Text Only | Disarmament Diplomacy | Disarmament Documentation | ACRONYM Reports
back to the acronym home page
WMD Possessors
About Acronym

Conference on Disarmament (CD)

Back to the main page on the CD

The 2003 Conference on Disarmament (CD):
Update No. 1, the Indian Presidency, January-February

By Aaron Tovish


For those already familiar with the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva, I offer a concise summary of its work thus far in 2003. Progress: none. Reasons: unchanged. Prospects: bad.

For those unfamiliar with the CD - and for those aware of its deep and long crisis of inactivity but still interested in the latest news - I offer this more lengthy exposition. It is a report on the work of the CD during the presidency of India with Ambassador Rakesh Sood in the chair. Going into the Conference's annual session, this reporter's plan was to provide a separate review on developments at the end of each four-week presidency. Not only is this a more natural division of the CD work than the winter-spring-summer sessions, but it seemed advisable given the politically intriguing line-up for the alphabetically rotating presidency in 2003: India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, and Israel - what one might call a "mixed bag" indeed. In the event, the issue of presidency succession became the most heated topic in this otherwise tepid reporting period. So let us dispense with it immediately.

Again, since this is really much ado about nothing, a few words will suffice: Iran and Iraq have withdrawn their names from the alphabetically order of succession to the presidency. Italy and Japan will now preside in their place toward the end of the CD year (July and August).

Iraq Decides Not to Assume the CD Presidency

So, what led Iran and Iraq to decide not to assume the conference chair - their last chance to do so, based on the current membership of 66 states, for ten years? General questions about appropriate holders of chairs in the UN system began to be raised - vociferously by the United States - in January, when Libya was elected to chair the 59th Session of the Human Rights Commission in Geneva. It was not long before inquisitive reporters noted the ironic prospect of the Conference on Disarmament being presided over by Iraq, user of chemical weapons, invader of Kuwait, and violator of numerous UN Security Council resolutions. On January 20, the Geneva Tribune ran a front-page cartoon of the CD's front bench with the 2003 presidential line up, featuring a naked Saddam Hussein, his private parts covered by the "CD President" plaque kindly held in place by a turbaned mullah. The Canadian daily The Globe and Mail ran a story on the subject1, as did Canadian Broadcasting Company radio and National Public Radio in New York. Soon, White House spokespersons were being questioned on the matter, and the US delegation to the CD raised the issue as a matter of urgency in the Western Group.

Depriving Iraq of the presidency against its will would have required a change in the rules of procedure. Article VI of the CD's Rules of Procedure states that the "Conference shall conduct its work and adopt its decisions by consensus." However, in 1996, 23 states were admitted to membership of the Conference on the written understanding that they could not block consensus if they were under Chapter VII action by the Security Council.2 Thus, Iraq alone could not have blocked a change of rules designed to enable its ouster from the rotation. It seemed unlikely, however, that all other members of the CD would be happy to line up against Iraq. Recall that Israel is also due to assume the presidency this year; it seemed highly unlikely that the Arab states in Conference would be prepared to unite to bar Iraq from the chair while Israel was sheltered from any such action.

Early on in the session, Iran voluntarily relinquished its place in line, citing practical difficulties for its delegation. This only made the situation worse. Instead of presiding for four consecutive weeks, Iraq would now preside from the end of the Winter session to the beginning of the Summer session, i.e. from March 17 to May 23. Despite this unhappy prospect, many countries in the Western Group were wary of the potentially negative effect - further polarizing an already divided forum - of any effort to change the rules of procedure. In Western Group discussions, Sweden suggested that the only chance for a successful outcome might lie in the drastic remedy of an enforced consensus: a settlement imposed by the only body with the authority to do so, the UN Security Council. If the Council adopted a resolution that (among other things, of course) called on member states to prevent Iraq from assuming positions of special responsibility in international bodies while it was under Chapter VII action, there would presumably be a good chance that the CD would feel obliged to apply this injunction to its own presidency. Perhaps the prospect of being cornered in this way would induce Iraq to follow Iran's "example" and pass up its opportunity as well.

