Disarmament Insight


Thursday, 24 January 2008

Spurring on the Conference on Disarmament

"A spur of conscience to the flank of plodding procedure" was how the Ambassador of Sri Lanka characterised the message delivered to the Conference on Disarmament yesterday by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The 65-member Conference has been plodding along for more than 10 years now, unable to deliver a single disarmament agreement since completing its work on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996 (for some background, see our posting from August 2007 entitled, "Last chance for the Conference on Disarmament?").

The Conference has managed periodically over the last two years to break into a canter thanks to some innovative coordination by the rotating Conference Presidents and sheer determination on the part of most Member States to break the deadlock in which they find themselves. Despite these efforts, the goal of galloping headlong towards a much-needed treaty to cap (and possibly then reduce) global stocks of fissile material for nuclear weapons has remained elusive.

In expressing his disappointment, the UN Secretary-General did not mince words. As if chiding an overweight jockey, he told the Conference, "when you were at the verge of reaching a decision [...] last June, I called on you to move forward in a spirit of compromise and seize that historic opportunity. You did not.” The achievements of the Conference on Disarmament, he said, were but "distant memories." He added that he was "deeply troubled" by the current impasse over priorities and concluded that, although not irrelevant, the Conference was "in danger of losing its way."

The Russian Ambassador, responding on behalf of the Eastern Group, tried to take the sting out of Mr. Ban's remarks by pointing to increased trust among States in the Conference and to the "more active discussions" on all agenda items that had taken place in recent years. And indeed he is right. The Conference on Disarmament is closer than it has ever been to cutting the Gordian knot that has bound it in place for the last decade.

Russia, but also the United States and the United Kingdom to name just two others, have declared their willingness to move forward based on a compromise that would see negotiations begin on a Fissile Material Treaty; accompanied by substantive discussions on the other priority issues on the Conference's agenda - preventing an arms race in outer space, negative security assurances (i.e. assurances from nuclear weapons States that they will not attack non-nuclear weapons States with nuclear weapons) and nuclear disarmament. China has also indicated that, given a few tweaks, it might be able to go along with this.

A handful of countries remain to be convinced, however, including Pakistan, Iran and Israel, each of which has its own concerns about how their national security could be affected by the prioritisation of issues currently favoured by the rest of the Conference.

Leading the charge to break the deadlock this year will be Conference's 6 Presidents for 2008 - Tunisia, followed by Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, the United States and Venezuela. This grouping, thrown together by the alphabet, contains two nuclear weapons States that support the commencement of negotiations on a Fissile Material Treaty; a good omen if ever there was one.

The Conference on Disarmament has been well exercised over the last two years. It is ready to race again. Here's hoping that the Secretary-General's spurs will be enough to encourage it once more to take the bit between its teeth.

Patrick Mc Carthy

Photo credit: "Old Horse" by artur.borzecki on Flickr.