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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 39, July - August 1999

Geneva Update No. 48
by Rebecca Johnson

CD Writes Off 1999 With Hopes for 2000


The Conference on Disarmament (CD) adopted its final report for the year on 7 September, noting that its only successful decision was to expand membership by five States. In his rueful closing remarks the CD President, Ambassador Leslie Luck of Australia, acknowledged the disappointment but stressed that "the CD can only be a microcosm of the wider international environment which ... has provided difficult challenges over the past couple of years." Most importantly, he ended on a "positive note", offering hope that the painstaking attempts to reach compromise on the work programme this year would not be wasted: the report included a presidential commitment to continue intersessional consultations with delegations, with the aim of enabling the CD to adopt a work programme soon after it reconvenes on 17 January, 2000. The basis of this will probably be the 'Dembri proposals' which had reached near-agreement during 1999.

Ambassador Mohamed-Salah Dembri of Algeria, who held the CD presidency in May-June, had achieved a large measure of support for a draft work programme that would establish an ad hoc committee to negotiate a ban on the production of fissile materials for weapons (the fissban) and working groups to discuss nuclear disarmament and prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS). Dembri's proposals, which included a committee on negative security assurances (NSA) and various special coordinators (about which there was little or no controversy), were not acceptable to the United States, which wants to avoid nuclear disarmament or outer space being addressed multilaterally. In response to US plans to move ahead with missile defence research, China has signalled with increasing urgency throughout 1999 that outer space is a greater priority than the fissban. Earlier in the year, China called for a committee on PAROS, of which Dembri's proposals fall short. The United States, however, regards Dembri's informal proposal as going unacceptably far. Dembri's suggested mandate, circulated on 1 June, would establish an ad hoc working group "with a view to preventing the weaponization 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".

At the same time there is the familiar battle between non-aligned countries and the major weapon States over nuclear disarmament, but this has taken a back seat to the duel between China and the United States over missile defence and the weaponisation of outer space. The nuclear-weapon States have all indicated that they would accept a working group along the lines of the 2 February NATO-5 proposal (Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway), "to study ways and means of establishing an exchange of information and views..." As many delegations objected that this amounted to 'talks about talks', Dembri suggested a mandate that would establish an ad hoc working group under agenda item 1 (Cessation of the nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament) "to exchange information and views on endeavours towards nuclear disarmament and to explore further prospects that could help attain this objective". This is reportedly too much for the United States, although other weapon States would be prepared to go along.

These are the issues now paralysing the CD. Getting the Conference back to substantive work will take political change as well as structural improvements.

France's frustration with this state of affairs, which had been bubbling for the previous week in various informal and group meetings, spilled into the final plenary as Ambassador Hubert de la Fortelle accused the New Agenda Coalition States (Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and Sweden) of inconsistency and incoherence. New Zealand's ambassador, Clive Pearson, categorically rejected the insinuation that the New Agenda countries lacked commitment to the fissban, commenting instead that "we are capable of distinguishing between using the process of annual reports to score points and the necessity of getting a report that is factually accurate".

De la Fortelle had reportedly wanted the CD report to contain a more muscular emphasis on the fissban. Aware that China would have liked stronger language on PAROS and the G-21 group of non-aligned States might push for more on nuclear disarmament, a number of delegations, western group colleagues like Britain as well as members of the New Agenda Coalition, counselled against reopening a fragile consensus and risking the report with its important presidential commitment to intersessional consultations. Some CD delegations have observed that de la Fortelle's expression of frustration with consensus echoed events at the third preparatory committee (PrepCom) meeting of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in May 1998, when France refused to go along with positions favoured by the rest of the European Union (EU).

Having closed down and begun dismantling the plutonium and highly enriched uranium production facilities at Marcoule and Pierrelatte in the expectation of a treaty banning the production of fissile materials for weapons, France may be growing increasingly anxious that if the fissban does not get negotiated soon, a new arms race could develop, fuelled by missile defence plans, India's nuclear ambitions, and growing suspicion between the United States, Russia and China. If the moratoria currently observed by four of the nuclear-weapon States were to collapse, Paris may find itself with an unwelcome choice: to limit its nuclear forces, sink considerable finance into building new production facilities (which might be less acceptable politically than in the past), or to use la Hague for military as well as commercial reprocessing.

