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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 34, February 1999

Frustration That the CD Isn't Working
By Rebecca Johnson


By the beginning of March the Conference on Disarmament (CD) was still without a programme of work and had not begun negotiating the treaty banning the production of fissile materials (fissban) entrusted to it more than four years ago. The outgoing president, Ambassador Robert Grey of the United States proposed re-establishing the 1998 work programme and the current president, Ambassador Victor Rodríguez Cedeño of Venezuela, has tried to resolve the deadlock, so far without success.

Several delegates have been more openly questioning the CD's rules and structure, whereby it is possible that important decisions reached near the end of one session, such as the August 1998 agreement to convene the fissban committee, are then subject to months of renegotiation at the beginning of the following year before work can get underway. Belarus referred to the CD as going through a 'mid-life crisis' (1), but others fear the dysfunction is symptomatic of a deeper illness, requiring urgent action (and possibly some careful surgery on the CD's established rules and conventions).

Many plenary statements have underlined the need to get negotiations on the fissban underway. Ambassador Clive Pearson of New Zealand called the failure to do so "extraordinary", underlining his disgust by listing the numerous occasions and various fora in which the priority of the fissban has been endorsed. (2) Neither its own 1998 consensus nor the consensus backing of the United Nations General Assembly for a resolution supporting prompt negotiation of a fissban (UNGA 53/77I) seem to have carried sufficient weight for the CD members to permit work to begin.

Ostensibly, the CD is not held up by opposition to the fissban, but by a host of related and extraneous matters. In particular: whether to appoint a different chair for the committee (Mark Moher of Canada having served for only three weeks in 1998), and if so, whom (and from which group); and the other elements of the work programme, such as nuclear disarmament, outer space and security assurances. In general, whether anything can be agreed (and get started) before everything is agreed (the entire work programme). The decision to expand the CD by five new members - Ecuador, Ireland, Kazakhstan, Malaysia and Tunisia - was agreed bar one in September 1998 and has attracted statements of support from all sides, but now looks further away than ever, due to non-CD-related problems with first Iran and now India and Pakistan.

Several interventions were made regarding the CD itself. On 4 February the G-21 (group of Non-Aligned States) resubmitted its proposal on the programme of work, recommending that ad hoc committees be established on nuclear disarmament, fissban, prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS) and negative security assurances (NSA), as well as special coordinators on landmines and transparency-in-armaments (TIA), and three 'reform' coordinators to consider the CD's agenda, expansion and 'improved and effective functioning'. (3) Several delegations supported moves to re-establish the 1998 work programme, though some, like the Netherlands, wanted an explicit understanding that each subject could be examined, with changes and additions to be agreed upon during the year. In backing the view that the President should have discretionary powers to appoint special coordinators in some circumstances, Ambassador Frank Majoor also argued that "not every process decision, aiming at facilitating the search for consensus, should have to be taken by consensus". (4) New Zealand proposed one special coordinator to cover the various issues necessary to reforming the CD in a more integrated manner.


Many statements have called for the fissban committee to be convened. Until that is done, few are venturing substantive comments on what they want to emerge from the negotiations. Norway's State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Aslaug Marie Haga, avoided the often futile arguments about whether stocks should be included in the negotiations per se, and focussed instead on approaches for dealing with fissile material removed from the military production, so as to ensure irreversibility, security, safety and improved national control and material accounting. (5) Ambassador Frank Majoor of the Netherlands called for the IAEA to have a "pivotal role" in a cost effective international verification system that must encompass all the nuclear-weapon States and non-parties to the NPT. He stressed the importance of recognising that the treaty could not meet all concerns regarding fissile materials and nuclear disarmament, but was only "one further step", which should therefore start with a ban on future production. Nevertheless, the Netherlands supported some of Norway's proposal for addressing transparency and some of the wider problems associated with stocks. (6)

Nuclear Disarmament

More and more delegations have argued that the CD cannot avoid discussing nuclear disarmament. The South African initiative to get an ad hoc committee on nuclear disarmament and, failing that, to appoint a special coordinator under rules established by the CD in 1990, fizzled out by mid February when Grey refused to address the issue without consensus being demonstrated. Grey recommended re-establishing the consultations on disarmament convened under the auspices of the troika of outgoing, present and incoming presidents, which New Zealand had characterised as tending "to lack transparency, visibility and momentum". (7) At first it was thought that reestablishing troika consultations might be enough to get the programme of work underway, but from Ukraine to Pakistan, many now argue that the troika served its purpose in 1998 but more is now required.

In the past month, Canada has renewed its proposal for the CD to negotiate the fissban and establish a mechanism for the "substantive discussion of nuclear disarmament issues". (8) The G-21 also reiterated its long-standing proposal for an ad hoc nuclear disarmament committee to negotiate a timetable for nuclear disarmament, although Chile, while accepting G-21 consensus on the proposal, stressed that negotiations on a timetable or nuclear weapon convention were goals rather than the immediate objectives of negotiations.

