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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 40, September - October 1999

Report on the United Nations 54th First Committee General Debate: Part One
by Sharon Riggle

"Together, we must refuse to accept that war, weapons of mass destruction, or the excessive accumulation or illicit transfer of arms are now just hallmarks of the natural human condition.... Disarmament is central to that task and to the creation of a culture of prevention". Excerpt from remarks by the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs, Jayantha Dhanapala, at the opening of the UNGA 54th First Committee, October 11, 1999.


The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) 54th First Committee opened its five-week session on October 11, 1999 to discuss issues in a security environment that has undergone serious changes, and several setbacks, since it last met 12 months ago. At the helm sat Ambassador Raimundo González of Chile, serving as the Chair of this year's committee. He opened with words of encouragement and a call for "determination and vision to develop ... 'sustainable security' to guide humanity more safely into the future". He went on to outline the range of subjects that this year's committee would be facing. Assisting him this year in their capacities as Vice-Chairs are: Ambassador Günther Siebert of Germany, Ambassador Kestutis Sadauskas of Lithuania and Ambassador Tarig Ali Bakhit of Sudan, with Mr. Carlos D. Sorreta of the Philippines serving as Rapporteur. Technically the session runs until November 12, but because the last three days this year are taken up with considering the Treaty on Antarctica, the First Committee voting will end on November 9.

The general feeling at this year's First Committee is that there is noticeably less "blood on the floor" than last year, when the resolution condemning the south Asian nuclear tests and the controversial New Agenda Coalition (NAC) resolution electrified UNGA 53 and were the subject of much heated debate. Some suspect that the atmosphere is "deceptively quiet", with potential flashpoints waiting in the shadows, ready to explode. Most others are taking the situation at face value and are grateful for the relative calm this year. They maintain that as the resolutions are not "new" this year, the precedent is already set and states are haggling more over the details than fundamental conceptual differences. Negotiations are ongoing, however, and general trends are emerging at this half-way point, which are outlined below. A few resolutions and debates are causing a stir, most notably the NAC resolution, now in its second year, and the first-time ABM Treaty resolution sponsored by Russia, China and Belarus which threatens to cause the deepest disagreement. This article outlines the main themes in the General Debate of the First Committee and will be followed by a comprehensive analysis in Disarmament Diplomacy 41, due out mid-December.

In addition to the issues addressed in more detail below, there was also discussion of a wide array of disarmament-related issues including: the report of the Tokyo Forum for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament; negative security assurances (NSA); the upcoming Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) summit in Istanbul; the Register of Conventional Arms (RCA); nuclear-weapon-free zones (NWFZ); the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the model additional Protocol; the drain of military procurement on developing nations' budgets; regional disarmament centres; physical protection of nuclear materials; the International Court of Justice (ICJ) legal opinion of 1996; vertical proliferation and new weapons technology; maritime transport of nuclear waste; export control regimes; tactical nuclear weapons and others.

Nuclear Issues

Many general debate speeches reflected the growing pessimism in the ability of the international fora to effect change, and painted a bleak outlook for the future of multilateral initiatives. Much of this sentiment was expressed even before the US Senate voted down the CTBT, the reverberations of which are still being felt across the spectrum of disarmament and non-proliferation discussions. The list of failures or near misses referred to by many delegations was longer than the successes. The relative inability of international fora to carry the agenda forward was lamented. Even where agreement has been forged, for example, beginning negotiations on a ban on the production of fissile materials for weapons -- or Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT) -- there has been no action because of the inter-linking of issues and general political game playing. The bilateral process on nuclear arms reductions between the United States and the Russian Federation is stalled, and now exacerbated by the US plans to develop ballistic and theatre missile defences. The CTBT has not entered into force, and with the US negative vote, that legally binding instrument has been delayed for much longer. Inaction in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva since 1996, except for the much-welcomed membership expansion this year, remains a source of frustration for most delegations. Missile tests, potential proliferation and national and theatre missile defence systems were seen to undermine the existing regimes and increase instability in certain regions, especially in north-east Asia. The Indian and Pakistani tests and India's new nuclear doctrine have posed a very serious threat to the non-proliferation regime and general norm. Several countries mentioned the new Strategic Concept of NATO, with its renewed emphasis on nuclear weapons, as being a major obstacle to further progress in other areas.