The potential crisis - however minor in comparison to the looming prospect of war in the Persian Gulf - came to an abrupt end on February 3 when Iraq informed the CD's Secretariat in Geneva that it would indeed pass up its turn as president. It is perhaps revealing that notice was also given at UN Headquarters in New York. Reliable sources say there had been a phone call from the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, to Iraq's UN Ambassador, Mohammed Aldouri. Under the prevailing circumstances of divisions among the Western powers over a possible war, Baghdad probably recognised it had nothing to gain by pressing an issue on which the West was united against it.

Future of the CD in Doubt?

In the end, then, the CD was spared a sorry spectacle. At this point, however, it is largely immaterial who is presiding at the Conference since no substantive work is being carried out and there is little prospect of a resumption of meaningful activity in the near future. A fight over the presidency would have essentially been a diversion from the central - indeed existential - question facing the CD: does it still serve any useful function?

What does one make of a body, attended by 66 nations, in which - as happened during the scheduled plenary on February 6 - not one country wishes to take the floor? How does one appraise a forum where, when delegates do address each other, more often than not it is to report on disarmament progress elsewhere? The CD is often inaccurately referred to as the world's "sole" multilateral negotiating body on disarmament. Actually, in founding it, the First Special Session of the UN General Assembly on Disarmament called it a "single" forum (A/RES/S-10/2), in the sense that the entire scope of disarmament issues could legitimately be addressed under a single roof. Of course, there was no way of prohibiting other fora from taking up disarmament issues, and that is quite naturally what has happened in many cases over the years.

Perhaps the most important tendency in the current, deadlocked CD is that - off the record - profound questions are being asked about the role of the institution itself. This trend has been building for several years. With the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review process now well underway, preparing for the next Review Conference of the Treaty in 2005, delegations are beginning to view that date as an equally crucial, potentially make-or-break, year for the CD. The CD is clearly incapable of resolving its current impasse on its own. The faint hope is that a vibrant NPT review process over the next two years, culminating in the next Review Conference, will be able to instil a new sense of life and common purpose upon the CD.

In 2000, the NPT Review processes reached consensus to advance three issues within the CD: a fissile material (production) cut-off treaty (FMCT, or fissban), negative security assurances (NSAs), and nuclear disarmament. The Review also called for the preservation of the ABM treaty. With the US abrogation of the ABM, many members of the CD feel that the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS) must fill the void. The United States, determined to find a means of defending against missile attack, views PAROS as a source of potential obstacles to that project. The 2000 Review was silent on PAROS; the hope is that the 2005 Review will speak with a united voiced on PAROS. We proceed then to take up the CD's current difficulties with this issue.

Work Programme Efforts

Discussions on a work programme for the Conference continued where they left off last year.3 To recapitulate briefly, since the conclusion of negotiations for a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996, all four potential CD work items mentioned above have become strongly linked. The sticking point has been the status of work to be conducted in each of these areas. There is broad agreement, along the lines recommended by the 2000 NPT review Conference, that the FMCT should be subject to negotiations, and that NSAs and nuclear disarmament should be discussed without prejudice as to whether legally binding instruments should result. Disagreement centres on the mandate for PAROS. China is adamant that a treaty should be the objective; the US is adamant that it should not. Unfortunately, neither is willing to discuss the matter unless its position on negotiations is made explicit in any mandate to be adopted by the Conference.

At the end of last year's session, a cross-group coalition of five CD ambassadors tried - in what became known as the "Past Presidents' Initiative" - to split the US-China difference.4 Their proposal, now customarily referred to for short as the "A5 Proposal", was formally submitted and immediately gathered a host of endorsements. It is now officially known as "document CD/1692". On PAROS, it calls for examining, "without prejudice, any specific topic or proposals, which could include...treaty commitments..." In 2002, however, China had agreed that it would agree to PAROS discussions this year as long as they were conducted "with a view to negotiations." As the US had not, in the interim, made a counter-concession, China was not inclined to give fresh ground and move into the softer territory of the A5 formula.

