nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament.
2. Prevention of nuclear war, including all related matters.
3. Prevention of an arms race in outer space.
4. Effective international arrangements to assure non-nuclear-weapon states against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons.
5. New types of weapons of mass destruction and new systems of such weapons radiological weapons.
6. Comprehensive programme of disarmament.
7. Transparency in armaments.
8. Consideration and adoption of the annual report and any other report, as appropriate, to the General Assembly of the United Nations.";

Norberg also read into the record the understanding that ";if there is a consensus in the Conference to deal with any issues they could be dealt with within this agenda."; This is identical with the statement made at the time of adoption of the agenda in 1997 and is intended to cover landmines.


President Clinton pledged ";the full support of the United States delegation in taking the next steps in the nuclear disarmament process..."; and emphasised that ";No issues are more important today to [the CD's] work than a cutoff of fissile material production for nuclear explosives and a worldwide ban on the export of anti-personnel landmines."; (3) Ambassador Grigori Berdennikov said that Russia was ";convinced that a FMCT is the next step to be taken in the pursuit of systematic and progressive efforts with the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons... ripe to be undertaken on the multilateral level..."; by the CD.(4) Many more delegations echoed the view that the FMCT was the ";next logical approach"; in the process of nuclear disarmament.(5)

Austria argued that the FMCT offered ";good prospects for success"; and that the CD would be ";irresponsible"; if it passed up the chance. Ambassador Harald Kreid proposed establishment of a committee under agenda item 1 to negotiate a fissban on the basis of the Shannon report, adopted by the CD in March 1995 (CD/1299).(6) Warning that ";to demand answers a priori is only a pretext for inaction";, Canada circulated a working paper on a FMCT suggesting ways of moving beyond the impasse, including a presidential statement that, without prejudging the actual negotiations, would acknowledge the importance of stocks and the full adherence of all nuclear-capable states.(7)

Alexander Downer MP, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, devoted a major part of his statement to arguing the necessity for a cut-off treaty. He said it would ";create a barrier to [the] quantitative development"; of nuclear weapons, and be ";conducive to the elimination of nuclear weapons"; by adding a coffin nail to the nuclear arms race and vertical proliferation. Downer enumerated ways in which a cut-off would ease regional tensions and argued that the treaty should include two basic undertakings: ";(1) an agreement not to produce fissile material for use in nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, or in any way to assist, encourage or induce others to produce such material for use in nuclear weapons and (2) an agreement by all parties, including NWS, to accept international safeguards on all existing and any future facilities capable of producing fissile material that could be used in nuclear weapons.";

Downer's proposals acknowledged the need for declarations and inspections of facilities but ";pragmatically"; considered that ";the cut-off treaty should not try comprehensively to address existing stocks"; but that in negotiating a treaty in accordance with the Shannon mandate, ";we will need to do so in the knowledge that it presupposes a following step which would bring existing stocks under strict and effective international control."; Reminding the CD that the present support for a FMCT from the nuclear-weapon States might not be indefinite, Downer warned against using the proposal as a bargaining chip or allowing it to be ";held hostage by States which have managed to avoid making any multilateral commitments to eschew nuclear weapons.";(8)

Despite significant support for a FMCT, however, it will be difficult to move beyond the disagreements over stockpiles and the measure's role in promoting nuclear disarmament as well as non-proliferation. Ambassador Mounir Zahran recalled Egypt's proposal from 1 April, 1997 (CD/1453), which called for simultaneous negotiations on a fissban and on the elimination of nuclear weapons, to be conducted under the auspices of a nuclear disarmament committee.(9) There has been some speculation that a successful formula might be for Egypt's concept of a bifurcated committee to be combined with the South African proposal, thereby establishing a nuclear disarmament committee under agenda item 1, with one working group to negotiate a fissban while another working group deliberated on further practical steps. Although no-one wishes to revive the 'linkage' debates, few believe that fissban negotiations will get underway until the CD agrees to address general issues of nuclear disarmament in some form or another.

