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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 53, December 2000 - January 2001

Breaking the CD Impasse: Statements by Vladimir Petrovsky And Rebecca Johnson


In Geneva on November 30, the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) and the Canadian government convened a meeting of arms control experts, CD delegates and officials on the subject of 'Breaking the CD Impasse'. Below, we feature, with kind permission, edited versions of statements presented to the meeting by Vladimir Petrovsky, Director-General of the United Nations Office in Geneva and the Secretary-General of the Conference on Disarmament, and Rebecca Johnson, Executive Director of the Acronym Institute.

Statement by Vladimir Petrovsky

It gives me great pleasure to take part in this distinguished gathering today and to address various challenges facing the Conference on Disarmament on the eve of its 2001 session and, in particular, on ways and means of preparing the ground for the smooth start of the session. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the organizers, Ambassador Christopher Westdal of Canada and Dr. Patricia Lewis, Director of UNIDIR, for this timely initiative. This meeting is yet another example of the commitment of the diplomatic community, research institutions and non-governmental organizations to the noble cause of arms regulation and disarmament.

Before turning to the main subject of this meeting, namely to addressing the present deadlock in the Conference on Disarmament, it would be appropriate and advisable, in my opinion, to make some remarks on the mandate and methods of work of the Conference. This will allow us to establish some parameters ensuring our discussion will be constructive and thought-provoking, and its results stimulating for the members of the Conference when they meet in January at the 2001 session.

The Conference on Disarmament emerged from the decisions taken by the First Special Session of the General Assembly devoted to disarmament, held in 1978. The terms of reference of this new multilateral body of limited size, which until 1984 was called the Committee on Disarmament, were set up in Paragraph 120 of the Final Document. In accordance with provisions of this paragraph, the Conference on Disarmament, inter alia: (a) conducts its work by consensus; (b) adopts its own rules of procedure; (c) adopts its own agenda taking into account the recommendations made to it by the General Assembly and the proposals presented by the members of the Conference; (d) submits its reports to the General Assembly annually or more frequently, as may be appropriate; and (e) opens its plenary meetings to the public unless otherwise decided. The Secretary-General of the Conference is appointed directly by the Secretary-General of the United Nations in consultations with the CD's members, and acts as his personal representative.

Originally, when it started in 1979, the Conference on Disarmament was composed of 40 members (including the five nuclear-weapon states). In 1996 it expanded its membership to 61 members and in 1999 to 66 members. As a result, the membership of the Conference is politically and geographically balanced and includes all militarily significant States. Over the years, the Conference has also been engaged in improving its procedures and working methods and made a number of recommendations to this effect. Accordingly, the Conference is constantly evolving and adjusting its procedures.

It is important to keep in mind some basic facts while reviewing the activities of the Conference on Disarmament. Firstly, it is an autonomous body, although it also has a unique relationship with the United Nations; secondly, it emerged as a crucial element of disarmament machinery agreed, by consensus, by the General Assembly at its Special Session; and thirdly, year after year its status as the single multilateral disarmament negotiating forum of the international community and its primary role in substantive negotiations on priority questions of disarmament is unanimously recognised and reaffirmed by the General Assembly. It has also been the case this year, at the 55th session of the United Nations General Assembly. It goes without saying that indeed the Conference on Disarmament has become a solid component of multilateral diplomacy.

We must also see the work of the Conference on Disarmament in the context of profound transformations in international relations following the end of the Cold War which have brought new opportunities as well as new challenges for disarmament and arms regulation.

The 1990s saw major breakthroughs in the field of arms control and disarmament. The nuclear arms race between the superpowers ended and gave way to the process of reductions of nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was extended indefinitely. Negotiations on the strengthening of the operation of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention began. And the Conference on Disarmament concluded two treaties - the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.

These achievements have raised the expectations of the international community to an unprecedented level. That is why new signs of the slowdown, or, as some perceive it, the stalemate in the Conference on Disarmament, although such a situation has arisen before, has provoked a legitimate wave of concern around the world. In the view of many political analysts, such a stalemate should not take place in the post-Cold War international climate. What has gone wrong? What are the possible remedies? Such questions have been asked before, and are being asked with increasing emphasis and urgency now.