The US Senate's rejection of the CTBT was seen as a major blow to efforts in the multilateral forum. It sent shockwaves through delegations in New York, as well as Europe and other regions. In private, predictions for the future were dire and ranged from "never seeing the CTBT in force" to "the beginning of the fall of the entire nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime". Publicly, states came out strongly against the vote, but coupled it with a call for renewed efforts to increase adherents to the Treaty and a welcoming of the US announcement to maintain its testing moratorium. The Senate defeat of the CTBT has seriously injured US credibility in international disarmament fora, at a time when confidence was already waning. Is it just a result of an especially intransigent Congress? Will it only last until after the elections next year? Or has the paradigm shifted away from states following the US lead on these issues in a post-Cold War security environment that has changed the rules of play? These questions remain unanswered, but the important NPT Review Conference next year has been mentioned several times behind the scenes as the real loser in the short term. Preparations for the NPT 2000 Review Conference will have to seriously take into consideration the effects of the CTBT vote, which was one of the only real accomplishments since the NPT Review and Extension Conference in 1995.

The resolution on the CTBT does not include the strong language of many delegations "deeply regretting" the decision taken in the US Senate. It is a moderate appeal to countries to sign and ratify the Treaty, and builds on the declaration adopted in Vienna at the Special Conference on Entry Into Force (Article XIV). Although some delegations argued for the inclusion of specific language deploring the outcome of the US Senate vote, this was omitted on grounds that it could be counter-productive to single out just one country, albeit an important one for entry into force, without naming all those who have yet to accede to the Treaty.

With the important NPT 2000 Review Conference coming up in just six months' time, some countries used the opportunity of the First Committee to outline expectations and frustrations. Virtually all heralded the Treaty as the cornerstone of the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime, and held up the Conference next year as a seminal event in its history. There were the traditional calls for universal adherence to the Treaty, with the usual pointed references to Israel from Middle Eastern countries. While details were not covered in plenary speeches, it was clear that expectations are high that the Review Conference, especially the nuclear weapon states (NWS), must be seen to deliver on promises undertaken in the Treaty. If obligations are not met, or if there is no

progress by the May 2000 Review Conference, the repercussions would be very serious for the credibility of the Treaty and the regime as a whole. The most frequent comment besides wishes for a successful Review Conference next year were regrets that the 1999 Preparatory Committee for the 2000 Review Conference agreed no recommendations.

Where it exists, progress on nuclear arms control was welcomed and further measures encouraged. The announcements in June 1999 by the presidents of the United States and Russia were highlighted by many as a step in the right direction. The trilateral initiative between the US, Russia and the IAEA was welcomed, and other NWS were encouraged to join that process. The entry into force of the Landmine Treaty (Ottawa Convention) was heartily welcomed by most, and de-mining activities placed at the forefront of important next steps. The third NPT Preparatory Committee for the 2000 Review Conference was applauded for its success in taking care of the procedural arrangements for the Review Conference, yet deep regret was expressed by some for its failure to fulfill its mandate for making substantive recommendations to the 2000 Review Conference. The START process was supported, and calls were issued to renew those efforts and begin negotiations on START III.

Of the initiatives before the assembled delegations this year, arguably one of the most controversial is the NAC resolution proposing accelerated efforts and specific steps towards the goal of nuclear disarmament. This measure, launched in June 1998 by the foreign ministers of Ireland, Sweden, South Africa, Brazil, New Zealand, Egypt, Mexico and Slovenia, was one of the main blood-spillers at UNGA53 as it bundled together pragmatic proposals with a message that nuclear disarmament is needed sooner rather than later. (See Disarmament Diplomacy 32, November 1998). Over the past 12 months, support for the measure has grown. Last year's resolution had 32 co-sponsors, although Slovenia - an applicant for European Union and NATO membership - was forced by US, British and French pressure to withdraw its sponsorship. At the 1999 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting, the NAC garnered 44 core supporters. In the First Committee, as of October 25, 1999, the NAC resolution is co-sponsored by 52 states.

