Disarmament Insight


Monday, 13 August 2007

Last Chance for the Conference on Disarmament?

The Conference on Disarmament -- "the world's sole multilateral disarmament negotiating forum" as its 65 member States frequently remind us -- has featured either directly or tangentially in a number of postings on this blog (see in particular August 8 and March 28).

And with good reason. In existence since 1983, the CD has negotiated such landmark agreements as the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Its antecedents, which date back to the Ten-Nation Committee on Disarmament of 1959-60, gave us the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention and the Environmental Modification Convention.

Despite its impressive track record, however, the CD has not been able to produce a multilateral disarmament treaty since finishing its work on the CTBT in 1996. This more than decade-long deadlock has its roots in disagreements on which issues to deal with next.

There is broad agreement among CD member States that a treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear explosive devices is ripe for negotiation. A number of thorny issues would have to be worked out -- would existing stocks of fissile materials be covered and how, if at all, would such a treaty be verified? -- but the will is there to negotiate. The United States even put a draft treaty on the table in May 2006!

However, some States, most notably China and the Russian Federation, would like to make such negotiations conditional upon making progress on preventing an arms race in outer space (PAROS). Both countries have fast-growing civilian space industries and are concerned about the lead that the United States has built up in space technology, with potential applications in both the civilian and military fields.

Until quite recently, linking negotiations on fissile material with progress on PAROS was considered unacceptable by the United States. But this all changed earlier this year during a period of quite intensive discussions in the CD when the United States signaled its willingness to discuss ways to prevent an arms race in outer space in order to get negotiations on fissile materials off the ground. The scene was set for a historic breakthrough. It seemed for a time as if the CD might actually spring back into life.

But the breakthrough has not materialised. China has been playing for time, arguing that it needs to study intensively the work plan that is now on the table. In the meantime, other countries have raised their voices with objections. Pakistan, for example, has argued that negotiating only on fissile material would be too narrow a focus for the CD and that negotiations should commence simultaneously on five issues!

Having built itself up with initiative, hard work and a healthy dose of realism during the first half of 2007, the CD is again rapidly deflating. Whether it can recover from this latest disappointment and go on to live up to its past glory remains to be seen.

What is clear, however, is that more and more governments are questioning the justification of maintaining disarmament Ambassadors in Geneva while the CD languishes. The more governments withdraw their most experienced disarmament negotiators to Capitals, the less likely it becomes that the "world's sole multilateral disarmament negotiating forum" will be able again to live up to that lofty description.

Patrick Mc Carthy


Picture: The Council Chamber, meeting place of the Conference of Disarmament in the Palais des Nations, Geneva (Photo credit: sara.wagle on flickr.com)