A number of diagnoses have already been offered in this regard. In my opinion, the problem is not the CD's agenda, its rules of procedure or its decision-making process. Neither is it the informal system of political groups which, by the way, does not exist at all in the rules of the procedure of the Conference. Of course, there is always a room for improvement in all these areas. The problem, however, is much more complicated and can be attributed to a fundamental divergence of views on the disarmament priorities after the end of the Cold War. One can also argue that these priorities, rather stable before, are now undergoing constant changes. One of the driving forces behind this phenomenon is the evolution of a new perception of security among the main actors which, in turn, determines their priorities in the field of disarmament. In reality, the world is still divided into exclusive spheres of security and the concept of indivisible international peace and security, included in the Charter of the United Nations, remains an ultimate and distant goal. The result is obvious, and troublesome - different priorities for different states.

Does this mean that nothing is happening in the Conference on Disarmament? I could not agree with such an assessment. Year after year, even before the start of an annual session, both the current and incoming Presidents are conducting intensive consultations to strike a balance between different priorities; in other words, they are engaged in preparing the ground for an agreement on a so-called programme of work. For the last two years such an agreement has eluded the Conference, despite endless consultations carried out by the successive Presidents and the presentation by them, as well as by a number of states or groups of states, of numerous carefully drafted proposals. Consequently, in the absence of a forum better fitted to perform this function, such as, for example, another United Nations Special Session on Disarmament, the Conference is in fact negotiating, in various settings and in many cases behind the scene, on priorities in the field of disarmament. The Conference provides ample opportunity for holding bilateral and plurilateral, as well as multilateral, talks among disarmament experts representing member states and observers.

The main problem facing the Conference is how to start substantive work on a set of issues regarded as priorities by its member states. Three such priorities have been identified: nuclear disarmament, prohibition of the production of fissile material for weapon purposes, and prevention of an arms race in outer space. While there is an agreement on modalities concerning negotiations on the ban on the production of fissile material for weapons purposes, agreement on the mandates and appropriate mechanisms for dealing with the other two items remains elusive.

In my opinion, controversies surrounding the two outstanding issues remind us, regrettably, of the mentality of the Cold War, when all the problems were tightly linked and an "all or nothing" rule guided the negotiations. In the new political situation, characterized by the recognition of the necessity of solving international issues through multilateral efforts, a new approach is needed, namely a comprehensive and balanced approach to all the priority issues. I am also convinced that a new tactic should be applied in dealing with these issues. It is important to avoid a situation where progress in one area is made contingent upon progress in another. The relics of the Cold War mentality and tactic of linkages should be replaced by constructive parallelism with regard to all priorities on the disarmament agenda. The potential advantage of this approach is that progress in one area can stimulate progress in another. At some point it may be possible to identify whether any of the issues under negotiation are ripe for conclusion. Treaty-making is the highest stage of negotiations. What is required is the display, by all members of the Conference, of a spirit of compromise and cooperation which would allow to take into consideration the concerns of all.

Let me quote UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who, addressing a conference on "The Second Nuclear Age and the Academy" in New York on November 17, said: "We who put our faith in multilateral cooperation, including among rivals and former rivals; we who believe in international institutions, global norms and legal frameworks; we who believe in the power of enlightened self-interest - we have a burden. For disarmament is not self-sustaining. It is not for lack of machinery that we still have so far to go along this path. What we are missing is the will to use that machinery."

I would only add that here, in Geneva, we have at our disposal a good, modern car, ready to be used; we have excellent, skillful drivers, but the road ahead is blocked by the lack of political will.

Geneva, indeed, has become the "disarmament capital of the world". No other city is so saturated with the top disarmament experts, working in permanent missions, various research institutes and non-governmental organizations. Among the Members of the Conference on Disarmament, 15 states maintain missions dealing exclusively with disarmament, headed by ambassadors for disarmament. A number of delegates to the Conference are graduates of the United Nations Programme of Fellowships on Disarmament, which is run by the Geneva Branch of the Department for Disarmament Affairs. This enormous potential must be preserved and nourished. And this potential must be used by the Conference on Disarmament.