Emphasising that nuclear disarmament must be "more firmly anchored" in the work of the CD, Austria recalled (but did not formally resubmit) its 30 July 1998 proposal to establish a "mechanism which permits keeping the issue of general nuclear disarmament under constant and systematic review", thereby "preparing the ground for further clearly circumscribed areas of multilateral negotiations". (9)

There are now five proposals on the table for addressing nuclear disarmament:

  • On 12 January South Africa updated 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". (10)
  • 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".(11)
  • On 2 February Belgium on behalf of the 'NATO-5' (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." (12)
  • On 4 February Canada renewed its proposal that "the CD establish an ad hoc committee for the substantive discussion of nuclear disarmament issues with a view to identifying if and when one or more such issues might be negotiated multilaterally". (13)
  • On 18 February, Cuba on behalf of the G-21 Group of Non-Aligned States renewed their proposal for an ad hoc committee on nuclear disarmament "to start negotiations on a phased programme for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons with a specified framework of time, including a nuclear weapon convention". (14)

Norway, Italy and the Netherlands gave their reasons for supporting the NATO-5 initiative for a reporting and discussion mechanism in the CD. New Zealand, Brazil and others wanted more, preferring the South African or Canadian proposals. They emphasised the importance of strengthening the NPT-based regime and recalled their 'New Agenda' initiative based on a multistranded approach comprising unilateral, bilateral, plurilateral and multilateral work to achieve more progress on nuclear disarmament. (15)

Pakistan proposed several measures that the CD could undertake on nuclear disarmament, including a convention committing all States to eliminating nuclear weapons; negotiating a protocol to the CTBT to monitor non-explosive nuclear testing, so as to prevent the further development and refinement of nuclear weapons; evolution of a de-alerting agreement; measures to halt and reverse nuclear and missile development; and development of a plan of action to accomplish the elimination of nuclear weapons. (16)


From China to Canada and Pakistan to Austria, more delegations are calling for the CD to find a way to address the issues that fall under the rubric of 'prevention of an arms race in outer space', PAROS. Ambassador Li Changhe of China referred to the American programmes to develop national missile defence (NMD) and theater missile defence (TMD) capabilities and said that the dangers of triggering a new arms race made work on PAROS now "more relevant and more urgent". (17) Li specified defence systems intended to be deployed in outer space, those to be targeted at objects in outer space and those which would rely on space to provide target information and guidance for ground weapon systems, saying that the consequence would be to turn outer space "into a new battlefield and a base for weapon systems".

Canada and Austria drew a distinction between the militarisation and weaponisation of space, saying that only work on preventing the weaponisation of space was feasible at this stage. Like Brazil, they were concerned that "recent technological developments and huge investments" were being made in certain capabilities that could lead to an arms race in space in the near future". Consequently they advocated CD work on the weaponisation of space, as a form of "preventive disarmament". (18)

Small Arms

A growing number of delegations, including Canada, New Zealand, Norway and Austria, have begun raising the scourge of small arms - "the real killers nowadays" -as a topic that the CD should address in some way. Various suggestions covered the need for an integrated approach: to address the threats from illicit arms trading; strengthen the controls on the licit arms trade (even demanding that governments rethink their arms export policies); and develop means of preventing conflict, disarming and demobilising combatants, assisting victims and establishing a "local culture of peace". (19) Although this is not yet an issue that the CD has got to grips with, it is one that a growing number of States want to address.


Ambassador Petko Draganov of Bulgaria on behalf of 22 countries (Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Bulgaria, Chile, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Poland, Romania, Russian Federation, Slovakia, Spain, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States and Venezuela) called for the CD to negotiate a ban on the transfer of anti-personnel landmines "as a complement to existing agreements". (20) While stating that he would not object to the reappointment of a special coordinator, Moher spoke for many Ottawa adherents when he stressed the importance of the standards laid down in that Treaty and stated that Canada would "not be a party to moving international law backwards". (21) Although it is likely that a coordinator may be re-established, no-one is expecting the CD to convene a landmines committee with a negotiating mandate any time soon.

Security Assurances

Assurances from the nuclear weapon powers to non-nuclear-weapon States is a traditional issue that has likewise been raised in a number of statements. There is a probability that the NSA committee will be re-established, but with little expectation of moving the issue beyond the old ideological positions and ground it has occupied for years.


Although a number of interesting and thoughtful statements have been made in the plenary sessions, covering the range of issues that the CD could or should be working on, they are little more than floating rhetoric if not anchored in a programme of work involving negotiations, as already agreed, and discussions aimed at preparing the ground for future multilateral negotiations. (22) Time and money are a-wastin', while weapons continue to accumulate.

CD Dates for 1999

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

Notes and References

1. H.E. Sergei Martynov, First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Belarus, 11 February, 1999, CD/PV.813

2. Clive Pearson, Ambassador of New Zealand to the CD, 18 February 1999, CD/PV.814

3. Group of 21, Proposal on the programme of work, 4 February 1999, CD/1570.

4. Frank Majoor, Ambassador of the Netherlands to the CD, 25 February, 1999, CD/PV.815

5. Aslaug Marie Haga, Norway's State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, 18 February 1999, CD/PV.814

6. Majoor, op. cit.

7. Pearson, op. cit.

8. Mark Moher, Ambassador of Canada to the CD, 4 February 1999, CD/PV.812

9. Harald Kreid, Ambassador of Austria to the CD, 25 February, 1999, CD/PV.815

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

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

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

13. CD/1568.

14. Carlos Amat Fores on behalf of the G-21, 18 February 1999, CD/PV.814

15. Adhemar Gabriel Bahadian, Ambassador of Brazil to the CD, 18 February 1999, CD/PV.814

16. Munir Akram, Ambassador of Pakistan to the CD, 25 February, CD/PV.815.

17. Li Changhe, Ambassador for Disarmament Affairs of China, 11 February, 1999, CD/PV.813

18. Bahadian, op. cit.

19. Kreid, op. cit.

20. Petko Draganov, Ambassador of Bulgaria to the CD, 25 February, CD/PV.815.

21. Moher, op.cit.

22. Plenary statements are published in the CD's verbatim records.

Rebecca Johnson is Executive Director of the Acronym Institute.

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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