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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 35, March 1999

CD Fiddles while Kosovo Burns?

By Rebecca Johnson Geneva Update No. 45


The Conference on Disarmament (CD) closed the first part of its 1999 session on 26 March, having failed to start negotiating a ban on the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons (fissban) or take any other relevant decisions on its programme of work. Speaking on the morning after the first NATO bombardments of Kosovo and Yugoslavia, Mexico's Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Carmen Moreno, noted that "we can only hope to make progress in the disarmament field if States in their reciprocal relations renounce the threat or use of force, except in the cases set forth in the United Nations Charter, conduct themselves in accordance with generally accepted principles and rules of international law and strengthen the institutions that the international community has set up to maintain peace and international security." (1)

Several delegations reasserted the importance of getting on with negotiating the fissban, as decided in August 1998. No separate agreement for this was possible, and consensus on other parts of the work programme, notably nuclear disarmament and 'prevention of an arms race in outer space' (PAROS) was singularly lacking. The problems are structural and political, with the sad fact that, valuable though it would be, the fissban has no sufficiently strong driving force behind it to overcome the persistently placed obstacles of linkage and protection of nuclear privileges.

Successive CD Presidents, from US Ambassador Robert Grey to Ambassador Victor Rodríguez Cedeño of Venezuela and Ambassador Nguyen Quy Binh of Viet Nam, have attempted to get agreement, but the divisions appeared too wide. More and more delegations want some form of subsidiary body to address nuclear disarmament. Meanwhile, China has raised the stakes on PAROS by proposing an ad hoc committee to "negotiate and conclude an international legal instrument banning the test[ing], deployment and use of any weapons, weapon systems and their components in outer space, with a view to preventing the weaponisation of outer space". (2)

Last year's special coordinator's recommendation for re-establishing a PAROS committee had wide support, but was adamantly opposed by the United States. Refusing to go beyond reappointing a special coordinator on PAROS, the US delegation is isolated. Concerned about US plans for national and theatre missile defence, announced by President Clinton in January and subsequently endorsed by Congress, both Russia and France back CD work on the weaponisation of space. The best support that the US can hope for from its staunchest allies, such as Britain and Germany, is that they don't regard PAROS as a major priority and refrain from public criticism of the missile defence programmes.

On nuclear disarmament, the United States is also the primary opponent of proposals for addressing the issue in the CD, but not in complete isolation. Britain, France and Russia would prefer to keep the issue out of the work programme too, although they may be more flexible towards moderate proposals, such as an ad hoc discussion group, as proposed by Belgium with four NATO partners (Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Norway). The NATO-5 approach may be transmuted into an enhancement of the presidential 'troika talks', established last year, with openended consultations. While the nuclear-weapon States could probably live with this, it is not clear whether the compromise would meet the needs of advocates of more substantive CD work on nuclear disarmament. So far in 1999, CD delegations have tabled five formal proposals on nuclear disarmament work, four of which call for an ad hoc committee, though not necessarily with a negotiating mandate at this time.

China's President Addresses the CD

President Jiang Zemin of the People's Republic of China addressed the CD on the last day, covering a range of disarmament-related topics. In relation to issues on the CD agenda, President Jiang gave a perfunctory call for fissban negotiations but reserved centre stage for opposing the "research, development, deployment and proliferation of sophisticated anti-missile system[s]" and any attempts to revise or withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty "on which global strategic equilibrium hinges". Raising fears of "a new round of arms race in new areas", Jiang argued that the international community "should pay close attention to this and adopt the necessary measures to pre-empt such dangerous developments". (3) Although PAROS was not mentioned by name, President Jiang's statement reinforced the seriousness of this issue for China and came just two weeks after his delegation's formal proposal.

