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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 33, December 1998 - January 1999

Agenda but no Programme of Work (Yet)
by Rebecca Johnson


The Conference on Disarmament opened its 1999 session on 18 January and in its first week was able to adopt the same agenda as last year. By early February, however, despite strong appeals from the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, the US Acting Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs, John D Holum, and others, there was still no consensus on establishing an ad hoc committee to negotiate a ban on the production of fissile materials for weapons (fissban) (1), as agreed in August. The CD President, Ambassador Robert Grey of the United States, suggested that delegations should look closely at the programme of work adopted in 1998 which "offer a prudent and appropriate bases for starting our work this year". (2)

The first month saw three very different proposals and several statements calling for the CD to undertake work on nuclear disarmament:

  • On 12 January, South Africa, swiftly supported by Mexico and Brazil, resubmitted its 1998 proposal for an ad hoc committee 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". (3) When on 28 January the CD President announced that there was no consensus for this proposal, Peter Goosen presented a legal argument based on the CD rules of procedure as updated in August 1990. (4) He argued that if there was no consensus on a proposal at the beginning of the annual session, the President was obliged within two weeks to take reasonable steps to identify someone to be a special coordinator to assist in carrying out consultations with a view to obtaining consensus. Although Grey had commented that there were probably as many legal interpretations as there were delegations, he agreed at least to "try to identify" a potential coordinator. The question is likely to come up again at the 11 February plenary. Although South Africa argues that under the 1990 rules, the special coordinator can be appointed under the authority of the President, this interpretation has been challenged by some, who maintain that consensus will be required. (5)
  • On 26 January, Egypt proposed an ad hoc committee under agenda item 1 on nuclear disarmament to "commence negotiations on a phased programme of nuclear disarmament with the objective of the complete elimination of nuclear weapons." This is a long-standing position of many G-21 (non-aligned) States, reiterated this year also by Venezuela, Iran and Myanmar (Burma). (6)
  • On 2 February, Belgium on behalf of five NATO countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Norway) proposed "an ad hoc working group to study ways and means of establishing an exchange of information and views within the Conference on endeavours towards nuclear disarmament." (7)
Grey, meanwhile, pledged to reconvene the 'troika' consultations on agenda item 1, covering nuclear disarmament issues, together with the outgoing president, Ambassador Ian Soutar of the United Kingdom, and the incoming president, Ambassador Rodríguz Cedeò o of Venezuela "as an interim step, pending adoption of this year's work programme elements".

There have also been calls to reestablish ad hoc committees to discuss negative security assurances and the issues pertaining to the militarisation of space, somewhat archaically known as 'prevention of an arms race in outer space' (PAROS), an issue that China is particularly keen to have prioritised in the CD. The US and Finland again called for the CD to work on banning the export of anti-personnel landmines, although they would clearly be prepared to accept another special coordinator, as last year.

Some delegations appear to be demanding that all elements of the programme of work be agreed before any part goes forward. Others are keen to see work start on a fissban and would be prepared to postpone the decisions on other issues. Although it is expected that the fissban committee will go ahead, the question of its Chair is not yet resolved. Many delegations would still like to see the Canadian ambassador, Mark Moher, who took the Chair just three weeks before the CD closed in September, carry on in 1999, but some have difficulties with this choice. They tend to argue either for the Chair to be rotated to another group or for the Western group to nominate someone else (Switzerland is frequently named).

The decision to admit five new CD members (Ecuador, Ireland, Kazakhstan, Malaysia and Tunisia), which foundered at the last plenary of 1998 because of opposition from Iran (reportedly over criticism of its human rights), had still not been taken at time of writing. However, the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, Dr M Javad Zarif, told the 2 February plenary that after "a long and difficult process of assessment" Iran had decided to "accommodate" the "national aspirations" of the five candidates. (8) The CD was unable to take the decision on that day, however, because Pakistan was not ready to join consensus. Pakistan's delay, reportedly in order to 'punish' Ecuador and Kazakhstan for their perceived betrayal in actively supporting the UN (First Committee) resolution condemning the South Asian nuclear tests last year, is not expected to hold the decision up for much longer. There are, however, now worries that India will take up the baton of opposition, as New Delhi has recently been heard muttering about the prominent role taken by some of these countries against its testing and nuclear ambitions.

As the long saga over admitting the 23 States on the O'Sullivan list showed, it is always a danger with the CD that if the moment is lost, a widely-supported decision can get shoved back again and again. Disarmament Diplomacy disagreed then with the United States over its veto of Iraq and is equally unimpressed with the petty justifications for delay coming from Iran, Pakistan or India.