Nuclear Disarmament

Seeking to move away from the past year's sterile debate between doing nothing on nuclear disarmament in the CD (the preferred position of most of the nuclear-weapon States) and negotiating a timebound framework on eliminating nuclear weapons (the majority view of the non-aligned States), Ambassador Jacob Selebi of South Africa proposed setting up an ad hoc Committee on Nuclear Disarmament ";to deliberate upon practical steps for systematic and progressive efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons as well as to identify if and when one or more such steps should be the subject of negotiations in the Conference.";(10) Characterising the CD as having reached ";a cross-road of relevance";, Selebi argued that ";the time has come for the States trapped between [the] two extremes to mobilise their strength and to set an agenda for 1998 which would allow nuclear disarmament to be substantively considered while avoiding the security concerns which are so closely associated"; with nuclear disarmament issues.(11)

The first paragraph of South Africa's proposal carefully utilised language already accepted by the NWS in the programme of action in the NPT's 1995 Principles and Objectives and Japan's resolution to the UN General Assembly in 1997 (UNGA 52/38K). Stating that the committee should ";take into account existing proposals and views, as well as future initiatives on nuclear disarmament";(12), the second paragraph makes oblique reference to the several proposals and programmes from the G-21 or groups of non-aligned States over the past few years.

New Zealand immediately welcomed the initiative as ";realistic and achievable"; and emphasised that it offered a constructive way forward without prejudging a mandate.(13) Ambassador Clive Pearson argued that ";it is not creditable to repeatedly endorse the need for nuclear disarmament in United Nations resolutions and not to pursue the objective in this forum.";

This was the first of an ";outpouring of cascading support"; (14) for South Africa's proposal. Brazil's Ambassador Celso Lafer called the South African proposal a ";positive and timely initiative";.(15) Ambassador U Aye of Myanmar recalled last year's non-aligned call for a nuclear disarmament committee with two working groups, dealing with nuclear disarmament and fissile materials respectively, but also said that it would show flexibility in exploring ";various mechanisms that would command consensus"; (16), understood to be a cautiously supportive reference to Selebi's initiative. This was followed by statements from Mexico, Egypt and others, which appeared to endorse the South African proposal as a first step, while again emphasising their overall objective of substantive negotiations on nuclear disarmament. Iran welcomed the South African proposal but said that its mandate should not be confined to deliberations only.(17) Syria agreed, stating that it was ";high time"; to establish a nuclear disarmament committee.(18) Belgium, like its western group colleagues Japan and Ireland, emphasised the importance of commencing negotiations on a fissban, but welcomed South Africa's initiative on nuclear disarmament as positive and worth exploring further. Ambassador Anne Anderson argued that it had ";the potential to bring us to a reasonable compromise which could open the way to the launching of negotiations on those key issues of nuclear disarmament which might appropriately be dealt with by the CD.";(19) Canada renewed its proposal from May 1997, for a committee to negotiate a fissile material production ban and also a ";mechanism for the substantive discussion of nuclear disarmament issues with a view to identifying if and when one or more issues should be the subject of negotiation.";(20)

Berdennikov, however, expressed Russia's reservations that the CD could address nuclear disarmament and argued that ";the question of the complete elimination of nuclear weapons can in practical terms only emerge after all the intermediate stages have been passed";. Appearing to ignore the South African proposal, Berdennikov again emphasised the importance of bilateral work on reducing the arsenals and said that it was not ";timely or useful in terms of the goals of nuclear disarmament that negotiations should be started in the Conference on Disarmament on a programme of nuclear disarmament within a time-bound framework, and we among others would not be able to support the establishment of an ad hoc committee or a working group to conduct such negotiations.";(21)


The United States has continued to push for landmines to be addressed in the CD. Clinton pledged ";the full support of the United States delegation in... banning anti-personnel landmines from the face of the earth";.(22) Australia's Foreign Minister said that the CD should establish a committee to negotiate a ban on the transfers of landmines, as ";an open and honest attempt to complement the Ottawa Treaty and address remaining elements of the global landmines problem at their source.";(23)

Warning against the emergence of a ";borderline"; between countries which signed the Ottawa Treaty from those which did not, Berdennikov said that Russia did not exclude its eventual signing of the Ottawa Convention. Nevertheless, he supported the re-establishment of a special coordinator on the issue and the ";beginning in the CD of a gradual process leading eventually towards achieving a truly global ban on the production, use, transfer etc., of anti-personnel landmines";, starting with a global agreement prohibiting their export and import.

A number of other delegations expressed lukewarm support for working on landmines in the CD. As informal consultations on this issue proceed, it is understood that some States, led by Mexico and South Africa, are considering ways to utilise the provisions in the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), as an alternative way of globalising a ban on the transfer of landmines and drawing more States towards the objectives of the Ottawa regime. Although it is by no means clear that the CD has enough agreement for an ad hoc committee on landmines, a special coordinator may be agreed soon.