As was the case last year, there are debates over questioning the commitment of the NWS to their NPT Article VI obligations to move towards nuclear disarmament, quarrelling over the need - or lack thereof - for an international conference to help move things along, when exactly the NPT is binding, how quickly "speedy" measures should be taken and the characterisation of types of NWS. The resolution has been substantially changed from last year to take into consideration the criticisms from states at the last session, and the text reflects that input. It is unclear at this point how states will vote, although it is quietly expected that key countries will take the same position as last year.

As a result of plans in the US for a limited national BMD system, Belarus, Russia and China have sponsored a first-time resolution entitled "Preservation of and compliance with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty". It is aimed directly at curtailing any plans by the US to develop or deploy such a system, which would contravene the provisions in the ABM Treaty as it stands. The resolution also "supports intensified consultations and cooperation within the international community, between parties and non-parties, on the ABM Treaty and related issues in the light of emerging developments". In view of the encouraging noises from presidents Clinton and Yeltsin in Cologne, some delegations have expressed surprise at the strong tone of the resolution and at Russia's new tactic of seeking to include third parties in what the United States will undoubtedly want to keep as traditional bilateral negotiations. At time of writing, high-level discussions are ongoing in Moscow between these two nations, leading many to perceive the First Committee resolution as primarily a political manoeuvre, although there is no doubt that it reflects some core concerns of Russia and China.

The resolution has presented many western nations with a dilemma, since the text of the resolution has been carefully crafted to re-state support for the ABM Treaty with language similar to that used in other fora. This increases the difficulty for western nations, because all states generally regard the ABM Treaty as the "cornerstone of strategic stability". Therefore it will be hard for western nations to vote against it or abstain. However, indications are that opposition from Washington will ensure that many western nations will end up abstaining on this particular resolution, citing reasons of non-interference in a bilateral process.

Although rarely mentioned by name, several states expressed concern over the US proposal to establish a (limited) national BMD system, possibly abrogating the ABM Treaty as it stands. While upsetting the stability that many see the Treaty offers, there is an additional worry about unilateral moves by a country as strong as the US to protect itself under some sort of 'umbrella' and/or share a form of that umbrella with others -- such as Taiwan or Japan -- under a theatre missile defence (TMD) system. Those who mentioned the TMD programme cast it in a negative light, and generally saw it as upsetting regional efforts to organise their own security structures.

The prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS, by its CD acronym) also caught the attention of several delegations. Recent rapid developments in outer space technology, and an increasing accessibility to that technology, have led some to call for the negotiation of a legally-binding instrument that would regulate or ban the use of outer space for military purposes. Again the target is generally seen to be the US, whose current programmes aim at utilising technology in outer space to prevent missile attacks. As one delegation said, "we all have a 'border' with outer space", and therefore several states expressed the desire to discuss the issue in a multilateral forum, most likely the CD, to exchange ideas on the subject.

Other Weapons of Mass Destruction

Negotiations are ongoing in Geneva on a verification Protocol for the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), and were commented upon by various delegations. While generally quite a technical topic, calls went out to the wider disarmament community, governmental and non-governmental, to become more involved in this subject. The aim is to adopt the final Protocol next year, but delegations still have many weeks of negotiating sessions ahead of them. While support for the negotiations seems virtually unanimous, the arguments against were rebutted by some delegations. Ambassador Clive Pearson of New Zealand, for example, cited the United Nations Special Commission's (UNSCOM) failure to detect biological weapons in Iraq as the reason this Protocol is so necessary, arguing that, had the mechanisms been in place as outlined in the Protocol, the international community would have been alerted much earlier to the danger of imminent trouble in Iraq.

