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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 55, March 2001

Moving the CD Agenda

By Rebecca Johnson

The proposal for a work programme put forward by Brazil's Ambassador Celso Amorim, when he was President of the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in August 2000, received considerable support, but successive presidents have been unable to get consensus. Amorim proposed four ad hoc committees: one to negotiate a ban on fissile materials production, in accordance with the March 1995 'Shannon mandate'; one with a general negotiating mandate for negative security assurances; and two committees to 'deal with' nuclear disarmament and the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS). Despite formally deciding to negotiate the fissban, the CD has been paralysed since finalising the CTBT in 1996.

Though insistence on consensus for procedural as well as substantive issues undoubtedly magnifies the problems in the CD, the core of the impasse over the fissban is not procedural but political. Undoubtedly the question of stockpiles and the fierce desire by Pakistan, Israel (and, some would argue, India) to keep on producing plutonium and highly-enriched uranium for nuclear weapons as long as they can get away with it contributes to the impasse, but those countries are no longer actively blocking. The major cause is China's demand that the fissban and outer space issues should be treated equally - i.e. negotiations on both. Or from a different perspective, the major obstacle is the US refusal to let the CD address concerns about outer space in any substantive or meaningful way. The United States wants negotiations on a fissban but would only agree to a subsidiary body to talk about talks about PAROS (and with the current administration, even that may now be in doubt).

Because of Beijing's perceptions about the United States' real intentions, China sees a direct linkage between the fissban and outer space issues. Beijing fears that US plans and intentions with regard to missile defence will diminish the deterrent value of China's much smaller nuclear forces, and therefore they desire to keep their options open to restart fissile material production (having never made the commitment to a fissile materials production moratorium that the other four N-5 states adhere to). China is also the most vocal in expressing concern that the US will pursue a series of increasingly sophisticated and comprehensive NMD programmes into space - not only for surveillance and intelligence, but for targetting and even interceptors and weapons.

The CD deadlock is into its sixth year. The time has come to look at different approaches for how to address this core political conflict. The following proposal has the merits of addressing the main issues substantively, as I think they deserve to be. My proposal for a parallel approach is based on the following premises:

i) that many countries (not only China) are concerned that NMD could be a slippery slope towards the further militarisation and potentially the placing of weapons in space;

ii) that the US, Russia, Britain and France, together with their allies, are still committed to negotiating a treaty banning the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons; and

iii) that in conformity with the NPT 2000 agreements and other international commitments, progress on nuclear disarmament needs to continue on several levels - unilateral, bilateral, plurilateral and multilateral - and that the CD and NPT review process have each a role in identifying next steps and maintaining pressure on the nuclear weapon possessors to disarm.

Fissban 'Scoping Talks'

For those serious about wanting to achieve nuclear disarmament and the elimination of nuclear arsenals, banning the production of weapon-usable fissile materials (plutonium and highly-enriched uranium), is, like the comprehensive test ban treaty (CTBT), an essential, not an optional step. As the CTBT is needed to put a lid on the modernisation of weapons and qualitative proliferation, so the fissban is needed to cap quantitative proliferation. Yes, too much plutonium and HEU is sloshing about some countries already. That is not an argument against the fissban, but an argument for combining the treaty negotiations with more assertive measures for reducing such stocks and ensuring they are rendered non-weapon-usable (through contamination and vitrification, for example) and stored in the most secure conditions possible.

The CD impasse on the fissban is holding up disarmament and bringing embarrassment to multilateral arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament. If the CD cannot fulfil its responsibilities because of the national security perceptions of one or two countries, however important, it is time for a group of pro-fissban states to act by initiating full time 'scoping talks' on the fissban, thereby laying the groundwork for the treaty. For optimum use of diplomatic and expert resources, the talks could take place in either Geneva or Vienna. I would argue for Geneva, as this proposal is not so much about taking the fissban away from the CD as challenging it to resolve its deadlock and conduct negotiations in earnest. Although support for the fissban was enshrined in the 1995 and 2000 NPT agreements, there is a prior commitment that includes all members of the United Nations - UNGA resolution 48/75L (adopted by consensus on December 16, 1993). This resolution recommended negotiations on a fissban "in the most appropriate international forum". The CD later decided that it was the appropriate forum, but has so far failed to justify that claim.

In view of this, fissban talks could be initiated by as many of the nuclear-weapon states as possible, and by others who had clearly prioritised this issue, including the New Agenda states, Japan, Canada, Australia, the NATO-5 and so on. Regardless of who gets the ball rolling, all CD members and observers should be invited to attend and participate as fully as they wish. The structure of the talks should utilise CD practice, for example, with working groups on verification and on legal and administrative issues.

The scoping talks could begin negotiating the scope and parameters of the treaty, options for addressing stocks (within the treaty or by parallel arrangements ranging from declarations to controls, perhaps) and technical considerations for verification and inspections. This proposal should not be confused with other suggestions for a series of workshops or seminars, useful though such things can be if no other progress is possible. However, in view of the type of technical negotiations and related political questions that need to be worked out, the scoping talks should be regular and authoritative, a form of base-line negotiations held to an open-ended, established time-table.

Since the CD is currently held under UN auspices, in UN accommodation and facilitated by a UN-paid secretariat, it would be most desirable for the negotiations to benefit from the same resources. This may, however, not be politically or bureaucratically feasible, in which case alternative financing and arrangements may have to be worked out among participating states. From the beginning, however, it should be made clear that the scoping talks are intended to facilitate formal negotiations and not to replace the CD. So if and when the CD adopts a work programme that includes fissban negotiations, the organisation and product of the talks would be able to be transferred formally into the CD for further negotiations and finalisation.