President Jiang also condemned "gunboat policy" and the military actions against Kosovo and Yugoslavia. Much of the statement seemed to be aimed at the United States. Arguing that "disarmament should not become a tool for stronger nations to exert control over weaker ones", Jiang criticised arms control processes that reduced only obsolete armaments, "while developing the state of the art" in an endeavour to "optimise... armament in order to seek unilateral security superiority." The statement noted that US-Russian bilateral nuclear reductions had "bogged down in stalemate" and reiterated that the US and Russia should "shoulder greater responsibilities for nuclear disarmament" and substantially cut down their nuclear arsenals "thereby paving the way for the other nuclear-weapon States to participate in the multilateral nuclear disarmament process". Jiang emphasised that the indefinite extension of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) "has by no means given nuclear-weapon States the prerogative to permanently retain their nuclear weapons" and reiterated China's long-held position on security assurances and no first use, as well as the need to negotiate a "convention on the comprehensive ban of nuclear weapons".

A pledge that the Chinese Government would soon submit the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to the National People's Congress for ratification was interpreted by some as indicating that China might ratify the CTBT in time for the Article XIV Conference, not necessarily waiting for the United States and Russia, as previously assumed. (4)


In the absence of negotiations, few are putting much energy into setting out their positions on the fissban. Mexico's Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Carmen Moreno, summed up the general frustration, commenting that it was impossible to address the scope or technical complexities "unless negotiations begin". (5) The Minister for Foreign Affairs of Poland, Professor Bronislaw Geremek, said that the "threats inherent in the continued production of fissile materials" and the "very real danger of pilfering of existing stocks by terrorist groups" were "too grave to justify intransigence and inactivity". (6)

Several delegations, including Japan, Canada, Germany and Algeria, offered some preliminary arguments for the kind of treaty they wish to see. For Japan, Ambassador Akira Hayashi stressed the importance of achieving a ban on the production of fissile materials as a "stepping stone in our advancement toward the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons". He accepted that the fissban negotiations needed to be realistic and practical, but disagreed that all controversial issues should be avoided: "if such a minimalist approach is the only possible choice for the CD, I wonder why we are investing so much time and energy in the multilateral negotiations of such a treaty". (7)

Algeria's Ambassador, Mohamed-Salah Dembri, considered the fissban in the context of nuclear disarmament. He raised questions about the role of nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War strategic environment and asked whether concepts of deterrence still gave life to efforts to legitimise the possession of nuclear arms. In such a context, Dembri argued that stocks must not only be addressed, but included in one way or another in a future fissban treaty. He queried the distinctions being drawn between stocks and 'excess stocks' and the implication of protecting stocks regarded as "necessary to maintain nuclear arsenals" held by some States. Such questions, he argued, demanded serious reflection if the fissban were to be a measure with "value added". (8)

Ambassador Mark Moher identified three broad considerations which Canada wanted to be addressed: 'conceptual parameters', 'strategic issues', and 'structural questions'. Canada also appended a working paper on "Elements of an Approach to Dealing with Stocks of Fissile Materials for Nuclear Weapons or Other Nuclear Explosive Devices". With regard to conceptual parameters, Moher said that the fissban "should not change or redefine certain key political and legal principles", specifically the NPT definitions. Canada acknowledged the difficulties of including or ignoring stocks, and concluded that they would not argue that stockpiles be addressed in the treaty itself, but "it will be vital that in parallel with its negotiation, all States with stockpiles engage in measures (national, bilateral, multilateral) to enhance transparency and to reduce those stockpiles irreversibly". Moher also called for all States concerned to make formal moratorium commitments, starting with the P-5.

With regard to strategic issues, Canada identified "what fissile materials and what facilities" needed to be included as fundamental questions to be resolved and key factors for an "effectively verifiable treaty". In particular, Canada argued that the treaty's verification regime should be rooted in the IAEA safeguards regime represented by INFCIRC/153 and INFCIRC/540. Non-NPT members have argued that the fissban verification regime should be independent of the IAEA arrangements. Moher also briefly discussed four principal structural considerations: governance; verification mechanism; financial provisions; and entry into force. (9)

Poland favoured first negotiating a timely ban on the future production of fissile material, which would "create a climate conducive to positive subsequent consideration of the more complex issue of existing stocks." (10) The Commissioner of the Federal Government of Germany for Disarmament and Arms Control, Dr Rüdiger Hartmann, argued that a fissban should not make distinctions between different categories of States, and would therefore have to provide the same legally binding verification obligations for nuclear-weapon States and non-nuclear-weapon States, irrespective of whether they were members of the NPT. At the same time, Germany considered that duplication of safeguards should be avoided: "the FMCT should not impose new burdens and costs on States already subject to an extended full-scope safeguard regime".