Let us consider the composition, role and purpose of the CD and then look at the five candidates. Kazakhstan could have been a nuclear power when the Soviet Union disintegrated but wisely chose to renounce the option. Yet Kazakhstan knows more than most about the radiation and health effects, testing and production of nuclear weapons. Ireland originated the concept in the 1950s that became the NPT. Ireland has maintained a voice of experience, integrity and independence on international disarmament and security issues for many decades, most recently shown by its role in the New Agenda Coalition. Malaysia took the lead in bringing to the UN General Assembly the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons. Ecuador and Tnisia are important players in their regions.

Admission to the CD is not meant to be on the basis of whether a candidate agrees with all the existing members. The Conference negotiates disarmament treaties on behalf of the community of over 180 nations and must therefore be properly representative. It does not need members who are passive in the face of bullying or absent from their seats three-quarters of the year. It needs members with ideas and integrity, who can speak up for what they believe to be right and wrong and are not afraid to compromise and find workable solutions for the world's arms crises. Ecuador, Ireland, Kazakhstan, Malaysia and Tunisia have long been making constructive contributions to international affairs and security. It does the CD no credit to keep them out for reasons of petty revenge or rivalry any longer.

The Agenda

The CD on 21 January adopted its agenda, the same as for the past couple of years since finalising the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty (CTBT) in 1996.

"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 1999 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."

Addressing the Issues (9)

The United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, addressed the CD on 26 January and encouraged its member States to live up to its "record of endeavour and lasting achievement, of flexibility and expertise" and continue to play a leading role in building a "world which no longer relies on weapons for its security". Annan's tactfully worded statement said little, but touched on some of the issues before the Conference, including the fissban and security assurances, as well as highlighting the problems caused by conventional arms, especially small arms and light weapons circulating in civil society. Annan agreed that nuclear disarmament had rightly been identified as a high priority and hoped that "during this session you will reach consensus on the ways in which the Conference can best contribute". (10)

Fissile Materials Ban

Several plenary statements focussed on the need to get fissban negotiations underway. John Holum, for the United States, and the Ambassador for Egypt, Dr Mounir Zahran, made strong opening statements, setting out their very different positions on the fissban.

Holum read a statement from President Clinton who called for "focussed and energetic efforts" to "cap, for all time, the material basis of nuclear weapons..." (11)

Urging the CD not to delay negotiating an FMCT, Holum went on to say that the treaty would "help make nuclear arms reductions irreversible". He stressed that the United States "understands and shares the widespread concerns about effectively managing and irreversibly reducing existing stocks" and pledged to continue unilateral and bilateral US-Russian steps already underway. In view of the strong opposition of "several other key States", however, Holum argued that common ground and consensus were only achievable on a treaty "that targets future production".

Going into more detail, Holum then set out the US position. Although he clearly stated that the treaty should seek only to ban future production, some of his remarks regarding steps undertaken by the United States and on a trilateral basis with Russia and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were interpreted as indicating a positive attitude towards the nuclear-weapon States (NWS) and others making further undertakings to control and reduce stocks in parallel with the CD negotiations. With regard to verification, the United States considered that the treaty's verification should be under the auspices of the IAEA and should "focus on material produced after the treaty's cutoff date" but bring "all enrichment and reprocessing facilities, as well as newly produced fissile material, under international verification and monitoring for all time". With regard to India, Israel and Pakistan, Holum said that the US "would not accept any arrangements that established new or special categories of countries". (12)

Zahran agreed with the latter point, stressing that there must be no "de jure or de facto recognition or acceptance for the possession of nuclear weapons by any State non-member of the NPT". He went further, however, demanding that no treaty or convention could imply acceptance for the "indefinite possession of nuclear weapons by the five nuclear-weapon States specified in the NPT" either.

On stocks, Egypt took a diametrically opposite view, arguing that the treaty's scope "should... include all fissile materials potentially usable in the manufacturing of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices across the world, including the military stocks possessed by all States on an equal footing". Emphasising the need for the fissban to be internationally and effectively verifiable, Zahran said that Egypt wanted it to be "founded upon the element of absolute transparency" requiring that the entire fuel cycle, i.e. "all facilities that are involved in the process of production and storage of fissile materials must be subject to a strict regime of supervision and verification". (13)

Other countries, including Finland, Romania and Italy were more flexible. They recognised that the Shannon report did not preclude stocks being raised, but considered that in the interests of timely and successful negotiations they would be better left out of the treaty's scope. It was noticeable that in a statement which focussed largely on security and weapons of mass destruction, Iran did not even make passing mention of the fissile materials treaty negotiations in the CD. This is interpreted not as a shift from its previously stated position on including stocks (principally because of Israel), but as a signal that the probable outcome of a cut-off treaty is of little interest to Tehran.