The CD's report mirrored the year's deteriorating conditions for disarmament and arms control, but was prevented by the requirements of consensus from naming the problems and causes. The only high point of the year occurred just before a total eclipse of the sun drove shadows across Europe and Asia. On 5 August, somewhat to its own surprise, the CD suddenly agreed to the long-postponed admission of five new members, Ecuador, Ireland, Kazakhstan, Malaysia and Tunisia. This brings membership to 66 (although Yugoslavia and Congo (formerly Zaire) do not occupy their seats). Ireland's ambassador, Anne Anderson, whose persistence finally paid off (17 years after Ireland first applied for CD membership), thanked everyone, including "stalwart supporters" such as the Swiss ambassador, Erwin Hofer, who had nearly pushed the expansion through in September 1998, and successive presidents. Though some thought her tongue was in her cheek, Anderson also thanked "those who had to overcome doubts and difficulties" (i.e. India, Pakistan and Iran, who had blocked the decision at various times over the past year). Noting that the five new members would have preferred to join at a time when the CD was demonstrating more purpose and effectiveness, Anderson commented that joining at this time was "an act of faith in the CD's future" and she hoped that today's decision would provide impetus for moving forward on substantive issues. The following week, as CD members queued up to congratulate their new colleagues, Ecuador, Kazakhstan, Malaysia and Tunisia briefly addressed the CD's agenda and problems.

Despite exhortations from many sides, the long-hoped-for fissban still languishes in limbo, with a mandate but no committee. Following US plans to go ahead with missile defences, China is moving further away from its reluctant support for fissban negotiations and has proposed negotiations on outer space issues. India's electorally-timed release of a "draft" nuclear doctrine from the Government's National Security Advisory Board, requiring substantial weaponisation, has exacerbated the problem. During the final plenary on 7 September, Ambassador Munir Akram quoted Pakistan's Foreign Minister as saying that "India's intention to manufacture 400 or more nuclear warheads is also of special concern to Pakistan. India will require substantial quantities of fissile material for such a large nuclear force. Under these circumstances, neither India nor Pakistan could accept the conclusion of an FMCT [Fissile Materials Cut-Off Treaty], much less a moratorium on fissile material production". (1) Mulling over this statement, CD delegations sought comfort in the fact that Akram had not implied a further obstacle to commencing fissban negotiations in the CD; rather he was underlining the difficulties such negotiations would face and the likelihood of their being strung out a long time.

Lack of political enthusiasm among some of the key governments has left the fissban a vulnerable hostage to political fortune. The United States, perceived by many to be responsible for a large part of the problem because of its unwillingness to let the CD address the agenda issues of nuclear disarmament and PAROS more substantively, called the CD's 1999 record "especially impoverished". Ambassador Robert Grey accused some of using the tactic of making "the best (or what purports to be the best from some national perspectives) [to] become the enemy of the good" in order to prevent fulfilling agreements to negotiate a fissban. He endorsed Luck's call for CD members to show "flexibility and pragmatism" and promised to "work with you to take advantage of any flexibility that may exist on the part of my government". (2) This was construed by some as a hint that the US, which opposed China's proposals on outer space, might be willing to participate in an ad hoc discussion group on the subject, while also signalling that the US rigidity derived from the politicisation of key issues in Washington, particularly missile defence and nuclear policy.