With regard to stocks, Hartmann argued that those States with "fissile material in excess of military needs" should "commit themselves to measures which would enhance transparency and foster the irreversible reduction" of such stocks. In the meantime, the relevant States should halt further production of fissile material and apply IAEA safeguards to excess material. In particular, Germany foresaw the need for the fissban and its verification provisions to have sufficient "built-in flexibility" to deal with changing conditions, including stockpiles that are being reduced. (11)

Nuclear Disarmament

With five proposals on the table for addressing nuclear disarmament, it is clear that delegations want more than the 'troika' talks established last year, by which the trio of previous, present and next CD presidents would be responsible for consultations on nuclear disarmament issues under agenda item 1. Motivations for pushing harder on nuclear disarmament vary, however, from those who genuinely want to address nuclear disarmament issues in a multilateral forum, through debate or negotiations, to those who recognise that the demand, coupled with nuclear-weapon State intransigence, can be a successful tactic in delaying negotiations on a fissban. In between are those who may not be convinced that the CD would contribute effectively to nuclear disarmament, but who - in light of linkages made by others - push for the issue to be addressed in the Conference in order to facilitate the fissban negotiations.

  • 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". (12)
  • 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". (13)
  • 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." (14)
  • 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". (15)
  • 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". (16)
In order to consolidate the NPT regime, Japan argued for "conscious collective efforts for nuclear disarmament". Japan favoured the Canadian or South African proposals, but saw some merit in the NATO-5 proposal as "a meaningful approach as the very first step towards more substantive discussions". The troika talks were regarded as a "useful intermediate measure" but Japan wanted the consultations at the very least to be strengthened by being held more often and more openly, with a clear purpose and focus and regular reports, thereby increasing transparency and accountability. (17)

Canada sought to elucidate what could be covered in substantive discussions in the CD with a working paper. With regard to nuclear disarmament, this noted that the CD had two principal purposes: the negotiation of multilateral instruments, as agreed (CTBT, fissban); and discussions which would keep the international community better informed and might assist in identifying future issues for negotiations. Several issues on which the CD might usefully hold discussions were outlined: rationales for possession and levels of nuclear armaments; theories of deterrence; strategic and tactical nuclear weapons; the START process; transparency; measures to promote irreversibility; the ABM Treaty; unilateral efforts; and related steps, including information exchange on missile launchings, materials management and disposition and operational measures such as the de-alerting and de-mating of weapons. (18)

Carmen Moreno devoted more than half of Mexico's statement to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. She raised concerns about the START process and anti-missile defence, noting that the outlook for nuclear disarmament was "not encouraging, especially due to a continuing refusal to deal with it multilaterally with the depth and rigor it deserves". She emphasised the approach of the 'New Agenda' coalition of foreign ministers and called for concrete measures to be urgently undertaken, especially on no first use and de-alerting. Noting that article VI of the NPT was "incumbent on all States", Moreno argued that Mexico was "fulfilling part of this commitment" in insisting on the need for a new agenda and in calling for the CD to establish a subsidiary body to address nuclear disarmament. (19)

Germany, a co-sponsor of the NATO-5 proposal, argued that its mechanism for "a structured exchange of information and views on nuclear disarmament" was "a carefully crafted balance" that might command consensus, and which "should not be watered down or overburdened with additional elements". (20)


At the end of 1998, the Special Coordinator for PAROS, Ambassador S. Palihakkara of Sri Lanka, introduced a draft mandate for an ad hoc committee to consider measures aimed at preventing an arms race in outer space, noting that there was "a wide measure of support" but no consensus. (21) In December 1998, 165 States voted in favour of a UN resolution which called on the CD to update the mandate and provide for the re-establishment of the PAROS committee in 1999. The United States and Israel were among only four abstainers. (22)

