Text Only | Disarmament Diplomacy | Disarmament Documentation | ACRONYM Reports
Back to the Acronym home page
British Policy
South Asia
About Acronym

Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 54, February 2001

The Search for a Work Programme: the CD Fighting a Losing Battle?

By Jenni Rissanen

After five weeks of this year's session, the Conference on Disarmament (CD) remains deadlocked over its programme of work. Reaching agreement on a mandate to tackle the issue of preventing an arms race in outer space (PAROS) is so far proving an impossible task, with deliberations dominated and complicated by the hot topic of ballistic missile defences. Furthermore, recent discussions show that there are different interpretations as to how the Conference should "deal with" the question of nuclear disarmament. As agreement on the work programme once again slips away, the CD is debating what it should do in the current, depressing circumstances, with calls being made for alternative working methods to be considered.

A Call for a Stronger Nuclear Disarmament Mandate

In the fourth week of the session, when the 'opening year dust' had settled and the CD was getting down to its more usual, low-key business, New Zealand and South Africa, both members of the New Agenda Coalition, made a call to strengthen the CD's mandate to deal with nuclear disarmament - a welcome refocusing of attention on the issue, when so much of the recent spotlight had been on PAROS.

It is understood that New Zealand Ambassador Clive Pearson suggested strengthening the proposed mandate on nuclear disarmament contained in the 'Amorim proposal' - being considered as the basis for consultations on the work programme - in an informal meeting following the February 8 plenary. Under the Amorim proposal (CD/1624) - tabled by Brazil's Ambassador Celso Amorim in August 2000, in his capacity as CD President - "an Ad Hoc Committee...to deal with nuclear disarmament" would be established by the Conference, mandated to "exchange information and views on practical steps for progressive and systematic efforts to attain this objective".

Pearson's intervention led to a 'lively' discussion in which more than twenty delegations took part. Although the mandate in the Amorim proposal has generally been considered as acceptable, except by a few countries, it has provoked dissatisfaction among some non-nuclear-weapon states in light of the nuclear disarmament pledges made at the 2000 NPT Review Conference. Reportedly, a number of countries, from different groups, expressed support for the New Zealand proposal.

A week later, Pearson brought the matter to the open plenary and, speaking also on behalf of South Africa, explained the two countries' position. Pearson recalled two agreed NPT undertakings that bore particular significance with respect to the CD: the call for "the establishment of an appropriate subsidiary body with a mandate to deal with nuclear disarmament where the Conference is urged to agree on a programme of work which includes the immediate establishment of such a body", and "the necessity of negotiations on a fissile material treaty where the Conference is urged to agree on a programme of work which includes the immediate commencement of negotiations on such a treaty with a view to their conclusion within five years". New Zealand and South Africa attached "very great importance" to the full implementation of both commitments.

Although New Zealand and South Africa felt that the Amorim proposal on nuclear disarmament, under which an ad hoc committee would "exchange information and views on practical steps for progressive and systematic efforts to attain this objective", was "far from perfect", and indeed "significantly weaker" than the NPT had mandated, they were prepared to work with it. However, they would be "hesitant about and would carefully have to consider" their position "on proposals that divert attention" to what Pearson called a "'make-work' solution for the CD" which might act to "reduce the relevance of this negotiating body to that of a debating society". Moreover, calls for thematic discussions, "however well intentioned, run the risk of providing convenient cover for those who do not want to engage in real negotiations". Pearson further cautioned that the time might soon arrive when "we have to take a hard look at how this Conference is delivering on its mandate," stressing that at "a time when there are disturbing signs of a preference for unilateral solutions or options, it is essential for the continuation of multilateralism that this body reengages in real work". Disarmament was "not an optional extra" but a security-building process. He stressed that the pledges made at the NPT Review Conference were far-reaching and that a disinclination to act seriously upon them would undermine and discredit the non-proliferation regime. In this connexion, it was time for the nuclear-weapon states to settle their differences and jointly start the implementation of their commitments "with purpose and determination."1

