Disarmament Insight


Friday, 15 February 2008

Arms and the Spaceman

Having been quoted in Wednesday's New York Times and International Herald Tribune in connection with the presentation by Russia and China this week of a draft treaty to prevent the placement of weapons in outer space, I've been inundated by calls from journalists asking me to explain the significance of the move, Washington's negative reaction to it, and the likelihood that this development could break the long-standing deadlock in the Conference on Disarmament.

So, how significant was this? Short answer: quite significant but not at all surprising. Preventing an arms race in outer space has been on the agenda of the Conference on Disarmament (CD) since 1982. Russia and China, together with five other States, presented elements of this draft treaty to the Conference back in 2002. The issue has been the subject of especially intense debate in the CD over the last 2 years. The presentation of the draft treaty by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Tuesday was simply the culmination of efforts stretching back over 25 years. The move was significant, though, insofar as it was the first official presentation of a draft treaty on outer space to the Conference on Disarmament and served to increase pressure on the body to overcome its decade-long deadlock.

This move by Russia mirrors a similar move by the United States in 2006 when it presented to the Conference on Disarmament a draft treaty to ban the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. The Conference now has two draft treaties on the table (and is unable to begin work on either). The current plan to break the deadlock in the CD involves four elements: Negotiations on a treaty on fissile material for nuclear weapons and substantive discussions on three other issues - preventing an arms race in outer space, nuclear disarmament, and assurances to non-nuclear weapons States that they will not be attacked or threatened by nuclear weapons.

The introduction by Russia and China of a draft treaty to keep weapons out of space does not alter one iota the current plan to break the deadlock in the CD. Foreign Minister Lavrov made it quite clear when presenting the draft text that it had, as he put it, a "research mandate" and that it would "not add any complications to achieving a compromise on the programme of work of the Conference." In his message to the Conference, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi expressed the hope that the CD would "start substantive discussion and reach consensus on [the draft treaty] as soon as possible." Russia and China are not, as has been erroneously reported, calling for immediate negotiations on this draft treaty. Rather, they are proposing that it serve as a focal point for substantive discussions, with a view to negotiations sometime in the future. This is entirely consistent with the current plan to break the deadlock in the CD.

This is why the strong negative reactions to the Sino-Russian proposal reported coming out of Washington are somewhat puzzling. After long opposition to holding even discussions on outer space in the Conference on Disarmament, the United States last year changed its position by deciding that it would "not stand in the way of consensus" to break the deadlock in the CD. This essentially means that the U.S. would allow substantive discussions on outer space to take place as long as negotiations on a treaty on fissile material could get underway. All the Sino-Russian proposal does, really, is to provide a focus for the substantive discussions on outer space. The Washington Times reported that U.S. State Department Officials thought that "Moscow and Beijing are trying to upstage Washington with their draft." In fact, the U.S. draft treaty on fissile material and the Sino-Russian draft treaty on outer space are not in opposition to one another.

As to whether Mr. Lavrov's actions this week brought the Conference on Disarmament any closer to dissolving its stalemate, I think it certainly will not have hurt. To quote a leading analyst:

The fact that these governments are sending very high-level people to the conference means they want to get things going. We’re at a rather decisive point where we either move onto substantive negotiations or back to more years of fruitless discussion.

Insightful words indeed. Now who said that?

Patrick Mc Carthy

Photo Credit: "No Space for War" by pluralzed on flickr.