This year, as discussed above, China has taken the lead in pushing for an ad hoc committee, going further than Palihakkara's recommendations and advocating negotiations aimed at preventing the weaponisation of outer space. Although President Jiang Zemin clearly laid out Chinese concerns he did not directly endorse China's proposed mandate for a committee, thereby leaving his delegation some room to manoeuvre. At present the United States remains intransigent: it would accept another special coordinator, but not an ad hoc committee. Depending on how other issues work out, China may end up compromising again this year, but the growing importance of this issue will ensure that the demand for an ad hoc committee will not go away. While some of the nuclear-weapon States are mainly concerned at the potential erosion of the value of their nuclear deterrence forces, non-nuclear weapon countries are more worried about the destabilising effect of anti-missile defence programmes and the dangerous implications of the weaponisation of space. On security and environmental grounds, the clamour is growing for the CD to take 'preventive' action now, rather than waiting until crisis looms.

Other Issues

Once again, issues such as landmines, transparency in armaments and security assurances to non-nuclear-weapon States (NSA) have been raised in some statements, but with no sense of urgency or practical chance of making significant progress. Some, such as Ukraine, announced that they had acceded to the Ottawa Convention on landmines, while others, such as the Netherlands, informed the CD of their ratification of the CTBT.

The new issue which comes up most frequently is that of small arms. South Africa's new ambassador, George Nene, informed the CD that "all redundant small arms in the possession of the South African government [will] be destroyed rather than sold on a tender basis" as practised under previous policy. (23) Japan argued that "in view of the enormity of the issue, the United Nations should take the lead and play the central role". Following on from suggestions from Canada and Austria that the CD should take up the issue of small arms, Japan suggested that a useful first step might be for the Conference to consider a code of conduct on arms transfers. (24)

Despite endorsement in almost all major statements to the CD, the admission of five new CD members (Ecuador, Ireland, Kazakhstan, Malaysia and Tunisia) continues to be delayed, although no delegations will now admit to opposing the applications of these particular countries, nor to rejecting the proposed expansion in principle.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The current impasse in the CD is exacerbated because the fissban, already tied up in knots over whether and how to address existing stockpiles of bomb grade materials, has no sufficiently strong and single minded friends to push it past the procedural obstacles in its way. Despite US resistance, it now appears clear that the CD will have to come up with some mechanism stronger than the 'troika talks'. One way forward, currently under consideration, would be to charge the CD presidents with holding open-ended informal consultations on the issue, with the aim of seeking common ground for considering further action. This may be viewed as a version of the NATO-5 concept of an ad hoc working group or enhanced troika talks. Whether it will be sufficient to enable the CD to start the fissban negotiations depends on political will. The United States appears worried that if it 'gives in' and allows a more substantive mechanism on nuclear disarmament in the CD, members will clamour for more next year. No doubt they will, but there are ways to ensure that such arguments do not paralyse the CD in the future.

  1. Amend the Conference rules of procedure to uphold the consensus given to a mandate to negotiate a particular instrument, as opposed to other items on the programme of work. Negotiations would therefore continue until concluded, unless the CD agreed by consensus to stop.
It took the CD 15 months to gain consensus on a mandate to negotiate a fissile material treaty (March 1995) and a further 42 months before there was consensus on convening the committee under agenda item 1. Such consensus is clearly not obtained lightly, and it is absurd to think that Pakistan or Israel, for example, had to take the fissban decision at the highest political level intending it to last only for a few weeks. The CD rightly requires consensus before undertaking negotiations. A mandate to negotiate a treaty should therefore not be overturned by anything less than consensus, until it has run its course. The rules of procedure could be amended to reflect that agreeing to a mandate to negotiate entails a commitment to reconvene the negotiations each year until they reach conclusion or there is CD consensus to stop (e.g. if the measure becomes overtaken by events or irrevocably deadlocked).

Decisions on coordinators or committees without a specific mandate to negotiate could continue to come up annually for renewal, reflecting changing priorities. The debate on whether to include such issues in the Conference work programme is itself a politically relevant process. The 'all or nothing' approach to the programme of work constrains debate on these issues as much as it holds negotiations hostage. It is unhealthy that countries can be accused of holding the fissban hostage when they seek to raise legitimate proposals for the CD also to address issues like nuclear disarmament and the weaponisation of outer space. It is equally detrimental for the credibility of the CD if it cannot continue negotiations from one year to the next without losing months of time and resources in haggling over separate matters.