I recognise that there will be formidable opposition from some countries, foreseeably China, Pakistan, perhaps India and Israel, mainly because these governments want to keep their nuclear weapon options open as long as possible. There may also be opposition from countries worried that such parallel moves will undermine the CD. The years of deadlock are undermining the CD even more. What is worse, the problems in the CD are leading to a discrediting of multilateral arms control and disarmament. When working, the CD is a valuable forum and instrument for negotiating international arms control, but we must not be precious about a particular venue. If the job can be done more effectively elsewhere, then it should go elsewhere. Disarmament is too important for the future of life on Earth for it to become hostage to a kind of diplomatic protection racket. Having watched the dynamics of multilateralism for many years now, I would also be willing to lay a pretty large wager that despite very loud protestations, China, Pakistan, Israel etc. would begin to engage in the proceedings once they realised that their refusals to participate were no longer succeeding in preventing others from moving ahead, and as issues come under discussion - such as stocks, monitoring of facilities, inspections, etc. that they want to have a say on. Once that happened, the incentive for blocking the CD would greatly diminish, with the likelihood that the fissban could find its way back into formal CD negotiations - with of course the implied threat of moving out again if the CD gets blocked before the measure is concluded.

Negotiate PAROS Outside Geneva

The second component of this proposal is intended to find a way for outer space issues to be substantively and effectively addressed. We have to recognise that PAROS is unlikely to get properly addressed, let alone negotiated, in Geneva in the near future. However, there are very serious international security issues coming to the fore that need to be addressed preventively. The issues raised by NMD and the weaponisation of space could have a profound impact on global security and on hopes that the weapon states will make progress towards implementing their NPT undertakings to eliminate nuclear arsenals. A group of states concerned about keeping space peaceful1 should take the lead and establish a conference somewhere outside Geneva to look into these issues, with a view to preparing and then negotiating a Treaty on Keeping Space for Peaceful Uses, or on Preventing War in Space, or some such title.

The Treaty of Antarctica, negotiated in 1959 to ensure that the wide Antarctic wilderness should be shared and used only for peaceful purposes, provides a good, though not exact, precedent. Since some military activities are already carried on in space, it will be important to agree clear definitions and parameters on what types of activity are to be permitted, regulated or prohibited. The negotiations would have to cover at least three main components:

i) extending the 1967 Outer Space Treaty's prohibitions on weapons of mass destruction in space to cover other weapons, thereby bringing directed energy, laser weapons and other potential innovations into the ban;

ii) banning the production, testing and deployment of anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, whether earth-based or space-based; and

iii) establishing a code of conduct for the peaceful uses of space.

Countries and industries with significant commercial interests in telecommunications and navigation, which include powerful lobbies in the United States itself, have a vested interest in keeping space peaceful. The last thing they want is an ASAT free-for-all. But that could easily be the result if the United States uses its satellites to place targetting components or directed energy weapons in space. Taking the independent route has two major virtues: it removes PAROS from its blocking position in the CD; and it ensures that prevention of the weaponisation of space gets addressed sooner rather than later.

Inevitably, the United States (and possibly others) will object and try first to prevent the talks from taking place and then to stay outside any agreements or treaties that might be agreed. As the process of negotiations gets underway, however, I think it will be possible to build some powerful coalitions, not only among a large group of countries, but between civil society and large commercial enterprises, and even the military, for whom communications are the Achilles heel of ever more sophisticated, 'smart' conventional weaponry - although my intention is not to make the heavens safe for smart bombs!

Nuclear Disarmament

Nuclear disarmament has been the first item on the CD's agenda for decades. The 2000 NPT review conference agreed "the necessity" of establishing a CD subsidiary body to "deal with" nuclear disarmament. That conference also set a multi-stranded agenda for achieving nuclear disarmament, with calls for implementation of the CTBT and fissban, further unilateral or bilateral steps to accomplish deep reductions and de-alerting of strategic nuclear forces and to address tactical nuclear weapons; the engagement of all the weapon states; transparency, irreversibility, diminishing the role of nuclear weapons, and so on. Such measures need to be pursued through national, regional, international and unilateral, bilateral, plurilateral and multilateral mechanisms. In addition to governmental and civil society pressure being exerted on the various weapon states and proliferators to undertake and implement nuclear disarmament measures, both the CD and the NPT review process need to keep nuclear disarmament on their agendas, in order to enhance accountability. But the CD should not get hung up on the issue as if it was the only forum capable of dealing with nuclear disarmament. Nuclear disarmament will need to be accomplished in phases. Negotiating the fissban is still the most obvious, concrete step that a multilateral forum such as the CD can contribute towards the wider goal of nuclear disarmament.


The strategy I am proposing would be challenging. Some might argue that by being so confrontational, we would lessen the chance of bringing some of the key states on board the treaty. That is a risk - but then the inclusive, cooperative negotiations on the CTBT didn't deliver all the key signatures, either. And we shouldn't forget that for once the more powerful commercial interests lie in ensuring that space remains primarily for peaceful uses and communication - those wishing to militarise are a tiny minority, predominantly confined to one country. So let's cross the bridge on inclusion and entry into force when we have two good treaties on the table. At the moment we have a lot of pious expressions of support for a fissban and growing voices of concern about the further militarisation of space, but no action on either.

Notes and References

1. In addition to France, Russia and China, whose position as nuclear-weapon states could be inhibiting, Sri Lanka has shown long-time leadership in outer space issues, as has Canada and some of the New Agenda countries.

Rebecca Johnson is Executive Director of the Acronym Institute.

© 2001 The Acronym Institute.