Finally, I would like to address some views and opinions concerning the possibility of dissolving the Conference if it is not able to "deliver results in the foreseeable future" and setting up an alternative forum based, for example, on the "like-minded" concept. First of all, it is my considered view that replacing the Conference on Disarmament with another negotiating mechanism will not automatically solve the problems it faces now. As has been pointed out on many occasions, the existing fundamental divergence of views on priorities on the international disarmament agenda and specific security concerns of states will not disappear with the dissolving of the particular institution within which those views diverge and clash. Secondly, the main difference between the Conference on Disarmament and any negotiating body based on the "like-minded" concept is that the latter, by definition, excludes some states which do not consider themselves as "like-minded" but whose participation is crucial for the meaningful outcome of negotiations. We must admit that there are issues that can only be solved by the multilateral disarmament negotiating body of international community, that is, by the Conference on Disarmament. At the same time I may agree that there could be cases in the future, although at this stage I cannot identify them, in which the "like-minded" concept of fast-track negotiations, could be used. The idea of constructive parallelism allows both mechanisms to co-exist.

Last but not least, I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the proactive role of UNIDIR, other research institutes represented here as well as non-governmental organizations involved in disarmament efforts. We all appreciate your active interaction with the Conference on Disarmament by organizing symposia and conferences on the most pressing issues concerning disarmament and international security, and by providing delegations with well researched, up-to-date information on issues under consideration. We also recognise your role in generating, among civil society, political support for all types of disarmament measures. I wish you success in your deliberations.

Statement by Rebecca Johnson

Causes of Stalemate, Options for Change

I am grateful to Mr. Petrovsky for his comprehensive and positive overview of the Conference on Disarmament, which should be borne in mind when I make my more negative remarks. I agree that the CD has an important role to play in multilateral disarmament negotiations, but I have been given the task of addressing the problems, so my paper will focus more on what is wrong, why, and what can be done about it.

At the heart of the impasse in the CD is lack of clarity or agreement about the role of the Conference, its relationship with the United Nations, and the strengths and weaknesses of its decision-making structures. The underlying causes are both structural and political.

The CD is a multilateral body of rival regional and international powers which, according to its rules of procedure, must decide practically everything by consensus. But for consensus to have any meaning, there must be effective procedures for the individuals in the group to register their views of support, opposition, acquiescence or even attitudes of 'don't know/don't care'. The rotating presidency and Bureau and the system of Western, Eastern European and Non-Aligned (G-21) groups, plus China, were together supposed to manage the flow of information, views and decision-taking.

As the four years since conclusion of the CTBT have shown, competing political interests within the groups and between a small number of dominant states have paralysed the CD. This is a political fact, but are there ways in which the structures could facilitate solutions rather than, as is presently the case, magnify the power of the negative?

In trying to understand the underlying causes, it is important briefly to consider the genealogy: the origins of the CD are in the Ten Nation Committee on Disarmament (1959-60), then the Eighteen Nation Committee on Disarmament (1962-69). The first Committees were set up with the United States and Soviet Union as co-chairs, but expanded to include other governments, including, significantly, a number of non-aligned countries. At first the Committee was instructed by the UN General Assembly, and reported back to it. The Conference of the Committee on Disarmament (1969-78) was given more permanent establishment. At the time of the first UN Special Session on Disarmament (UNSSOD I) in 1978, the Geneva Disarmament Committee was expanded to 40 members, including the five acknowledged nuclear-weapon states, with an agenda based on a 'decalogue' of ten priorities identified by SSOD I. As some European countries changed character during the 1990s this number fluctuated down to 38 and then was increased to 61 when the CD finally admitted the 'O'Sullivan list' of 23 countries in 1996. Following a decision in late 1999 to admit another five states, the CD's membership reached its present number of 66.

