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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 38, June 1999

Update on the CD Impasse
By Rebecca Johnson

Geneva Update No. 47

The Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva closed the second part of its 1999 session on 25 June, still without any agreement on its work programme, despite the efforts of successive CD presidents.

The ad hoc committee on a fissile materials ban is not overtly the problem, but notwithstanding the attempts from various western delegations, it is clear that it will not be agreed by itself. The US, Britain and France had earlier proposed that the fissban committee should be reconvened each year until it was concluded. Pakistan objected on grounds that creating permanent committees was contrary to the CD rules of procedure. India agreed that there was no provision in the rules of procedure to do this and complained that "this artificial separation of the elements of work and attempts to give them automatic annual extensions is unprecedented in the CD..."

Despite immense reluctance from the United States, which preferred less, and some non-aligned delegations and China, which wanted more, the principle of establishing ad hoc groups on nuclear disarmament and outer space seems to have been accepted, subject to getting consensus on mandates. Therein lies the rub. The former President, Ambassador Mohamed-Salah Dembri of Algeria, and his successor, Ambassador Guillermo González of Argentina, have been circulating draft mandates, but so far without agreement. In particular, the United States is understood to have serious difficulties obtaining agreement from Washington. Now a second problem has been raised: will there be any point in agreeing a work programme this year unless there is acceptance that the same committees, groups and coordinators should continue in 2000?

In addition to opposing the automatic re-establishment of the fissban committee, India and Pakistan also appear loathe to go along with the growing view that if a work programme can be adopted this year, there should be some in-principle decision that the CD would work on that basis in 2000 and not waste months trying to put together a new or different package for at least the next 12 months. Others fear that the alternative - beginning again from scratch in January - is making the CD look ridiculous. When the CD resumes on 26 July, there will barely be time for any committees or groups to meet, let alone decide how to address the issues. The CD starts negotiating on its reports (if any) by mid August, and will then close on 8 September. After months of bargaining and pressure politics to achieve a work programme, the Conference should try for a full year to make it work. That would get fissban negotiations started at least, as well as enabling the CD to begin to discuss how nuclear disarmament, outer space and the other issues might be addressed.

The draft mandate being circulated at the end of the session proposed an ad hoc group on nuclear disarmament based on the NATO-5 proposal put forward by Belgium on February 2 (on behalf also of Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Norway): to "exchange information and views on endeavours towards nuclear disarmament and to explore further prospects that could help attain this objective".

On outer space, the draft mandate would establish an ad hoc working group under agenda item 3 entitled 'Prevention of an arms race in outer space', "with a view to preventing the weaponisation of outer space, to examine and identify, through substantive and general consideration, specific topics or proposals that might be a basis for subsequent in-depth consideration, including aspects related to possible confidence-building or transparency measures, general principles or treaty commitments". This carefully fuzzy language is much less than China proposed in March, but may be further than the United States is prepared to go, in view of its plans for missile defence and the intense politicisation of the issue in US Congressional politics. China had earlier proposed 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" (1) but is willing to compromise on a lesser mechanism as a first step.

Besides ad hoc groups on nuclear disarmament and outer space, the draft work programme would include the ad hoc committee under agenda item 1 to negotiate a ban on the production of fissile materials for weapons and other explosive purposes (fissban) and a committee to deliberate on negative security assurances. It is probable that special coordinators for the agenda, expansion, and the much-needed 'improved functioning' of the CD, as well as landmines would also be agreed. Though names are beginning to be floated it is too early to speculate on who would become the special coordinators or chairs of the committees and groups.

Outer Space

Following China's focus on outer space, Pakistan devoted significant time on 3 June to this issue. Referring to "updated [American] blueprints designed to achieve 'full spectrum dominance' in the twenty-first century," Ambassador Munir Akram continued: "Together with other revolutionary military technologies, covering every aspect of modern-day armaments, recommendations have been made for a constellation of space-based lasers to provide global coverage for an array of space-orbiting vehicles which could unleash high-density kinetic energy weapons on ground targets. We believe that efforts towards militarisation of outer space, or deployment of other weapon systems relying on a space dimension, will create new and dangerous instabilities. They would deal a serious blow to efforts for nuclear disarmament and possibly lead to a new race for more lethal and dangerous weapons systems, including nuclear weapons."

Russia's Ambassador, Vasily Sidorov, also raised serious concerns, stressing that "outer space is a property common to all mankind". Noting that the 1967 Treaty on outer space did not establish a general prohibition for the use of outer space for military purposes, Sidorov said that "progressive development of space equipment and state-of-the-art high technology weapon systems can provide a positive incentive for some States to use this legal loop-hole for purposes inconsistent with the peaceful activities in the space around the earth". He argued that one of the principal tasks of the international community should be to negotiate a "legal regime prohibiting deployment of offensive weapons in outer space". Echoing Pakistan's remark that "prevention is better than cure", Russia considered it "better to consider today the means of preventing an arms race in outer space rather than waste tomorrow huge amounts of resources to disarm it".

France's ambassador Hubert de la Fortelle characterised prevention of an arms race in outer space as its second priority for CD work. France considered that the importance of this issue was borne out by recent developments, such as the North Korean ballistic missile test and discussion of the possibility of adjusting the ABM Treaty, which France regarded as the cornerstone of strategic equilibrium. De la Fortelle made clear France's support for an ad hoc committee on outer space by endorsing both the 1998 UNGA resolution and last year's special coordinator's report, and reasserted its 1993 proposal for notification of launches of ballistic missiles or space vehicles.