A precedent was set in the case of the CTBT, when the Nuclear Test Ban Committee was reconvened in 1995 and 1996, despite gridlock on other aspects of the work programme. It is time to adjust the rules of procedure, take negotiations seriously and formalise the commitment to upholding from one year to the next consensus on negotiating mandates.

  1. Concerns about nuclear disarmament and the risks of an arms race using outer space will not go away as long as some countries seek to continue developing and modernising their nuclear forces and doctrines.
Millions of citizens in the nuclear-weapon States are as worried about the lack of progress towards nuclear disarmament as are the non-nuclear countries. Especially now that the bilateral reduction process is so badly stuck, ideas and constructive thinking are needed. Interesting approaches have come up through the Canberra Commission and non-governmental organisations and fora. Governments too may have ideas and resources to contribute. Unless the nuclear-weapon States intend at this late date to repudiate their obligations to "pursue negotiations in good faith" and to engage in "the determined pursuit... of systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally, with the ultimate goal of eliminating those weapons", they should welcome efforts by others to help them work out how this can best be done. Multilateral negotiations per se are likely to be part of the endgame, but multilateral discussions can help to focus attention on steps that have to be taken along the way and may help with resources to ensure safety and security as dismantlements proceed.

These are issues of vital importance not only for the national security assessments of particular countries, but for international security and stability. The Conference on Disarmament is the multilateral forum entrusted by the United Nations to consider and negotiate on disarmament issues. It is right and proper for the CD to address nuclear disarmament, outer space and up-coming issues like small arms. Whether or not the CD is the appropriate forum to undertake negotiations on these issues is a different proposition; practical approaches (for the CD or other mechanisms) might emerge from the discussions, however. Blocking multilateral discussions, on the other hand, leads to frustration and gridlock. Which way forward?

CD dates for 1999

The CD closed on 26 March. Although it formally reopens on 10 May, it is unlikely to get down to work properly until 24 May, owing to the rescheduling of the NPT PrepCom in New York to 10-21 May. The CD will then run to 25 June; and from 26 July to 8 September.

Notes and References

1. Carmen Moreno, Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs of Mexico, 25 March 1999, CD.PV.821

2. Li Changhe, Ambassador for Disarmament Affairs of China, 11 March 1999, CD/PV.818

3. Jiang Zemin, President of the People's Republic of China, 26 March 1999, CD/PV.822

4. ibid.

5. Moreno, op. cit.

6. Bronislaw Geremek, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Poland, 23 March 1999, CD/PV.820

7. Akira Hayashi, Ambassador of Japan, 11 March 1999, CD/PV.818.

8. Mohamed-Salah Dembri, Ambassador of Algeria, 11 March 1999, CD/PV.818.

9. Mark Moher, Ambassador of Canada, 18 March 1999, CD/PV.819

10. Geremek, op. cit.

11. Rüdiger Hartmann, Federal Government of Germany for Disarmament and Arms Control, 25 March 1999, CD/PV.821

12. Peter Goosen, Deputy Ambassador of South Africa, 19 January 1999, CD/PV.808. Also CD/1564.

13. Munir Zahran, Ambassador of Egypt, 26 January 1999, CD/PV.810. CD/1563.

14. André Mernier, Ambassador of Belgium, 2 February 1999, CD/PV.812. CD/1565.

15. CD/1568.

16. Carlos Amat Fores on behalf of the G-21, 18 February 1999, CD/PV.815 CD/1571.

17. Hayashi, op. cit.

18. Canada, Working Paper, 'Nuclear Disarmament: Substantive Discussion in the Conference on Disarmament', CD/1574.

19. Moreno, op. cit.

20. Hartmann, op. cit.

21. S Palihakkara, Ambassador of Sri Lanka, Special Coordinator's report to the CD, 27 August, 1998, CD/PV.805.

22. UNGA 53/76. See also R Johnson, First Committee Report, Disarmament Diplomacy 32, November 1998.

23. George Nene, Ambassador of South Africa, 4 March 1999, CD/PV.817

24. Hayashi, op. cit.

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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