The rotating chair/presidency of the conference, long advocated by that great ambassador for Sweden, Alva Myrdal, was not introduced until 1978. It must be remembered that it was the United States and Soviet Union who insisted that the Conference must take its decisions by consensus. In short, the CD arose out of successive mechanisms which had the superpowers and acknowledged nuclear weapon states at the centre, defending their interests and hoping, through the conference, to gain some international legitimacy for their joint decisions and, as things developed, to establish norms. Though it also developed into a mechanism for other states to try to exert diplomatic pressure on the major powers for disarmament and, in some cases, to air views on international and regional security issues, the CD was never based on equality of representation and power.

No wonder it's so difficult. John Gerard Ruggie once wrote that multilateralism was a "highly demanding form".1 For arms control, that was an understatement! Multilateralism requires governments to place long term, collective objectives and benefits above short-term gain or national advantage. The nuclear age is also the age of mass media. Democratic politics has become increasingly corporate-funded, with government by public relations. Attention spans appear to have grown shorter, and 30 second soundbites might be long enough to spin the illusion of national missile defence as a perfectly protective force field, à la Star Trek, but not to explain the complicated implications and alternatives. Citizens are treated like consumers, encouraged to expect (and to chase after) instant gratification or safety. In countries where the weapons manufacturers and sellers play a major role in the corporate sector, determined to expand international as well as national markets, there is heavy pressure towards reliance on military and technological approaches to security problems. Such circumstances are not conducive to politicians making the case for collective security regimes and the longer-term benefits of mutual arms control and disarmament. In non-democracies, the governments are usually run by military elites or leaders dependent on the military in one form or another. Government-controlled media are employed to manipulate people's expectations, convincing them that their security will depend on national military strength.

Multilateralism, however, says you can't go it alone, no matter how big and strong you think you are. Multilateralism requires you to cooperate with others, including some who are very different from you and whom you don't much like or trust. Multilateralism seeks to put in place collective systems and technologies for mutual monitoring and verification, and at its heart is the message that you need to work with others and restrict some of your national options and free exercise of power in order to ensure greater security and wellbeing for all. It takes effective leadership to convince people that this isn't just altruism, but that your national security is better served under conditions of collective security. Multilateralism also works best when there is a degree of partnership between political and civil society, government and non-government.

The Cold War security compact was based on the threat of mutual annihilation, leading to an expensive, unstable balance of terror that miraculously staved off nuclear war for forty-five years. When the Cold War began to thaw, there was talk of a multipolar world and a revival of interest in collective security regimes. Multilateral negotiations in the CD delivered conclusion of the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1992 and the CTBT in 1996. In 1995 the CD agreed by consensus a mandate to negotiate a ban on the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons. But then it got stuck.

Structural Issues

I would identify four principle structural questions that need to be addressed and remedied:

i) Consensus needs to be overhauled - not done away with completely, but lifted as a requirement for a range of procedural issues, and provided with mechanisms to get around persistent deadlock;

ii) The group system is no longer a useful reflection of political alliances or mechanism for facilitating agreements;

iii) It is an anachronism for the CD's entire agenda and work programme to have to be re-adopted each year;

iv) The role of civil society should be enhanced - NGOs should not be treated as supplicants begging for attention at the edges, but as partners in accountability, providing more open and effective mechanisms for enabling wider expertise and ideas to be fed into governmental and intergovernmental deliberations. No government has such a monopoly on right-thinking, resources and expertise that it can afford to ignore what is being said and done on the ground.

i) Consensus

Rule 18 of the CD rules of procedure states that "The Conference shall conduct its work and adopt its decisions by consensus." This formal requirement was established principally as a demand from the nuclear powers, in particular the United States, who wanted to ensure that no alliance or majority of states could vote against what the US deemed to be its interests, as increasingly occurred in the United Nations General Assembly and some of its bodies.

Consensus, however, does not need to make decision-making entirely vulnerable to arbitrary vetoes. There are a number of concepts of consensus. The Quakers believe in consensus as a way to ensure that all have participated, each has had his or her say and so each feels that they have been heard. There is thus a sense of responsibility and ownership with regard to decisions, even if not all are in full agreement. But mindful of the power that consensus can give to disaffected or isolated individuals to impose their will on the rest without good cause or reason, the Quakers also developed ways and means for addressing or sidelining unreasonable attempts to exercise a veto.

