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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 50, September 2000

Silence and Stagnation as the CD Concludes Fruitless Year

By Jenni Rissanen


The Conference on Disarmament (CD) adopted its annual report to the United Nations General Assembly on September 21, closing the year for the second consecutive time without having begun any negotiations or established subsidiary bodies. The CD concluded the CTBT in 1996 and, with the exception of a few weeks in 1998, it has remained deadlocked ever since. The frustration and anxiety about the CD's future are exacerbated by the fact that the near future does not appear to bring promises of a better future.

Some of the plenary meetings of the seven-week August-September session of the CD may be remembered as one of the shortest in the CD's history, at times running only for a few minutes. Statements in this session were few, continuing the silence that has plagued the CD over the last few months. Ambassador Celso Amorim of Brazil continued consultations as CD President over the programme of work and tabled a proposal to this end. However, by the time he handed the CD Presidency to Bulgaria's Ambassador Petko Draganov, it had become clear that delegations still differed profoundly on what the CD should and could do next. It is likely that these arguments will prevent the CD from starting substantive work early in the year 2001.


Amorim's Presidential proposal included the establishment of three ad hoc committees: one would negotiate a fissban treaty and the others would "deal with" nuclear disarmament and the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS). The proposed mandates of the subsidiary bodies follow closely the Belgian proposal from June 2000. The ad hoc committee on nuclear disarmament would "exchange information and views on practical steps for progressive and systematic efforts to attain this objective". With regard to PAROS, a body would be set up "to examine and identify specific topics or proposals that might be a basis for subsequent in-depth consideration, which could include confidence-building or transparency measures, general principles, treaty commitments and the elaboration of a regime capable of preventing an arms race in outer space." Included in the proposal was also a draft presidential declaration stressing that the CD was a disarmament negotiating forum and that the mandates and work of the bodies should be "understood in that light". Furthermore, the declaration acknowledged that the CD continued to be influenced by and responsive to outside developments that affected the members' security interests.1

The Brazilian proposal, like its predecessors, attempted to take into account China's demand for 'comprehensive and balanced' treatment of different countries security priorities by proposing three ad hoc committees. However, from China's point of view, it failed because the proposed mandates were differently weighted: Amorim's proposal would mean treaty negotiations 'only' on fissban and 'just' discussions on PAROS and nuclear disarmament. The United States, which is eager to get fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT)2 negotiations swiftly underway, seemed to regard the proposal as generally a good one although it felt that "a few words remain to be worked out" on nuclear disarmament.3 Most of the focus in the CD in this session was on the question of PAROS with China and the United States taking turns in presenting their arguments for and against negotiations on the topic.

PAROS: China v. United States

China and the United States have continued their debate on National Missile Defence (NMD), the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) and PAROS, repeating their known positions. However, the exchange has grown sharper in tone than before. Described as "crossing of swords" by one observer, the United States openly accused China of deliberately using PAROS as an excuse to block negotiations on a fissban.

The debate began on August 31 when the United States took the floor to oppose negotiations on a legal instrument relating to outer space, as pushed most vocally by China. Ambassador Robert Grey explained that the United States viewed its space activities "primarily as an instrument of human advancement and international cooperation" and underlined that the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 provided all countries with free exploration and use of outer space. Grey added that the US National Space Policy allowed for activities that "support defensive purposes and serve national security goals" as part of a wider goal of exploration and use for peaceful purposes, and spoke of the importance of satellites in providing early warning against missile attack and in monitoring arms control agreements. Referring to a number of standing agreements on military activities in space, Grey argued that "there already exists an extensive and comprehensive system for limiting the uses of outer space" and that the United States was "not persuaded that the multilateral arms control regime...requires augmentation."

On the question of NMD, Grey said the United States sees "no contradiction" between the arms control and disarmament process and the pursuit of a limited NMD system. Noting that the planned system was not designed against Russia or China and would not threaten Russia's strategic deterrent, Grey argued that it would not undermine the arms control process but actually promote further nuclear arms reductions, though he did not explain how. He also underlined that the ballistic defense systems that the United States was considering were terrestrial, using land-based interceptors, launchers and radars, and not space-based. Furthermore, with satellites used only to provide early warning and data on threat of missiles, Grey called this "a far cry from the "weaponization" of outer space".

Addressing the situation in the CD, Grey said it was "inappropriate" to insist on negotiations on PAROS as a condition for FMCT negotiations, as countries have committed themselves in the CD and in other fora to the immediate commencement of the FMCT negotiations. Furthermore, those who insisted on PAROS negotiations were "putting the cart before the horse" as "there is substantial disagreement on what should be covered" even among those who favour the negotiations. Accepting the idea of addressing PAROS in the CD in some form, Grey said the next logical step would be to "conduct a thorough discussion of possible measures related to outer space, to identify proposals for further protections - if there are any - that may be desirable and feasible". To sum up, Grey said that "unless and until there is a convergence" on the issue it was "impractical" to insist on treaty negotiations.

