Disarmament Insight


Tuesday, 14 August 2012

New types of WMD and new systems of such weapons; radiological weapons


These historical insights on the treatment in the CD of agenda item 5, "New Types of WMD and New Systems of such Weapons; Radiological Weapons", were offered by UNIDIR as background to the debate on that issue in the Conference on 14 August 2012 under the presidency of Ambassador Jean-Hughes Simon-Michel (France).

This issue was first presented to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in 1969 by Malta, and the CD in turn was tasked with considering the implications of possible military applications of laser technology. Early conclusions of the CD were that (a) laser technology applied to weapons did not warrant consideration at that time, and (b) the possibilities of radiological warfare were of limited significance for arms control.

In 1975, however, the then Soviet Union, tabled a draft international agreement in UNGA on the prohibition of the development and manufacture of new types of weapons of mass destruction and new systems of such weapons. When discussion of the item resumed in the CD, the USSR indicated that its purpose was to cover “ray” (i.e., radiological) weapons affecting human organs and behaviour as well as genetic weapons affecting heredity. But Western states, while supporting efforts to ban particular weapons of mass destruction, objected to the conclusion of a comprehensive convention banning unspecified future weapons.

This issue also arose at the First Special Session of the General Assembly devoted to Disarmament (UNSSOD-I). The final document included a compromise between a general prohibition approach and the idea of specific agreements and stated that, “a convention should be concluded prohibiting the development, production, stockpiling and use of radiological weapons”.

During the 1980s a subsidiary body on radiological weapons considered a number of working papers but no consensus emerged. Since 1993 no subsidiary body has been re-established. In 2002, Germany tabled a discussion paper for revisiting the issue in light of new threats. The item was also discussed in 2006 in plenary, and from 2007 onwards in informal settings. Discussions remained inconclusive. 

As with agenda items 6 and 7, CD delegations have not in recent years envisaged re-convening a subsidiary body, preferring instead the appointment of a Special Coordinator to seek the views of members on the most appropriate way to deal with this issue.

This posting was published for UNIDIR by Tim Caughley, Resident Senior Fellow