Where Quaker consensus not only requires talking a disagreement through, often in the round, it also provides mechanisms for ensuring that there is no paralysis of decision-making. As is the practice in the United Nations General Assembly and Committees, for example, there are ways in which dissent from a decision can be registered without blocking with a veto. Furthermore, whoever has sufficient difficulty with a decision as to wish to block is required to be open about it and state their reasons to the group, who then attempt to find ways to address or allay the concerns.

The way in which the CD has chosen to implement the rule of consensus - and there is a choice being exercised here - gives a veto to every member, a charter for the unreasonable or illegitimate to prevent positive collective action. Objectors are not obliged to give their reasons for opposing, and indeed, the structure of decision-making in the CD makes it very easy for objectors to hide behind other colleagues and get away with spurious arguments that would never stand up to the light of collective scrutiny. The group system means that coordinators report to the President that the group has been unable to agree a proposal without any individual objector having to take responsibility or give their reasons for blocking the CD. The consequence is that whispers and rumours among delegations about the decision-taking in another group or the motivations of a supposed objector replace the open and informed discussion about the problems and possible solutions that make Quaker consensus so much more practical to achieve. The CD is thus turned into what a former Spanish ambassador, Martinez Marcello, called a "gathering of loners".2

At present, it is assumed that rule 18 means that all the work of the CD has to be conducted by consensus: acceptance of presidential proposals, agenda, programme of work, individual ad hoc committees and coordinators - the lot! It is assumed, but not written, that all procedural as well as substantive issues necessarily demand consensus of the tightest kind. From this we end up not only with vetoes but with the assertion of various kinds of linkages allowing any government to insist that until its priority issue is dealt with (which may or may not be relevant to any other item on the agenda) other work will not go forward. Regional adversaries play off against one another, the groups play against each other, and multilateralism as a whole (and the CD in particular) is the loser.

The CD deals with weapons systems, arms control and disarmament, the issues traditionally viewed as closest to national security concerns. It is acknowledged that states need to know that they have full input in determining the text and small print of agreements which will affect their national security interests. While recognising that no state could be expected to be treaty-bound by decisions taken by others and with which it had not agreed, why should individual interests be allowed to block a collective process of work? The rule of consensus is important for the process of negotiations but requiring full agreement in order to start or continue work each year creates unnecessary hostages. Substantive problems have a better chance of being dealt with in the context of actual negotiations than prior to their commencement. A state can always retain the right not to participate in CD negotiations or to stand aside from any decision or undertaking and refuse to sign any formalised agreement. Those states that do wish to start negotiating on the basis of an agreed mandate or adopt a negotiated treaty should not be prevented from doing so by the particular national interests of one or a few states. Rather than be left behind, many if not all of the reluctant states may find it expedient to join in once the process is underway.

Considering two fundamental questions could help us develop a more accountable process.

  • To whom are the 66 CD member states responsible?
  • What is the relationship between the CD and the United Nations and does this need to be clarified, reformulated or made more accountable?

Three years ago, I put forward the argument that the CD should be more accountable to the United Nations. Yes, I know the CD is not a UN body; but from the very beginning it took instructions from the UN General Assembly and reported back to it. The CD meets on UN premises, its budget is included in the UN budget, and it is serviced by a secretariat of UN staff. Moreover, the Secretary-General of the CD is appointed by the UN Secretary General and acts as his personal representative. So the link with the UN is very advantageous for the CD. Isn't it time that the 66-member CD were made structurally more accountable to the UN as a whole? In Disarmament Diplomacy in 1997, I outlined a mechanism whereby the UN would be given a role once the CD had gone as far as it could in getting a programme or work or adopting a negotiated treaty or agreement.3 It is worth at least giving such suggestions a second look.