Over the year, the CD plenary meetings became shorter, with fewer interventions. Among the few substantive statements in the final month was one from South Africa on the fissban, one from Chile on ways through the CD impasse, and statements from Pakistan criticising India's draft nuclear doctrine. Ukraine's First Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, Olexandre Chalyi, addressed a range of disarmament issues and told the CD that "in the light of some recently adopted resolutions by the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, the issue of CTBT [Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty] ratification by Ukraine will acquire a significant internal policy dimension". He urged the nuclear powers in particular to ratify the CTBT without delay and shoulder their responsibilities for nuclear disarmament. (3)

CD Impasse

Chalyi also summed up the growing frustration with the CD's inability to move forward: "The continuation of the deadlock in the CD is intolerable and I dare say that the delegations which have realistic, moderate, middle-ground-oriented positions on both issues [nuclear disarmament and outer space] are losing interest in further brokerage between parties who maintain rigid stances." (4) While several delegations also registered their dismay at the continued lack of flexibility to agree a work programme enabling the CD to negotiate the fissban and address other important issues, China emphasised that the CD was "irreplaceable in terms of its status and role". Referring to one of the recommendations by the Tokyo Forum, Ambassador Li Changhe said "it is not appropriate to call into question the role and credibility of the Conference or even to go so far as to propose the suspension of work of the Conference". He added that the Conference "can still function as an important forum where dialogue can be conducted on major issues of international peace and security, and on some specific disarmament items. It can help enhance mutual understandings and explore possibilities for negotiations on certain issues." (5)

For France, Hubert de la Fortelle dismissed the "sham negotiations" on the CD report. Referring to himself as a relative newcomer, de la Fortelle shared his "disquieting" observations: he castigated the "tyranny of inertia", by which the majority tend to opt for an easy way out, abiding by precedent rather than fostering innovative solutions; he was scathing about what he deemed "political correctness" and "officialese", which suppressed candid appraisals of the real situation; and he criticised the rule of consensus, a "golden rule" which is put under pressure when States do not keep their word. De la Fortelle considered that the prospect for 2000 was bleak and that those who advocated "all or nothing" positions were in danger of killing off an irreplaceable organisation. (6)

In his valedictory statement after four years as Canada's ambassador to the CD, Mark Moher questioned why the CD had found it so difficult to get to work on the vital issues with which international security is challenged. He concluded that the CD's task was twofold: to "negotiate constructive multilateral agreements responding to our priority security needs" and to be "a forum for the sophisticated and sustained consideration of arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation issues". Moher criticised the retention of the Cold War groupings as 'bizarre' and argued that "issue groups are a much more constructive approach..." (7) In seeking agreement, the CD presidents have to rely on group coordinators, but many CD diplomats have expressed concern that the present structure requires group coordinators to represent the lowest common denominator of agreement, thereby filtering out constructive contributions from a broader spectrum within the groups, who may be in the majority as "the bad guys hide behind the groups".

Ambassador Javier Illanes of Chile acknowledged that there was a correlation between the productivity of the CD and the conditions of distrust or harmony among the major players, but argued that even when agreement on a programme of work is elusive, it should be possible to convene focussed discussions under the auspices of the CD presidents. Without requiring any change in the current rules of procedure (8) CD presidents are empowered to hold informal consultations. Illanes suggested that they utilise this power more fully if the CD cannot get past disagreements over a work programme in the future: "the President of the Conference... would organise consultations about each item of the Agenda, with the characteristic of being informal pre-negotiation discussions". (9) The meetings would be open-ended - i.e. open to all delegations - but specialised, focussing on particular items of the agenda. The president would continue with consultations aimed at achieving consensus on a work programme, but as a fallback if the CD continues to be deadlocked over its work programme, the proposal would have several advantages.

How might this work? The United Nations in Geneva allocates the CD ten sessions per week with interpretation and secretarial services. If the president (or appointed 'Friend of the President') chose to hold, say, four meetings a week on fissban and one meeting each on nuclear disarmament, outer space and security assurances, the CD would be using the allocated sessions more productively than at present to discuss some of the issues which underlie the impasse. At the moment the paralysed CD is viewed as wasting national and international money and resources. It is losing credibility and more governments are beginning to downgrade their delegations. Regular, issue-based meetings under the auspices of the presidents would enable everyone to begin work addressing the important political and technical concerns. Indeed, such meetings could remove much of the incentive for obstructing agreement on a formal work programme. The likelihood would be that the option would not have to be utilised long before the CD members discovered sufficient flexibility to agree on a work programme.