Warming to his theme, Grey regarded the linkage which held FMCT hostage to PAROS as "simply a poorly disguised effort to block FMCT negotiations altogether". Although the United States believed that the FMCT negotiations should not be linked to anything else, and recognizing that there was a wish in the CD to address the so-called 'three priority issues' (fissban, nuclear disarmament and PAROS), Grey said the United States had "made a serious effort to find middle ground" and was ready to agree on the establishment of subsidiary bodies "with appropriate mandates" in order to get the FMCT negotiations underway.

The mandate is, of course, the crux of the matter, and the United States is not ready to agree on the formula that China wants, although it does approve of discussions on PAROS, as envisaged in the Algerian, Belgian and Brazilian proposals on a programme of work. Grey warned that "those who are not prepared to accept compromises will bear heavy responsibility if this Conference continues to be prevented from negotiating multilateral arms control agreements".4

The day after Grey's statement, President Clinton announced that he had "decided not to authorize deployment of a national missile defense at this time" but that the United States would "continue a robust program of development and testing".5 At the next plenary, Grey said that Clinton's announcement meant there were "no more excuses" to prevent work starting in the CD. He asserted that the Conference should, at minimum, make a recommendation to start work at the beginning of next year.6 But as China's response would show, postponing the decision on NMD to the next administration would not do the trick.

Ambassador Hu Xiaodi of China responded with a statement on the "dire consequences of NMD" and the relationship between NMD, PAROS and the FMCT. Responding to Grey's remarks on responsibility, Hu saw that the United States would "have to bear the full responsibility for undermining international stability and security, and for all the consequences that may arise therefrom". He warned that the "gravest adverse consequences" would not only affect China, Russia and others but also the United States itself. Hu spoke of three consequences: (1) the undermining effect on global strategic balance and stability and threat to international peace and stability; (2) the obstruction of arms control and disarmament process and the possibility of a new arms race; and (3) the disruption of international non-proliferation efforts.

Hu also addressed Grey's point on ground verses space-based weapons. He said that it was "irrefutable that the existing international legal mechanism only prohibits the deployment of WMD in outer space, but has nothing to do with preventing the deployment or use... of non-WMD weapons systems and their components, such as laser, particle beam, x-ray and kinetic weapons". The existing instruments needed to be "augmented and improved...[to] prevent the weaponization of outer space by any other weaponry". Whether limited or more advanced NMD systems were deployed, they would "undoubtedly" include space weapon systems that would provide target information and guidance for ground-based weapons systems designed to intercept and destroy targets in space, or attack targets within the atmosphere from space, thus making outer space "a part of the battlefield". Hu challenged the US Ambassador by asking that if indeed the limited NMD system that the United States was considering to deploy had nothing to do with space, why was there "such obstinate opposition" to PAROS negotiations?

Responding to the United States' accusation about holding the FMCT hostage to PAROS, Hu reiterated the Chinese position of "comprehensive and balanced" treatment of different countries' priorities in the CD. He also argued that the nature and purpose of the FMCT negotiations had been "under serious doubt" due to the NMD plans and the setbacks to the CTBT. Finally, crushing any hope that the postponement decision by Clinton would ease the situation in the CD, Hu concluded that the decision did not mean the plan had been given up but was "only a deferral of decision to deploy NMD when its technology is not ripe yet and it is facing strong opposition from the international community".7

The US response was to accuse China of intentionally producing "utter paralysis" in the CD. In an effort to appeal to a range of delegations, Grey underlined that China's tactics prevented not only the commencement of FMCT negotiations but also the proposed deliberations on nuclear disarmament. Grey said that the US understood the desire by many CD members to address nuclear disarmament. Although the US was not among them, it "shared their commitment to the underlying long-term goal". The United States felt that the CD was close to an agreement on the mandate on nuclear disarmament and that it could be solved "expeditiously" if it were the only outstanding issue.8

The US-China debate over PAROS reveals a fundamentally different mind-set in the two countries: the United States concentrates on the present whereas China on the future. Also, China distinguishes between the 'weaponisation' and 'militarisation' of outer space where as the US does not. The United States talks about the current parameters of its NMD plans arguing that the system would be of limited nature and ground-based and therefore has nothing to do with outer space. China, on the other hand, believes that the current plans are only the beginning. It is concerned that the United States will augment the system into to outer space in the future. It is this fundamental disconnect of perception which makes resolution in the CD so difficult.