The outgoing President, Ambassador Christopher Westdal of Canada, said in his farewell remarks to the February 15 plenary that his "consultations for suggestions to help close the gap between the Amorim proposal and consensus" had provoked "not only the rehearsal of PAROS mandate problems but also the reiteration of widespread support for a stronger mandate for the Ad Hoc Committee charged with nuclear disarmament" - a reference to the informal consultations of February 8. Consequently, Westdal had reviewed the mandate together with some "key parties", but they had been "variously unwilling to consider any change or consider any isolated change whatever".2

Still Stuck on the Programme of Work

Like New Zealand and South Africa, the European Union (EU) stressed the two steps with respect to the CD - on fissile materials and a subsidiary body to deal with nuclear disarmament - contained in the NPT Final Document. Ambassador Henrik Salander of Sweden laid down the EU's expectations and hopes for 2001, saying that although 2000 had been another standstill year in the CD, it had not been a uniformly dismal year for multilateral efforts: the NPT Review Conference had been an important success. Salander said the current stalemate did nothing to strengthen the international disarmament and non-proliferation regime, preventing as it did the CD from negotiating the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), to which the EU continued to attach the utmost importance. The EU considered that an immediate launch of FMCT negotiations, alongside an engagement with both nuclear disarmament and PAROS "within subsidiary bodies whose mandates shall need to be both pragmatic and substantial", constituted the basis for an agreement to begin work in the CD.

Salander felt that the Amorim proposal contained "elements for a rapid agreement, if all members of the Conference display a spirit of openness and pragmatism".3 The Director General for Security and Disarmament of Spain, Mr. Miguel Aguirre de Cárcer, agreed, saying that the Amorim proposal was not only a good basis for further consultations but acceptable in all its aspects. He too underlined the importance of the two CD-related paragraphs in the NPT Document. Speaking more generally, Aguirre de Cárcer said the Conference was at a critical juncture. Continuing attempts to weave an international legal fabric for arms control were taking place at a especially complex time, with challenges to the non-proliferation regime and the rapid evolution of strategic visions that constrained, if not impeded, global disarmament. Despite these difficulties, positive events also needed to be recalled, such as the NPT Review Conference. Additionally, he applauded Russia's ratification of START II and noted that in ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), Russia had joined 17 other countries in 2000. He also noted the speeding up of the negotiations on a verification protocol for the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), and welcomed the increasing attention being given to aspects of conventional disarmament. Notwithstanding such progress and potential for meaningful discussion, however, the CD continued to be deadlocked. He warned that the Conference risked exclusion and marginalisation if the current stalemate continued, an outcome which would have "very serious consequences for the entire system of multilateral cooperation".4

Both China and the United States also took the floor, principally to reiterate and elaborate earlier statements and positions. Ambassador Hu Xiaodi reiterated China's commitment to nuclear disarmament and the abolition of nuclear weapons and repeated Beijing's stand on the ABM Treaty and PAROS. China was deeply worried that the United States had single-handedly obstructed PAROS negotiations "by denying the risk of the weaponisation of and an arms race in outer space". Hu said his country also supported the early negotiation and conclusion of an FMCT "on the premise that global strategic stability is maintained and the nuclear disarmament process further pursued". He rejected double standards in non-proliferation, characterising the accusation (by the United States) that China was holding the CD hostage as a "distortion of facts". Commenting on linkages between different items, Hu said that since every item in the CD's agenda was closely related and all aspects of security were inseparable, "each agenda item cannot but inherently [be linked] to other items". China supported the Amorim proposal "as the basis for further consultation[s]."5

The United States addressed the Conference, largely in response to the statement made by Russia's Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov on February 16, to make one point loud and clear: that it did not think outer space issues were ripe for negotiations, whereas FMCT was. Ambassador Robert Grey read a long list of work that had been done in preparation for FMCT negotiations, juxtaposing this with outer space where there was "no arms race" nor any prospect of one. The United States was ready for "organized discussion aimed at examining" proposals related to confidence-building or transparency measures, general principles, treaty commitments, or certain other aspects with respect to outer space, as stated in the Amorim proposal. However, the United States could not understand why "those who do not share our views are unwisely and unrealistically insisting on immediate negotiations," a stance he described as "a diplomatic tactic which [had] the net effect of blocking discussion of the very issues they say they care about. What are [they] afraid of?"