Under these circumstances, the five ambassadors were not expecting the CD to unanimously adopt the proposal. All along, there have been misgivings that several other countries, not keen to see work begin in certain areas, have been keeping happily out of view behind the US-China impasse. What the A5 hoped to demonstrate was that no one besides China and the United States opposed its proposal. A number of countries strongly intimated exactly this on the floor of the CD. A classic example of subtly zeroing in on the US and China was provided on January 28 by Italian Deputy Ambassador Angelo Persiani: "The deadlock that has afflicted the Conference for so long is not due to the inflexibility of the great majority of the states represented here. Quite the contrary. What is needed by those who might still have difficulties with the text is to come forward with their motivations and alternatives". Italy applauds "as a first step", Persiani added, "the recent political consultations held in Beijing between the United States and China. It expects in fact that the major players will honour their high responsibilities in front of the international community and history with an intensified political dialogue."5

Since no third country has publicly aligned itself against the A5 proposal, the case for identifying the US and China as standing in sole opposition would appear to have been made.6 If the A5 demonstrated how near the CD was to consensus, Ambassador Sood used several informal (closed) sessions to underscore that the United States and China were not far enough apart to warrant continued deadlock. If the Americans were worried that "discussion with a view to negotiations" on PAROS would automatically lead to such negotiations, Sood pointed to earlier, comparable CD mandates that had not. Conversely, if the Chinese were worried that not mentioning the prospect of negotiations would automatically preclude them from taking place, he likewise provided similar counterexamples from the historical record. That neither the US nor China were swayed by these arguments left the strong and frustrating impression that neither state really cared whether the CD reached agreement on a work programme or not.

As alluded to above by Angelo Persiani, shortly before the opening of the CD on January 20, John Bolton, US Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, had visited Beijing. Although the CD impasse was rumored to be on the agenda, there was no hint of progress in Geneva. For the final plenary meeting of the India Presidency (February 13), Bolton's deputy, Stephen Rademaker, came to town. It was hardly a courtesy call - more a scolding. Championing "effective" multilateralism, Rademaker warned the delegates that they were in danger of making the CD irrelevant.7 Rademaker proceeded to define effective multilateralism in the CD context: "We should negotiate on matters that all agree are ripe for negotiation" - a clear reference to the FMCT - "while informally exploring other issues until CD members can reach some common ground that could lead to further progress on those issues." The poison word here, of course, is "informally." The A5 proposal would establish formal ad hoc sub-committees to address PAROS, NSAs, and nuclear disarmament. This was cold water indeed for those nurturing the faint hope that the A5 proposal could serve as a basis of compromise.

This year, the United States is the only delegation in the CD not represented at the ambassadorial level. Rademaker's explanation of this situation only rubbed salt in the wound: "As an indication of our faith in the future of the OPCW [Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons], Secretary of State [Colin] Powell decided to significantly upgrade our diplomatic representation by assigning Ambassador Eric Javits to The Hague. ... As we have made clear from the moment this decision was announced, we will appoint a replacement representative to the CD." In point of fact, Javits's appointment to The Hague has yet to be confirmed by the US Senate, and no one has been nominated to replace him at the CD.

The Status of North Korea's Withdrawal from the NPT

The NPT, concluded in 1968, is the child of the CD's precursor in Geneva, the Eighteen-Nation Disarmament Committee (ENDC). Since it has its own mechanisms for internal deliberation - the five-yearly review process - it is not normally discussed in the CD. On January 30, however, the Ambassador of Argentina, Horacio Solari, referred in passing to North Korea's "intention", announced by Pyongyang on January 10, to withdraw from the Treaty. The North Korean delegate could not let this point go unchallenged, insisting that the withdrawal from the NPT had taken effect on January 11, and was thus no longer a question of "intention." The North Korean position is that the 89 days it counted down in 1993 - when it also declared its intent to withdraw from the NPT - meant that only one more day was needed to fulfill the 90-day notification requirement set out in Article X of the treaty. Sweden's Ambassador, Henrik Salander, took the floor in his capacity as the current chair of the NPT Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) to say that North Korea could not withdraw on a single day's notice. In his recent consultations with the parties to the treaty he had found full agreement among states that had studied the legal aspect of the issue that North Korea's withdrawal could not take effect in less than 90 days, i.e. before April 10. Perhaps, as in 1993, the remaining time can be used to avert the withdrawal taking legal effect. Withdrawal provisions often include notifications period specifically to provide a cooling-off period during which the momentous decision can ideally be rescinded.

A significant aspect of this question is that North Korea remains legally bound by its Safeguard Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) until its withdrawal from the NPT takes affect. While it is not the IAEA's function to render a verdict on North Korea's NPT status - a matter which is the prerogative of the NPT states parties - to date no state party other than North Korea has questioned the position as set out by the chair of the PrepCom. Unfortunately, the media is largely indifferent to these crucial legal technicalities and continues to treat the North Korea withdrawal as if it were a fait accompli.