The upcoming US presidential elections bring only more uncertainty until the results are known. China is unlikely to move until the new US President is in office and his new policies up and running, including on NMD. Many are saying that China, that has a small nuclear arsenal compared to the United States, will not enter into any agreement limiting its production of fissile material for nuclear weapons but wants to keep open the option of enlarging its nuclear arsenal as a countermove against a US NMD system.

The Final Plenary: Assessing the Year

In contrast to 1999, when there were a number of statements in the final plenary, this year just a few delegations spoke when the CD closed for the year on September 21. Costa Rica, which is an observer in the CD and co-sponsored the New Agenda resolution in the UNGA last year, expressed its desire to join the CD as a permanent member.9 Algeria spoke on behalf of the Group of 21 (G-21) and expressed regret about the CD's inability to agree on a programme of work, saying that this was due to the "inflexible postures by some NWS" on nuclear disarmament and PAROS. Algeria reiterated the G-21's view that nuclear disarmament remained the CD's highest priority and also called for substantive work on PAROS.10

Russia took the occasion to comment on some recent points made on the ABM treaty in the CD, saying that they needed clarification. Warning that "any effort aimed at strengthening one's own security at the expense of others', as history shows, is doomed to failure", Ambassador Vasily Sidorov repeated Russia's views on the role of the ABM treaty. He said it served as the basis for further nuclear weapons reductions and its role was not confined to the sphere of Russian-US relations. An NMD system would invite proliferation of missiles and missile technologies as well as damage the NPT. He said it was true that the treaty had been amended before, but underlined that this had been done to strengthen the regime's restraining pillars. Russia could not accept the logic of changing the treaty from one that prohibits NMD to one that creates NMD. Although the decision to defer the NMD decision was "thought-out and a responsible step", Russia (like China) pointed out that the development programmes were still ongoing. Sidorov emphasized Russian support for the establishment of an ad hoc committee on PAROS and drew the CD's attention to President's Putin's idea of holding an international conference on the prevention of the militarisation of space under UN auspices next spring.11

The European Union (EU) was also understood to have been preparing a common statement to be read at the final plenary but in the end said nothing. The EU was unable to adopt its planned statement due to serious disagreement over the language in the French version of the 2000 NPT Review Conference's final document on setting up a nuclear disarmament subsidiary body in the CD. What might seem a linguistic question was in fact symptomatic of a deeper division among the European countries.

It is understood that France had strict instructions from the capital to follow the French version of the final NPT document which uses the French phrase "d'étudier la question du désarmement nucléaire"(to study the question of disarmament) as opposed to the English language version that uses the words "to deal with nuclear disarmament". The rest of the EU members considered that "traiter de désarmement nucléaire" corresponded more closely to the meaning of the English version "to deal with nuclear disarmament". But France, determined to limit discussion on nuclear disarmament in the CD, held firm. It is understood that while not denying the difference of tone between the official English and French versions, and while acknowledging that the English version is stronger, France insists that the question is one of principle and that all the six different translations of the final document are of equal value, including the French version.

Puzzled at the significant difference in meaning between the French and English versions, some EU members will seek to take the question up again at the UN in New York. A number of EU members appeared outraged by France's blocking of the EU statement, regarding the row as indicative of a desire by France to backtrack from the agreements adopted at the 2000 NPT Review Conference, using language as an excuse.

The drafting of the CD's annual report to the United Nations General Assembly went relatively smoothly as there was so little to say, and it was duly adopted in the last plenary. The report briefly notes that the CD Presidents had conducted intensive consultations, the CD had considered both formal and informal proposals for a programme of work but "did not, however, agree on a programme of work and did not re-establish or establish any mechanism on any of its specific agenda items during the 2000 session".12

In his closing remarks, the current CD President, Ambassador Petko Draganov of Bulgaria, castigated the 2000 session as yet another one that was used to "pre-negotiate the conditions for our possible negotiations". He depicted the situation around the work programme as one in which "to be able to agree about anything in the program of work, we first seem to be in need of agreeing about everything". However, Draganov felt that there had been two encouraging signs: that the CD appeared to be closer to agreement on a mandate on nuclear disarmament than a year ago, and that the CD agreed on the forward-looking recommendation to have the current and incoming (Bulgaria and Canada) CD Presidents carry on consultations during the intersessional period using the Brazilian Presidency's proposal as the basis for seeking agreement.13

The CD - Terminally Ill?

CD diplomats are increasingly aware and concerned about the impact of the current, protracted deadlock on this sole multilateral disarmament negotiation forum. Despite differing perceptions of exactly who and what is causing the problems, they are unanimous in conceding that the current logjam on the programme of work is eroding the institution's credibility. Frustration outside the CD is also growing, thus adding to the pressures within.