Turning to nuclear disarmament, Grey also wondered what CD member states could expect to achieve from a separate ad hoc committee on nuclear disarmament? Regardless of its doubts about this, the United States was ready to agree on such a committee "to discuss issues related to nuclear disarmament". Grey then questioned Russian readiness with regard to nuclear disarmament and the CD. He challenged the Russian delegation to clarify the February 1 statement by Ivanov: did it mean that Russia advocated a nuclear disarmament ad hoc committee along the lines of the Amorim proposal? Grey said he believed that the CD was "as close as we can ever expect to be to agreement on an overall programme of work", warning that it would be "exceedingly unwise to let the moment slip away".7

Fifth Year of Paralysis?

As it began to appear virtually certain that the moment for agreeing a work programme would indeed slip away yet again from the Conference, discussion grew about what the CD could still usefully do. As the statement by New Zealand and South Africa shows, there is cautiousness about having the CD engage in work that falls short of actual disarmament negotiations. But there are also others who feel that all possible avenues for meaningful work should be explored.

Ambassador U Mya Than of Myanmar (Burma) presented his proposal for a "plan B" for the CD: namely, the work it could do in the absence of a consensus on a programme of work. Believing that there was room to improve the CD's working methods, Than proposed that, pending an agreement on a work programme, the CD convene plenary meetings devoted to substantive items on the agreed CD agenda.8 Under this proposal, while the CD President would continue consultations on the work programme and delegations would be encouraged to make substantive statements in the plenary meetings, the President would convene, and be responsible for structuring, additional plenary meetings devoted to discussion of agenda topics. Delegations would be encouraged to submit papers, working papers and non-papers and put forward concrete proposals. The CD should also incorporate "salient points" of these discussions in its annual report to the UN General Assembly. Than said the main thrust of his proposal was to make the optimum use of the plenary meetings, and stressed that it was not meant to replace current efforts to reach agreement on the work programme, but rather to facilitate and prepare for this outcome. He felt such a strategy could provide delegations with an opportunity to better understand each other's positions and clarify issues as well as generate momentum.9 Ambassador Günther Seibert of Germany welcomed Myanmar (Burma)'s initiative, saying there could be various ways that the Conference could engage in substantive work and that Germany was ready to "explore all possible avenues to this end".10

Assessing the state of deliberations as his term as CD President ended, Ambassador Westdal stated his reluctant conclusion that "formal work is not on our immediate horizon". Since the opening of the year, the CD had learned that "the tight linkages with which we have bound subject to subject and mandate to mandate...are doubly costly": the CD has been unable to launch formal negotiations, nor has it been able to discuss any of the subjects on its agenda. Noting that "delegates don't want to pretend here", Westdal insisted that member states did not want to see a "divorce" of the "CD's marriage to reality" brought about "through any sort of make-work" scheme. Furthermore, given that current major power relations were "dominated by...doctrinal upheaval and related security declarations and gestures of great sweep", agreement on the work programme was currently not possible. Thus, the CD "may well decide that the time has come to address the role and work of the Conference in the absence of an agreed work programme". Westdal said the search for a formal work programme needed to address and credibly answer a series of questions, which he left as a heritage to his successors:

  • "In light of its origins, history and evolution, what roles can the CD play in the search for multilateral security? Negotiation, yes, when parties are willing and ready - but what roles work when they aren't?
  • What do we mean by 'pre-negotiations ... preparations for negotiations ... exploration ... discussion' and other such terms of engagement? What are the prerequisites for success, for valuable work in such treatments of elements of our substantive agenda?
  • What is the political role of the Conference? How might its platform be enhanced to increase the influence of its work and the extent of effective engagement it provides?
  • What is the public, informational and educational role of the Conference - as distinct from the outreach of its assembled delegations?
  • What value do we recognise in the obvious CD function of assembling and cross-germinating a unique concentration of NACD [non-proliferation, arms control and disarmament] expertise? For that role alone, what benefits - for the UN, for treaty bodies and other endeavours - ought [to] be credited to this house?
  • Might our group system be made more transparent (lest it hide cheap, anonymous vetoes) and fruitful (with wider sharing of the benefits of group consideration)?
  • Though they would not likely promise to be decisive, might procedural and structural reforms be usefully pursued to facilitate negotiations once our global context permits their resumption?
  • Finally, does it have to be all or nothing around here? Need fallow seasons be such hard times? The rule of consensus is congenital and forever, we know that; major players will not forsake the brake its veto gives them. But when that rule is combined with the regular insistence that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and when we encounter as we do these days a resistance to address any substance informally so long as it pends in CD/1624, the closest thing we have to an agreed programme of work - well, then, our prospects are straitened indeed. How might they be enhanced?
  • In sum, if the CD is not to be used for negotiations for a while, what would constitute a reasonable CD stewardship programme?"11

Ambassador Juan Enrique Vega of Chile, who commenced his Presidency on February 19, called Westdal's remarks and conclusions "thought provoking". Vega, who is the first Chilean Ambassador to take over the Presidency since Chile joined the Conference in 1996, said it would be very difficult for him "to be original" as President, as the problems the CD faced had been with it for quite some time. Vega characterised the situation regarding the deadlock over the programme of work as one in which CD member states knew that positions on the programme depended on the broader international environment, and at the same time wondered what, if any, power the Conference itself had over that environment. Regardless of any doubts and concerns, however, the CD was there to take collective decisions on disarmament and member states had the primary responsibility over its fate. Vega would proceed with consultations on the programme of work on the basis of the Amorim proposal.12


While there is no agreement on the programme of work, neither is there concurrence on what the Conference should do in the meantime. The result is a near total paralysis that appears to be harder to shake off as time goes by. Week by week, the pledges made with respect to the CD at the NPT Review Conference remain unfulfilled. If the current deadlock continues much longer, they will soon be undermined.

CD Dates for 2001

January 22 to March 30; May 14 to June 29; and July 30 to September 14.

To view the full texts of plenary speeches, visit the website of the Women's International League of Peace and Freedom (WILPF) at:


Notes and References

1. Clive Pearson, Ambassador of New Zealand to the CD, February 15, 2001. CD/PV.866.

2. Christopher Westdal, Ambassador of Canada to the CD, February 15, 2001. CD/PV.866.

3. Henrik Salander, Ambassador of Sweden to the CD, February 15, 2001. CD/PV.866.

4. Miguel Aguirre de Cárcer, Director General for Security and Disarmament, Foreign Ministry of Spain, to the CD, February 22, 2001. CD/PV.867.

5. Hu Xiaodi, Ambassador of China to the CD, February 15, 2001. CD/PV.866.

6. See Disarmament Diplomacy No.53, December 2000/January 2001.

7. Robert Grey, Ambassador of the United States to the CD, February 15, 2001. CD/PV.866.

8. For a summary of CD agenda items, adopted by the Conference in its first plenary of the session, January 23, 2001, see Jenni Rissanen, 'CD Begins New Year at High Level, but with Low Expectations,' Disarmament Diplomacy No. 53, December 2000/January 2001.

9. U Mya Than, Ambassador of Myanmar (Burma) to the CD, February 15, 2001. CD/PV.866.

10. Günther Seibert, Ambassador of Germany to the CD, February 15, 2001. CD/PV.866.

11. Christopher Westdal, Ambassador of Canada to the CD, February 15, 2001. CD/PV.866.

12. Juan Enrique Vega, Ambassador of Chile to the CD, February 22, 2001. CD/PV.867.

Jenni Rissanen is the Acronym Institute's Analyst attending the CD in Geneva. © 2001 The Acronym Institute.