Suggestions for moving beyond the impasse are likely to increase if the CD continues to be gridlocked in 2000. Illanes' ideas may be unwelcome to some delegations now as they exceed the practice and responsibilities normally accorded to the rotating presidency. They are consistent with existing rules, however, and could help rescue the CD in the future.


The final session of the CD was the cue for a host of statements underlining the importance of the fissban. On behalf of the European Union and 12 other European States, Finland argued that "a FMCT, by irreversibly limiting the fissile material stockpiles available for use in nuclear weapons and by establishing an effective verification system, will strengthen the international nuclear non-proliferation regime and will constitute a significant step towards the realisation and effective implementation of article VI of the NPT." (10) Britain wondered how the CD had managed "to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory" by failing to act on its past decisions and negotiate a 'cut-off treaty'. Emphasising that "there simply cannot be nuclear disarmament without confidence that no new fissile material is being produced for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices", Ambassador Ian Soutar argued that "An FMCT is not then the last step, but it is the next essential one". (11)

South Africa set out its view of a fissban at the end of July, stressing that the 'fissile material treaty' negotiations must address existing stocks in order to be a "genuine disarmament measure and not purely address non-proliferation". Noting that the primary focus of a fissban was to prevent the further production of nuclear weapons materials, South Africa questioned whether the term 'fissile material' was appropriate, and argued that "the possibility for the production of tritium in civil commercial reactors, for military explosive use, should be avoided".

South Africa proposed a safeguards system able to verify nuclear materials while still in weapons usable form, as well as nuclear materials which have been rendered unusable for weapons. Arrangements similar to the IAEA safeguards would also need to oversee civilian production, the closure of production facilities, or their reassignment to civilian purposes. South Africa noted that US efforts at transparency had revealed that no account could be given for 2,800 kg of plutonium. With reference to its own experience of dismantling its nuclear weapons and production facilities and the problem of materials unaccounted for, South Africa recognised that "the practical significance of declaring stocks with ... a large discrepancy in completeness is therefore questionable". Other supporting data, such as operational records, electricity consumption, chemical losses etc. would be needed to reinforce the materials accounting. Finally, South Africa argued that "Standards for security from theft and sabotage as well as safety to ensure no harm to health and the environment would also have to be considered. Increased transparency and declarations of historical production on a voluntary basis will increase confidence and could be seen as a political gesture of goodwill, although the practical difficulties regarding completeness will need to be acknowledged." (12)

Other Issues

Nuclear disarmament and outer space were the focus of a number of interventions over the past year, but little was added during the last weeks of the 1999 session. Pakistan and China both raised concerns about the draft Indian nuclear doctrine released by the National Security Advisory Board, but other CD members were conspicuously silent, reportedly because the doctrine was not yet official. (See Documents and Sources in this issue for the text of the draft and selected reaction to it.)

Ambassador Akira Hayashi presented the Report of the Tokyo Forum for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. He stressed that the government of Japan had played only a limited role, but that "our government regards the report and recommendations contained therein as significant contributions to the discussions on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation by the international community". (13)

For Chile, Illanes devoted half his statement to the findings of the Tokyo Forum, giving emphasis to the conclusion that unless the "central compact" in the NPT is strengthened, the alternative will be "further proliferation and the continued revaluation of nuclear weapons in the 21st century". Illanes identified the core question in the nuclear disarmament debate as "whether nuclear deterrence or the abolition of nuclear weapons offers more national, regional and global security" and noted that while nuclear weapon possessors continue to claim they enhance national security, their actions have led rivals to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Illanes concluded that "national, regional and global security are not enhanced by the possession of nuclear weapons". Referring to the indefinite extension of the NPT, Illanes said that "in no way did we intend to establish an international order based upon the perpetual existence of a small group of States having the right to possess nuclear weapons and a great majority not having that right". He expressed deep worries about "the essentially irrelevant course the preparatory process for the 2000 NPT Review Conference has taken with regard to the objective of the abolition of nuclear weapons". (14)


This has been a troubling and frustrating year, not just because the CD could not get down to work, but because of what underlies this impasse: deteriorating international relations and a loss of political will by some of the major players for nuclear arms control. Given these worsening conditions, laid out so effectively by the Tokyo Forum, the successive CD presidents have valiantly struggled to get the Conference moving. They were defeated by a combination of politics and structure. Both must be re-evaluated. The Earth's peoples cannot afford a new nuclear arms race, such as would be precipitated if India pursued the short-sighted ambitions contained in its draft nuclear doctrine or the United States continues to pursue modernisation of its arsenals and dominance backed up by destabilising missile defences.