The CD's current performance is often measured against the early- and mid-1990s when the CD concluded the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 1993 and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996. Against this background, many fail to understand why the CD has been unable to commence further negotiations, in particular on fissile materials. The reasons for this lie outside and within the CD, and are both political and structural. It is often argued that the CD is a victim of political realities and cannot but work under those constraints. Others also point to the institution itself, saying that its rules of procedure are too rigid and that its group system dates from the days of the Cold War. There is truth to both assertions.

Abdelkader Bensmail, the retiring Deputy Secretary-General of the CD, spoke to the delegations at his last CD plenary. He encouraged CD members, saying that "it should be recalled that periods of inactivity and deadlock have happened before in the framework of the predecessors of the CD". Both upon the completion of the CWC and the CTBT, "questions were raised as to whether there was life" after them. Bensmail said the ongoing debate on the role of the CD was legitimate and necessary and was not likely to be over soon because of the complexity and magnitude of arms control and disarmament issues. He believed that the current deadlock was not due to the CD's rules of procedure, working methods or its group system but could largely be attributed to the larger question of what the post-Cold War disarmament agenda was, and in particular "the requirement to strike the right balance between the preservation and consolidation of the nuclear non-proliferation regime and the need to accelerate and multilateralize the nuclear disarmament process while at the same time preserving and enhancing strategic stability". Bensmail believed that efforts should now be focussed on a politically conducive climate, in particular between the major players, in order to make full use of the CD as a negotiating forum.14


Overall, the year 2000 saw CD delegations and the different groups either repeat old proposals for a programme of work or remain silent. As predicted by Ukraine's First Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, Olexandre Chalyi, last year, "delegations which have realistic, moderate, middle-ground-oriented positions...are losing interest in further brokerage between parties who maintain rigid stances".15 The CD appears to have become an arena for heavy-weight players, with others forced to watch the fight over outer space from the bleachers. This question has become so sensitive because it is so closely linked with NMD. Few others, despite their earlier stands on PAROS, have wanted to join in the fight this year. Countries in the Western Group may also be cautious because they fear that actively supporting a subsidiary body on PAROS could give China more 'ammunition' to defend the linkage which is blocking FMCT negotiations.

One crucial lesson to be learned from observing the CD during the past few years concerns "the power of linkage". The consensus rule gives each country in the CD a veto power over all decisions. It is a powerful tool in making sure that a country's views are being paid attention to. Despite, and at times perhaps because of its paralyzing effect on the operation of the CD, the temptation to use it is always there, and abuse has been employed by all sides. Another observation to be made is that the linkages have changed over time; the fissban negotiations have been linked to a decision on nuclear disarmament and are now linked to PAROS. As long as countries see value in "the power of linkage" they will, when they consider that all else has failed, resort to it to protect their positions and block others.

As the year ends, there is a pessimistic feeling in the CD, strengthened by the exchanges between China and the United States, that the main obstacle to the CD's ability to agree a programme of work is the politics of NMD. With the change in the US administration and the time needed to get new policies up and going, the fear is that 2001 will be yet another stagnant year in Geneva.

Notes and References

1. To see the full proposal, see CD/1624, August 24, 2000.

2. In view of the continuing disagreements in the CD about what to call the negotiations, Disarmament Diplomacy has decided to revert to the abbreviation 'fissban', which does not prejudge the issues of scope and stocks. In referring to the positions of particular States, we will also use the terms FMCT or FMT, or even FM(C)T, as indicated in their own statements.

3. Robert Grey, Ambassador of the United States to the CD, August 31, 2000.

4. Robert Grey, Ambassador of the United States to the CD, August 31, 2000.

5. "Remarks by the President on National Missile Defense," Georgetown University, Washington, September 1, 2000; White House transcript.

6. Robert Grey, Ambassador of the United States to the CD, September 5, 2000.

7. Hu Xiaodi, Ambassador of China to the CD, September 14, 2000.

8. Robert Grey, Ambassador of the United States to the CD, September 14, 2000.

9. Nora Ruiz de Angulo, Ambassador of Costa Rica to the CD, September 21, 2000.

10. Mohamed Salah-Dembri, Ambassador of Algeria to the CD, September 21, 2000.

11. Vasily Sidorov, Ambassador of Russia to the CD, September 21, 2000.

12. CD/WP.511 and CD/WP.512.

13. Petko Draganov, Ambassador of Bulgaria to the CD, September 21, 2000.

14. Abdelkader Bensmail, Deputy Secretary-General of the CD, September 21, 2000.

15. Olexandre Chalyi, Ukraine's First Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, July 29, 1999.

Jenni Rissanen is the Acronym Institute's Geneva Analyst.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.