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) was applauded for its progress so far, but several speeches expressed concern at the relatively low level of signatories and ratifiers. Full and indiscriminate implementation was a call by some, while others added that the concerns of the respective industries should be taken fully into account. National economic or scientific development should not be hampered by implementation of this

worthy mechanism, while national security goals should be maintained as well. Universality of course was the chorus sung by all delegations voicing support for this treaty.

Conventional Arms

Receiving much detailed attention by delegations is the proposal for a conference on "Illicit Traffic in Small Arms". General debate speeches were uncharacteristically detailed regarding this item, as negotiations are underway to flesh out the intensive preparatory process for this conference, which will most likely take place in mid-2001. There are numerous proposals by delegations on the scope, timing, duration, mandate, location, etc., of both the conference and the preparatory process. A key political concern, however, is over scope. Many non-aligned countries would like the conference to focus solely on the "illicit trafficking" aspects of the problem, while other countries, among them some western delegations, would like to broaden out the debate and look at all related problems inherent in sending small arms across borders. The phrase "in all its aspects" was added on to mentions of a small arms and light weapons conference at the demand of some delegations in order to keep the scope broader than merely dealing with strictly illegal aspects.

The Ottawa Convention banning landmines, as well as the Certain Conventional Weapons Treaty (CCW), were frequently lauded as steps in the right direction to rid the world of the scourge of these indiscriminately harmful devices. By far the majority of those weighing in on the issue saw the Ottawa Treaty as the ideal mechanism through which to deal with these weapons, but some delegations expressed the hope that the CD might be allowed to also negotiate a ban on transfers of landmines. There is much controversy over this issue, as most states would like to keep the landmines issue out of the CD system altogether and not risk watering down a very strong treaty. The next step on most stated agendas was to ensure adequate funding for de-mining operations and victim assistance, programmes which are already very much under way.

UN Mechanisms

For the third year in a row, the United Nations Disarmament Commission (UNDC) was not able to agree on an agenda for the proposed Fourth Special Session on Disarmament (SSOD4). This special session would build on the previous three, most notably SSOD1, which, in 1978, agreed by consensus a far-reaching agenda which has since acted as the benchmark for disarmament issues. While some regard the 1978 priorities as still valid, many others want there to be a new assessment of the security environment and discussion of a new agenda for action, taking into account the end of the Cold War and the significant changes in international relations since 1990. The United States has been the major holdout, rejecting the proposed agenda, though India surprised some by also throwing away a chance of agreement in 1999. However, this year the UNDC did adopt a new document regarding nuclear-weapon-free zones, which currently cover roughly half the globe. This document allows States Parties to these zones to co-operate more closely in the strengthening of these zones, as well as input into general guidelines in the establishments of new ones. These zones were frequently mentioned and applauded by states as a vital item on the nuclear disarmament agenda.


The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) came in for criticism from several delegations at the First Committee. NATO'S 50th anniversary summit in Washington and new Strategic Concept showed no movement at all away from reliance on nuclear deterrence as a core security guarantee for the Alliance, which enraged some states and frustrated many others. Often naming NATO directly, many states expressed their disbelief at the unchanged posture in a post-Cold War world. One state went further and claimed that NATO's actions represented "hegemonism and power politics" and have jeopardised global security norms. Ambassador Christopher Westdal said that Canada was supporting in NATO a continued adaptation to the new security environment and that the Washington Summit recognised the diminished salience of nuclear weapons and had agreed that the Alliance "will consider options for confidence and security building measures, verification, non-proliferation, arms control and disarmament". This agenda item is widely understood to include the nuclear weapons question. A proposal will be put to NATO ministers in December on a process to consider such options.

Sharon Riggle, Director of the Centre for European Security and Disarmament, Brussels, has been covering the 54th Session of the United Nations First Committee in New York on behalf of the Acronym Institute. The next issue of Disarmament Diplomacy (41) will contain a full report of the resolutions and voting patterns in the First Committee and UNGA. A selection of related documents can be found on the Acronym Institute website: http://www.acronym.org.uk

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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