ii) Groups

The Cold War group system does not work and should be replaced with something more appropriate. This has become increasingly apparent at the CD and other fora since the early '90s and I am sure I do not need to labour the argument. The group system is customary only, and would not require any changes in the rules of procedure. The rules require the President to consult but do not specify who or how. For the purposes of rotating posts, a regional model would do as well. For the purposes of managing decision-making, however, it may be that strictly regional groupings would be unacceptable to some states. A looser structure based on roughly equal alliances (which might vary for different issues) could operate instead, with each group selecting a spokesperson to represent them in the Bureau, still keeping the Bureau numerically small and ensuring a more accountable mechanism for consulting and transmitting proposals and views.

iii) Adopting the Work Programme

Fearful that issues it did not want to address would become permanently tied to the CD like a millstone, the founding members made it a rule that the agenda and work programme would be adopted anew each year. That requirement is now one of the principal causes of the CD's loss of credibility.

By 1998, frustration was rising with the failure of the CD to adopt a work programme enabling the long-awaited fissban to go ahead. As Special Coordinator for the 'improved and effective functioning of the CD' that year, Ambassador Javier Illanes of Chile made a valiant attempt to address the problems. He canvassed views on having standing committees of a more or less permanent bases. Though there was interest, some feared this could overload the Conference with 'make work' on ideological footballs. He also suggested that the ad hoc committees and special coordinators which had been established one year should, either automatically, or subject to recommendation by the outgoing CD, be continued until the CD agreed on the following year's agenda. There was considerable interest in this, but despite his best efforts, Illanes could not boost the interest into a decision.4

At the time, I had been canvassing a slightly different option, receiving significant interest as well: once the CD agreed a mandate to negotiate on an issue, that committee should be automatically renewed each year until it had fulfilled its mandate (i.e. concluded the intended agreement or treaty) or the CD decided by consensus to terminate the mandate (as might happen if political conditions shifted sufficiently to make the measure irrelevant or put it out of reach). Other parts of the work programme could still be made subject to annual discussion and agreement, if desired. Such an option could prevent interruptions to negotiations, once started, without affecting decisions on other aspects of the work programme, where priorities and possibilities year by year may be subject to change.5

iv) Civil Society

It is time that non-governmental organisations were granted observer status at disarmament meetings under UN auspices, including the CD. NGOs should have an acknowledged role similar to that provided in other fora, such as those addressing human rights and the environment. I think the work of NGOs in the disarmament field has earned us the right to participate in meetings as observers, with the rights and privileges - but also, and we need to work this out - responsibilities and accountability that goes with being accorded full observer status.

Political Issues

The structural problems are capable of solution, with a little more imagination and political will. The underlying political causes are much more problematic.

At the heart of the present impasse is US planning for national missile defence. Until 1999, the major obstacle to getting fissban negotiations underway revolved around the question of stocks and whether the primary purpose of the treaty was to augment non-proliferation or nuclear disarmament. The principal reluctant states were Israel, Pakistan, and to a lesser extent India - all of whom wanted either to continue fissile material production for as long as possible or they wanted to avoid the scrutiny that would come with verification questions. As a trade-off for accepting cut-off negotiations that would not necessarily deal with stocks, a number of non-aligned states pushed for a CD committee or working group on nuclear disarmament as well. Though the United States was markedly reluctant, this linkage appeared close to resolution in 1998, and it appeared that fissban negotiations would get underway in earnest.

After President Clinton's January 1999 decision to let funding and testing for NMD research go ahead, however, China took centre stage at the CD, blocking agreement on a work programme unless the issue 'Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space' (PAROS) was treated equally with a fissban. The United States refused, offering only talks about talks about outer space issues. China's linkage of the fissban with PAROS since 1999 has been a way of trying to exert pressure on the United States over NMD, but may also be directly connected with the growing concern - which a number of states share with China - that the United States will seek to extend its military dominance into space, with NMD as a first step.