Ambassador Ioan Maxim of Romania wanted 1999 to be a "year of action" devoted to negotiating the FMCT. He advocated a basic cut-off dealing only with future production and not covering fissile materials for commercial uses or naval propulsion. The verification regime, for which the IAEA would be "the best suited agency", should provide detailed accounts of fissile materials produced after a cut-off date, and safeguards against its use for nuclear weapon purposes, timely and effective detection of any diversion of material or undeclared enrichment or reprocessing." (14)

Peter Goosen said that South Africa's approach would be "based on the objective that the treaty...must be an integral measure of both nuclear disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation." While recognising the difficulties, it was Pretoria's "intention to raise the stockpiles issue...[and] seek the most appropriate ways of dealing with the matter".

Nuclear Disarmament

As discussed, three distinct proposals have been submitted on the subject of nuclear disarmament. In addition to Egypt, who resubmitted the proposal for a committee to negotiate nuclear disarmament in a specified framework of time, several non-aligned States, including Venezuela, Peru and Myanmar (Burma) spoke in favour of timebound nuclear disarmament. Noting that the twentieth century had been turned into the "century of the nuclear threat", Peru stressed that "we should not stabilise indefinite management of nuclear arsenals, requiring an indefinite struggle against nuclear weapons". (15) Myanmar (Burma) recalled the resolutions on nuclear disarmament to the UN General Assembly, especially its own, which called for the CD to "establish an ad hoc committee on nuclear disarmament to commence negotiations early in 1999 on a phased programme of nuclear disarmament and for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons with a specified framework of time through a nuclear weapons convention" and received 110 votes. (16)

Saying that the people of Iran and Japan must be the "very last victims of weapons of mass destruction", the Deputy Foreign Minister of Iran argued that "the time has come to replace military block security umbrellas with a new and innovative concept of Global Security Networking...for an inclusive and participatory global security." He argued for a practical approach to nuclear disarmament, structured in three phases. The first, short term phase would promote confidence, including vigorous reductions and de-alerting of nuclear forces; the medium term focus should be on multilateral agreements, such as agreements on security assurances and no first use, with a strengthening of the non-proliferation regime and nuclear weapon free zones; and the final stage would "offer negotiations on a global treaty banning nuclear weapons and providing for their destruction under an effective international control". (17)

Although Peter Goosen reiterated South Africa's 1998 proposal for a deliberative committee, utilising consensus language from the 1995 NPT Principles and Objectives, the initiative this year contained procedural surprises which have opened up the possibility that a special coordinator on nuclear disarmament may be appointed despite the continued opposition of some of the nuclear-weapon States.

On 19 January, Goosen announced his intention to seek a decision on the proposal in two weeks. When on 28 January the CD President announced there was no consensus, Goosen did not demand an open decision to be taken in the plenary, as many had anticipated, but instead invoked the CD rules of procedure, updated in a "Decision on the improved and effective functioning of the Conference on Disarmament", 21 August 1990. Paragraph 5, on the time limits for establishing subsidiary bodies and their mandates, provided that if consensus is lacking two weeks after the beginning of the annual session, the President shall take a further two weeks "to try to identify a special coordinator to assist in carrying out informal consultations with a view to reaching consensus". (18) A legal advice from South Africa's Office of the Chief State Law Adviser, which Goosen circulated, argued that taken in context, the implication of this rule is that the President, after identifying a person to fulfil the position, can appoint without seeking further consensus. Although Grey had furnished himself with advice and arguments countering the South African position, he chose not to use them at the 28 January plenary. Instead, he agreed to "try to identify" an appropriate person. The South African gambit is expected to come up again on or before 11 February.

South Africa has invoked a little-utilised rule and no-one is clear how the stratagem will play out. An obvious first step in genuinely trying to identify a coordinator would probably be to solicit nominations from each of the three groups. If any of these candidates commands consensus, it would be difficult for the President to refuse to appoint. According to the 1990 decision and the legal advice, the mandate for the special coordinator would be to assist the CD in special consultations on the subject of the original proposal. It appears that no additional mandate would have to be agreed, but there may be a question over whether the special coordinator would be restricted to consultations on the South African proposal, or whether consultations on all the nuclear disarmament-related proposals would be included in her/his purview.