Others also emphasised the urgency of addressing outer space issues in the CD, although Ukraine's Ambassador Mykola Maimeskoul also commented that "not only weaponisation, but also militarisation of outer space is perceived by many States as a threat to their security". Some countries who deploy or use military surveillance satellites in outer space, including China, have insisted on a distinction and want the CD to address weaponisation but not militarisation. While many delegations accept this distinction, recognising that preventing the weaponisation of space would be a more manageable goal at this point than opposing the militarisation of space, some do not. In particular, a growing number of NGOs are drawing attention to the role of military satellites in espionage, intelligence gathering, targetting and weapons guidance. While supporting efforts to set up a CD mechanism to consider these issues, it is clear that much discussion will be needed to lay the groundwork for more substantive consideration.


Several statements stressed the importance of convening the committee to negotiate a fissban, as agreed in August 1998. For France, the cut-off treaty was the major priority for CD work and de la Fortelle castigated the CD's inability to get started. He said that the treaty should be multilaterally negotiated, non-discriminatory and internationally and effectively verifiable. Sidorov also called for speedy re-establishment of the fissban committee and said that Russia considered it wrong to "waste time searching any alternative issues in the field of nuclear disarmament topics...ignoring the repeatedly re-confirmed consensus on FMCT."

Emphasising the importance of the fissban for nuclear disarmament, Ukraine's statement laid out four basic principles which the future treaty should follow: to prohibit the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for nuclear warheads and other explosive devices; to have an effective verification regime, including regular inspections of declared sites and challenge inspections at undeclared facilities; coverage of all uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing facilities; and no imposition of additional obligations on non-nuclear-weapon States which have full scope safeguards agreements with the IAEA.

Ambassador Savitri Kunadi recalled that the G-21's proposal for a work programme had included a committee to negotiate the fissban and therefore India "had no difficulty going along" with such a decision. She particularly emphasised other aspects of the work programme, however. Referring again to the proposal from Britain, France and the United States to add to the fissban mandate that the committee be reconvened each year until negotiations are concluded, Akram warned that "if the FMT consensus is to be reopened, Pakistan would also seek inclusion of the concerns reflected in the amendments we proposed to the Canadian resolution" to the 1998 UN General Assembly (such as reducing and controlling existing stocks).

Nuclear Disarmament

In his valedictory statement to the CD after eight years as Egypt's ambassador, Mounir Zahran called the Conference "totally handicapped" in its failure to achieve nuclear disarmament. He recalled past initiatives, such as the Canberra Commission, the 1996 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, and the August 1996 G-21 programme of action for achieving the elimination of nuclear weapons in three stages. Like Zahran, Kunadi harked back to the priorities set at the first UN Special Session on Disarmament in 1978. India, which just two months earlier prevented agreement in the UN Disarmament Commission on holding a fourth special session on disarmament, said that although it wanted more, in the spirit of flexibility it would support a working group on nuclear disarmament, as proposed by the ambassador of Venezuela, when he was CD President (CD/1575). Akram, like the rest of the G-21 also said that Pakistan would accept an ad hoc group as "a first step" and the "least common denominator".

While arguing against a role for the CD in nuclear disarmament, Sidorov reminded delegations that "nuclear disarmament is a time-consuming and costly process, which requires solutions to a whole range of financial, technical and environmental problems" despite which, the "two major powers have already done a lot" during recent years. Russia was "in favour of other nuclear powers joining our efforts aimed at reducing nuclear arsenals". Sidorov also recalled that President Yeltsin's 1994 proposal for a Treaty on nuclear security and strategic stability was "still on the negotiating table". Maimeskoul underscored Ukraine's commitment to nuclear disarmament but warned "politicians, diplomats and journalists not to take the denuclearisation of Ukraine for granted". He noted that "This process was very complicated from both legal and technical perspectives, required a lot of resources and international assistance, so for us it seems very disgraceful and unjust that in the context of mentioning the countries which abandoned their military nuclear programmes or forswore the nuclear weapons one cannot sometimes even find the name of our country".

Other Issues

There have been angry exchanges between North and South Korea over recent clashes in adjacent waters, further exchanges between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, and several comments on NATO's bombing in Yugoslavia, prompting a furious reply from the US ambassador, Robert Grey. In particular, Sidorov argued that "the NATO aggression against the sovereign Yugoslavia has gravely complicated the international climate". Like Russia, several speakers raised concerns about the role of the one remaining superpower and attempts to dictate by force. Russia highlighted the ecological damage and NATO's use of "indiscriminate inhumane weapons, such as cluster bombs and depleted uranium, which bring suffering mainly upon the civilian population".

Ambassador Peter Náray announced Hungary's ratification of the comprehensive test ban treaty, emphasising the importance of this accord, negotiated at the CD. Ambassador Ian Soutar spoke of Britain's efforts to increase transparency by providing more detailed information on its exports of arms and military equipment. Several, including Ecuador, called for the decision on enlarging the CD by five additional countries to be taken forthwith. There were routine references to negative security assurances, landmines and other disarmament-related matters, but without any new ideas or sense of urgency.


While the CD's lack of a work programme is deplorable, the discussions about the priority issues are themselves diplomatic negotiations of political importance, reflecting changing political relations and attitudes towards security and non-proliferation among some of the major States. Although the importance of the political difficulties should not be masked by attempts to reach procedural compromises, it would be absurd to get agreement on a work programme for a few weeks this year unless the Conference is also prepared to make a commitment to give that work programme at least a year's try. Even if it is not possible under the present rules to make such an undertaking binding on the next CD session, every effort should be made to get agreement in good faith, either through the CD report or a presidential declaration.

For now, the four weeks CD interval is taken up with intensive negotiations on a long-awaited verification protocol for the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).

The CD will reconvene 26 July and run for barely 6 weeks, to 8 September.

Documents and Sources features statements to the CD by India, Pakistan and Russia.

Notes and References

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

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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