Other Meetings and Developments

On January 23, Kanwal Sibal, the Indian Foreign Secretary, spoke at both the CD and the Geneva Forum.8 It is not uncommon for a high-level official to attend the Conference during a country's presidency as a gesture of support to the institution and the work of its own delegation. India was clearly also using this occasion to promote the "legitimacy" of its nuclear-weapon status. While the Foreign Secretary was not challenged on this score at the CD (by tradition ministers depart immediately after speaking), a number of penetrating questions were posed at the Forum.

In December 2002, the German Foreign Ministry, in conjunction with the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) and the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), held a two-day conference in the CD meeting hall on nuclear arms control and terrorism, with a special emphasis on radiological weapons.9 This theme raised the question of whether the CD might want to negotiate a ban on such weapons. It is widely believed, however, that only non-state actors are really interested in such weapons; thus, the main challenge is ensuring they do not obtain the materials for making them, an issue that would more properly fall under the purview of the IAEA than the CD.

CD Annual Session 2003:

First Part: January 20-March 28
Second Part: May 12-June 27.
Third Part: July 28-September 10.

Notes and References

1. Iraq to lead UN Disarmament Committee, The Globe and Mail, January 22.

2. The expansion decision is contained in CD/1406, June 17, 1996. In a separate letter, dated June 12 and issued as CD/1407 (June 17), all the new members of the Conference made a "solemn commitment" to "not individually obstruct any action of the Conference" if all other members have reached a consensus. To avoid a permanent distinction in this regard between the rights of new and old members, the letter continues: "This commitment shall cease to apply if there is a consensus decision in the Conference on Disarmament that the circumstances which had given rise to the situation requiring this solemn commitment no longer exists. In addition, for any state of the above-mentioned states not subject to comprehensive enforcement measures under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, on a date two years from the date of the decision, this commitment shall cease to apply with respect to such states as of that date." UN sanctions against Iraq were imposed under Chapter VII of the UN Charter ("Action With Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression") following the invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

3. For a summary and analysis of last year's deliberations - including the full text of the "Past Presidents' Initiative" - see Rebecca Johnson, 'CD Closes 2002 Still Deadlocked', Disarmament Diplomacy No. 67, pp. 17-22.

4. The five Ambassadors, all of whom had served as Presidents of the Conference, were: Mohamed Salah Dembri (Algeria), Jean Lint (Belgium), Camilo Reyes (Colombia), Henrik Salander (Sweden), Juan Enrique Vega (Chile).

5. Representatives of Netherlands, Italy address Conference on Disarmament, UN News Service, January 28, http://www.unog.ch/news2/documents/newsen/dc03053.htm.

6. According to sources, before the A5 proposal was formally submitted, France - off the CD record - took some swipes at it. France has, however, been silent its formal submission.

7. 'The Commitment of the United States to Effective Multilateralism', statement by US Assistant Secretary of State Stephen G. Rademaker, February 13; see 'Disarmament Documentation: February 2003', Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy, http://www.acronym.org.uk/docs/0302/doc17.htm.

8. For a summary of the Foreign Secretary's speech at the CD, see 'Five Ambassadors' formally present Commission on Disarmament with proposal for achieving programme of work, UN News Service, February 23, http://www.unog.ch/news2/documents/newsen/dc0304e.htm. For the Secretary's address to the Geneva Forum, see the UNIDIR website, http://www.unidir.ch/html/en/geneva_forum.html.

9. 'International Cooperation in the Combat Against Nuclear Terrorism and the Role of Nuclear Arms Control', Conference organised by UNIDIR, the Federal Foreign Office of Germany, and the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt), Geneva, December 17-18; for a conference report and related documentation, see the UNIDIR website, http://www.unidir.ch.

Aaron Tovish is Director of the "In Defense of the NPT" Project of the Geneva NGO Committee on Disarmament, and Representative to the UN Offices in Geneva for the Middle Power Initiative (MPI). For comprehensive supporting documentation, please see the United Nations, http://disarmament.un.org/cd, and the 'Reaching Critical Will' website of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/cd/cdindex.html.

Back to the Top of the Page

© 2002 The Acronym Institute.