In his statement on 28 January, Goosen noted that the purpose of the 1990 decision was to provide mechanisms to break deadlock and argued that though the appointment of the special coordinator under this rule did not require consensus, it left the rule of consensus "or its inversion, the 'Right to Veto'... inviolate and unaffected". Consensus would therefore be required for adoption of any mandate or decision for an ad hoc committee or other subsidiary body.

In introducing the proposal for an ad hoc working group on nuclear disarmament on behalf of the five NATO countries, Ambassador André Mernier of Belgium stressed that the fissile materials treaty was still the priority for negotiations.

Recognising, nevertheless, that nuclear arms reduction and disarmament were major issues for the international community, the NATO-5 have concluded that a working group would be a useful first step. The proposal for a working group, which would presumably be convened under agenda item 1, as is the committee to negotiate the fissban, is carefully not a call for an ad hoc committee on nuclear disarmament. Mernier made clear that the five were not advocating multilateral negotiations on nuclear disarmament in the CD.

Belgium had put a similar proposal in 1998, calling for the CD to establish an ad hoc group "for reflection and study on ways and means of opening an exchange of information" on matters relating to Article VI. (19) Opinion was divided at the time between those (mainly the nuclear powers) who regarded it as too much, and the non-aligned, some of whom thought Belgium had been set up to relieve the pinch on the NWS by offering something so mild that it would undermine the moderate South African proposal.


Hopes for an early start to the fissban negotiations are fading as it looks increasingly unlikely that a programme of work will be adopted before late February.

With regard to nuclear disarmament, Egypt's proposal, based on the long standing demand from the non-aligned, is presently regarded as a non-starter. Most eyes are now on how the South African strategy and the NATO-5 proposal will play out. The fact that Belgium has now been joined by four of its NATO/European partners shows how much CD opinion has shifted towards the recognition that nuclear disarmament cannot be kept out of the CD forever and the acknowledgement by many pro-fissban governments that some sort of CD forum on nuclear disarmament may be needed in order to enable the fissban negotiations to go forwards.

A working group may be weaker than an ad hoc committee, and a special coordinator is weaker than a working group. No-one is willing to wager a bet on which of these is eventually agreed, but there is a growing assumption that the CD will this year break the psychological barrier and decide on some kind of mechanism or discussion forum on nuclear disarmament.

CD Dates for 1999

18 January to 26 March; 10 May to 25 June; 26 July to 8 September.

Notes and References

1. In view of the continuing disagreements in the CD about what to call the negotiations, Disarmament Diplomacy has decided to revert to the abbreviation 'fissban', which does not prejudge the issues of scope and stocks. In referring to the positions of particular States, we will also use the terms FMCT or FMT, and even FM(C)T, as indicated in their own statements.

2. Robert T Grey, Ambassador of the United States to the CD, 19 January 1999, CD/PV.808.

3. Peter Goosen, Deputy Ambassador of South Africa, 19 January 1999, CD/PV.808.

4. CD/1036, 21 August 1990.

5. CD Plenary 28 January, CD/PV.811.

6. Mounir Zahran, Ambassador of Egypt to the CD, 26 January 1999, CD/PV.810.

7. André Mernier, Ambassador of Belgium to the CD, 2 February 1999, CD/PV.812.

8. Dr M Javad Zarif, Deputy Foreign Minister of Iran, 2 February 1999, CD/PV.812.

9. This section will incorporate key elements of some statements to the CD plenary. Due to pressure on space, however, the author will not cover all statements, but only those with substantive, new, changed or representative points on the main issues. Inclusion or omission is not based on institutional or political preference but in order to highlight positions or developments that may illuminate or affect the negotiations as a whole. The CD itself provides verbatim records of all statements.

10. Kofi Annan, UN Secretary General, 26 January 1999, SG/SM/99/17.

11. President Clinton, quoted in Holum, op.cit.

12. John D Holum, Acting Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs, USA, 21 January 1999, CD/PV.809. See documents and sources for fuller excerpts.

13. Zahran, op.cit.

14. Ioan Maxim, Ambassador of Romania to the CD, 21 January 1999, CD/PV.809.

15. Jorge Voto-Bernales, Ambassador of Peru to the CD, 21 January 1999, CD/PV.809.

16. UN res.53/77X.

17. Zarif, op.cit.

18. CD/1036.

19. CD/1496, 12 February 1998.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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