Outer Space

Interest is being revived in the issues presently subsumed under the agenda item 3 of 'prevention of an arms race in outer space'. Accepting that there is currently no arms race in outer space, but noting that there are now 30 countries engaged in space-related activities and that space is already ";heavily used for such military purposes as surveillance, intelligence gathering and communications";, Canada called for a legally binding instrument to prevent the ";weaponization of outer space";.(24) Russia also raised concerns that ";all has not by any means been done to block all the paths towards the outer space becoming the sphere of military competition"; and called for re-establishment of the PAROS committee with the previous mandate, or if that were not possible, the appointment of a special coordinator to facilitate agreement on a new mandate.

Several other delegations supported CD work on this issue and Austria gave strong backing to establishment of a committee, arguing that ";We should close the door to using or even testing weapons systems in outer space before such programmes have reached a stage where it gets politically difficult to stop them."; The United States continues to take the view that the issue is academic and redundant, but if the growing number of States backing CD work on preventing the militarisation of space continues to exert pressure, it is unlikely that Washington will expend its political capital on a veto.

Security Assurances

Once again, many States have mentioned security assurances as an issue that could be addressed in the CD, although some doubt whether the Conference would be able to do more than discuss the different aspects of the relationship between the nuclear-weapon States, non-nuclear-weapon States, security assurances and no-use guarantees. The CD appears to be close to achieving a lukewarm consensus, although South Africa is still holding out, preferring the issue to be dealt with under NPT auspices.


Despite a positive start to 1998 there is still entrenched opposition to the major proposals for substantive work. A constructive route to achieve negotiations on a FMCT within a broad context of nuclear disarmament deliberations has been opened up, bringing the prospect of progress closer than at any time in 1997. Building on the proposals of South Africa and Egypt would provide a procedural mechanism for moving forwards that could be interpreted by both the protagonists of the two main roadblocks as a partial victory - but this will happen only if there is genuine political will to address these issues in the CD.

The existence of that political will, despite protestations and rhetoric to the contrary, is not yet being demonstrated by the delegations at the extremes of this debate. At present they appear content to sit back and hope that someone else will stymie the emerging consensus. While these two important issues hang in the balance, there is a growing likelihood of agreement to establish committees, or more likely special coordinators, to consider the militarisation of outer space and security assurances. Though transparency-in-armaments (TIA) got little coverage at the beginning, it nows looks likely that the Western Group will press for a special coordinator on this issue.

Dates of the 1998 CD Session

The first part of the CD's 1998 Session runs from 19 January to 27 March the second part from 11 May to 26 June and the final part from 27 July to 9 September.

Notes and References

1. Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, Ambassador of Bangladesh, 27 January, 1998, CD/PV.781
2. CD/1484, adopted at the 779th Plenary, 20 January, 1998.
3. Statement by Bill Clinton, read by Robert T, Grey, United States representative to the CD, 20 January, 1998, CD/PV.779
4. Grigori Berdennikov, Ambassador of the Russian Federation, 3 February, 1998, CD/PV.782
5. As expressed by Pavel Grecu, Ambassador of Romania, 5 February, 1998, CD/PV.783
6. Harald Kreid, Ambassador of Austria, 3 February, 1998, CD/PV.782
7. Mark Moher, Ambassador of Canada, 22 January, 1998, CD/PV.780
8. Alexander Downer MP, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Australia, 3 February, 1998, CD/PV.782
9. Mounir Zahran, Ambassador of Egypt, 22 January, 1998, CD/PV.780 10. CD/1483
11. J.S.Selebi, Ambassador of South Africa, 20 January, 1998, CD/PV.779 12. CD/1483
13. Clive Pearson, Ambassador of New Zealand, 20 January, 1998, CD/PV.779 14. Chowdhury, op.cit.
15. Celso Lafer, Ambassador of Brazil, 20 January, 1998, CD/PV.779
16. U Aye, Ambassador of Myanmar, 20 January, 1998, CD/PV.779
17. Ali Khorram, Ambassador of Iran, 5 February, 1998, from CD Press Release DCF/323.
18. Taher Al-Hussami, Ambassador of Syria, 5 February, 1998, from CD Press Release DCF/323.
19. Anne Anderson, Ambassador of Ireland, 22 January, 1998, CD/PV.780 20. CD/1456
21. Berdennikov, op.cit.
22. Statement by Bill Clinton, op.cit.
23. Downer, op.cit.
24. Moher, op.cit.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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