The CD has a role to play, but cannot succeed on its own. Now, if ever, it is time for national and international pressure to be exerted by civil society onto the governments and diplomats elected and employed to represent our interests. The CD's job is to negotiate the instruments that are possible now, such as the fissban, and to explore the parameters and help create the conditions for the future negotiations that will be necessary.

The only excuse for obstructing fissban negotiations is the desire by certain countries, particularly (at this point) India and Pakistan, to carry on making plutonium and highly enriched uranium for their nuclear weapons programmes. Also key is the reluctance of some of the Nuclear-Five to accept that non-proliferation is not attainable without nuclear disarmament. The only excuse for the US veto of meaningful discussions on the long standing agenda items of preventing an arms race in outer space and nuclear disarmament is the domestic Congressional rivalry and unilateralism that have so weakened US foreign policy and leadership. That excuse, however, is not good enough: all countries have to navigate around domestic politics, commercial interests and special pleading from militaries and 'uncertainty hawks'.

As the current superpower, the United States should be showing leadership in curbing its own extremists for the sake of a stronger international security regime. If the USA can't, how can it expect others to? By September, there were indications that the United States may show more flexibility in 2000: providing that the fissban committee is convened and can begin work, Washington might be prepared to accept some kind of working group discussions on nuclear disarmament - along the lines of the NATO-5 proposal - and outer space, though not as much as China and others would like. Both Beijing and Washington must compromise for the sake of all.

Whether the CD can get working next year may be influenced by the dynamics of the UN First Committee on Disarmament and International Security, with some responsibility also resting on the two presidents, Leslie Luck of Australia and Harald Kreid of Austria, charged with consulting delegations in the intersessional period before January 2000. Above all, the major nations will have to decide if they want nuclear controls to be negotiated multilaterally at all. These are serious and difficult times. The world has a choice of two futures before it: national fortresses seeking comfort based on dominant military power, or collective security based on international laws, norms and mutual responsibility. The CD has a role to play in enhancing collective security but is being held ransom by the fortress mentality. Next year will tell us much about which path the international community is heading down - and the signs do not look promising.

CD Dates for 2000

17 January to 24 March; 22 May to 7 July; 7 August to 22 September.

The 2000 Review Conference of the NPT will take place in New York from 24 April to 19 May.

Notes and References

1. Munir Akram, ambassador of Pakistan to the CD, 7 September, 1999.

2. Robert T Grey Jr, ambassador of the United States to the CD, 7 September, 1999.

3. Olexandre Chalyi, First Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Ukraine, 29 July 1999.

4. ibid.

5. Li Changhe, ambassador of China to the CD, 2 September, 1999.

6. Hubert de la Fortelle, ambassador of France to the CD, 7 September, 1999.

7. Mark Moher, ambassador of Canada to the CD, 12 August, 1999.

8. The CD rules of procedure can only be changed by consensus, which would be likely to be withheld by States who benefit from the delays and deadlocks.

9. Illanes, ambassador of Chile to the CD, 26 August, 1999.

10. Markku Reimaa, ambassador of Finland on behalf of the EU, 7 September, 1999.

11. Ian Soutar, ambassador of the United Kingdom to the CD, 7 September, 1999.

12. Georges Nene, ambassador of South Africa to the CD. 29 July, 1999.

13. Akira Hayashi, ambassador of Japan to the CD, 12 August, 1999. The Report of the Tokyo Forum was issued as CD document CD/1590.

14. Illanes, op.cit.

Rebecca Johnson is Executive Director of the Acronym Institute.

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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