This is where the political and structural join up. Just because the US is keen to deploy NMD, and perhaps to develop its space-based military capabilities, why should it be able to block the CD from discussing concerns shared by practically everyone else, nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states alike? Similarly, just because China, a nuclear power, feels that its medium-sized arsenal could be overwhelmed by NMD and so might want to keep its options open to expand, why should such a nuclearised state - or, for that matter, Israel or Pakistan, which delayed agreement before - have the power to prevent the rest of the world from negotiating a desperately needed treaty banning fissile materials production? Asking the permission of the proliferators (both extant and wannabe) plays into their hands, giving them additional status and power if they choose to block what they don't like or are not yet ready to do, thus making the 'realist' assumptions into a self-fulfilling prophesy. It doesn't have to be that way.

Secondary problems are associated with the fissban itself, the only issue for which there is a negotiating mandate already agreed, and therefore a declared priority. But is it a priority of the whole international community, as represented by the CD? Hardly. And here we come to another underlying cause of CD difficulties - the tension between arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament. This applies to some degree to all weapons, but especially nuclear, where there are disconnects and philosophically and practically different requirements depending on whether the objective and context is disarmament, arms control, or narrow non-proliferation. Classical realism would have it that the weapon states only negotiate an agreement once they have already decided they can do without the weapon or practice concerned.

The issue of stocks has underlying security implications for some of the weapon states - and also some non-nuclear-weapon countries - and it may also be part of a regional and propaganda war between India and Pakistan, and for Middle East states with regard to Israel. But the stocks question - and scope of the fissban in general - is also representative of competing (and some think incompatible) views of what the CD should be aiming to do - disarmament, or something different? So pragmatism and politics also become entwined.

There's not a lot we can do here about the underlying political causes, except to work in a variety of ways to change negative conditions to ones more favourable to disarmament and multilateralism. The prospects for doing this with a Bush Presidency do not appear very positive, but we should not assume they are impossible. It is, however, within our power to confront and change those of the CD's structures and rules which magnify hostile political conditions, give undue power to spoilers, and enable a few to impose their negative will to paralyse the CD or weaken its ability to get the job done even when there is a favourable political window open.


I am not among those who would do away with the CD because it is not doing its job properly. However, the money and resources cannot continue to pour in indefinitely. In my writings on the subject in 1997 and 1998, I argued that the international community needed the CD, both for multilateral negotiations, and because it was necessary to sustain the expertise and continuity represented by the CD system and delegations. I argued that if the CD were to be jettisoned or allowed to fall into a slow decline, it would take a long time to set effective alternatives in place. Furthermore I made the case that one important task of the CD was to prepare the ground for negotiations, a necessary political function that might, nevertheless, look to outsiders as if nothing concrete were being done. All true, but if political conditions combined with the CD's structural rigidity mean that nothing really is being done, then we do have to think again.

If the CD didn't exist, would it be more or less likely that alternative negotiating fora could be set up to negotiate on specific issues? The Ottawa process went successfully outside the CD and negotiated the ground-breaking landmines ban. It wasn't perfect, and did not capture everyone, although everyone was invited. But then the same can be said for the CTBT and CWC, negotiated in the CD.

Hard questions need to be asked:

  • What are the limits of consensus and negotiating rules for an arbitrarily selected group of states with wide variations of polity and political/security interests?
  • How much negotiation can the CD manage at a particular time?
  • What ratio of negotiations and other tasks (deliberations, expert groups etc) should the CD aim for?
  • Can the group system be updated without the CD falling apart further?
  • Does the CD need a new mandate, and if so, is this possible to provide within the existing system or would it require, for example, UNSSOD IV?
Like others, I have begun looking to mechanisms parallel to the CD to try to jumpstart work on the fissban and address concerns about the further militarisation - and the weaponisation - of space. But I will leave that for later discussions!

Notes and References

1. John Gerard Ruggie, "Multilateralism Matters," Columbia University Press, New York, 1993, p 12.

2. See Disarmament Diplomacy 29, August/September 1998, p 24.

3. R. Johnson, "Making the Conference on Disarmament more Accountable to the United Nations," Disarmament Diplomacy 17, July/August 1997, pp 2-6.

4. See Disarmament Diplomacy 23, February 1998, p. 17, and Disarmament Diplomacy 29, op. cit., pp. 24-25.

5. Disarmament Diplomacy 29, op. cit., p 24.

© 2001 The Acronym Institute.