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– Lord Des Browne,
Vice Chairman, Nuclear Threat Initiative
CD Opens 1998 Session As Members Reiterate Competing Priorities
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By Wade Boese

The UN Conference on Disarmament (CD) convened its first session of 1998 on January 20 after a paralyzed conference in 1997 failed to establish even a single ad hoc committee to begin negotiations, the only time in the conference's 19-year history that had happened. Progress within the 61-member CD this year will depend on whether a compromise can be found between the competing priorities of a time-bound framework for nuclear disarmament and a fissile material cutoff treaty, or whether the CD can bypass this central dispute and consider other agenda issues including a step-by-step ban on anti-personnel landmines.

The secretary-general of the CD, Vladimir Petrovsky, delivered an opening statement from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan declaring that "nuclear disarmament must be pursued more vigorously, particularly by the nuclear weapon states." However, the new U.S. representative to the CD, Robert T. Grey (a counselor for political affairs of the U.S. mission to the UN, 1989-1994; and acting deputy director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, 1981-1983) read a statement from President Clinton declaring that "no issues are more important" than a fissile material cutoff for weapons purposes and an anti-personnel landmine ban, indicating that the U.S. position remained unchanged from last year.

Members quickly approved an agenda on the plenary's first day, whereas last year an identical agenda could not be adopted until February 14. Although the 1998 agenda lists seven topics for possible negotiations—cessation of the nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament, prevention of nuclear war, prevention of an arms race in outer space, negative security assurances, new types of weapons of mass destruction, a comprehensive program of disarmament and transparency in armaments—the current president of the conference, Lars Norberg of Sweden, stated that "if there is a consensus in the conference to deal with any issues, they could be dealt with within this agenda." 

U.S. Supports Cutoff Regime

In addition to the United States, Russia, Australia, Austria and Belgium voiced their support for a cutoff regime as the next step toward nuclear disarmament following the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Supporters of a cutoff regime continue to argue that nuclear disarmament should be left to bilateral negotiations between the United States and Russia rather than multilateral negotiations within the CD, which according to Belgium's representative, Andre Mernier, would only halt progress through a multiplication of actors.

Conference members had once agreed to negotiate a cutoff regime under the "Shanon mandate" in March 1995. This mandate gained consensus because it blurred whether a cutoff regime would apply solely to future production, as advocated by most nuclear-weapon states, or include stockpiles, which some conference members (particularly Egypt and Pakistan) desired. Currently, some members insist that convening an ad hoc committee based on a similar mandate should be acceptable.

However, Egypt, Myanmar and Brazil proclaimed that they would continue to attach the highest priority to nuclear disarmament. Members of the "Group of 21" (G-21) non-aligned states insist that non-nuclear-weapon states should be involved in nuclear disarmament negotiations because the weapons pose as much a threat to their security as to nuclear-weapon states. Pakistan, a member of the G-21, has expressed concern to the UN First Committee during the 52nd UN General Assembly and last year's conference that most of the nuclear-weapon states have "reaffirmed and reinforced their reliance" on nuclear weapons and that some nuclear-weapon states have said that they "will retain nuclear weapons indefinitely." At this year's CD, Egyptian representative Mounir Zahran further criticized the slow pace at which disarmament negotiations have proceeded.

South Africa, seeking common ground between nuclear disarmament and a fissile material cutoff regime, submitted a proposal to form an ad hoc committee with a mandate to "deliberate upon practical steps for systematic and progressive efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons." The initiative, designed to be vague enough not to exclude either objective, attracted support from a number of states including Canada and Japan. However, because the conference requires consensus for action, it will be necessary to win over the rigid proponents of both a cutoff regime (the United States and Russia) and a time-bound framework (India), none of which have endorsed the South African proposal.

Alternative Issues

Annan's opening statement also exhorted the conference that "it must be you, finally, to rid the world of the scourge of anti-personnel landmines." Both Russia and the United States have announced support for a progressive landmine ban starting with a prohibition on exports to complement the recently signed Ottawa Treaty. But critics question the intent, asking how the Ottawa Treaty, which bans the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of landmines, can be complemented and contend that the CD's efforts will merely be redundant and detract from other issues. Of the 123 signatories to the Ottawa Treaty, 35 are conference members.

Convening ad hoc committees on negative security assurances and the prevention of an arms race in outer space generated interest last year and received some early support from Russia this year. Canadian representative Mark Moher also called for preventing the militarization of outer space, noting that more than 30 countries are involved in space related activities. If ad hoc committees cannot be formed on these issues, special coordinators may be appointed as an alternative.

The conference is still deciding whether to reappoint last year's special coordinators on landmines, the CD's agenda, CD expansion and CD effectiveness. Conference President Norberg is conducting informal consultations with members to assess what issues hold the most promise for work during the first session, which concludes on March 27, and the later sessions scheduled from May 11 to June 26 and July 27 to September 9.