Despite a blunt January 18 opening plenary address from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan exhorting the 66-member Conference on Disarmament (CD) to "search for compromises in a spirit of flexibility," the first weeks of the conference's 2000 session proved a continuation of last year's deadlock. Persisting member differences over negotiating priorities, most significantly between China and the United States, blocked a work program agreement, which is required for actual negotiations to begin.
Annan, whose statement was delivered by CD Secretary-General Vladimir Petrovsky, said 1999 marked a "deplorable lack of progress" for disarmament. Though acknowledging the CD deadlock reflected "a wider and disturbing stagnation in the overall disarmament and non-proliferation agenda," Annan urged the conference to show a "real sense of urgency." He emphasized that the upcoming nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference in April, currently "shrouded in uncertainty," would stand a better chance of succeeding if the conference could make tangible progress, such as starting negotiations.
However, the current CD president, Austrian Ambassador Harald Kreid, said consultations with delegations revealed that conditions for starting work had not improved in recent months. He also observed that the conference, which operates by consensus, had "mastered the art of dithering, delaying, side-stepping and circumvention" during the past three years.
For much of that period, nuclear disarmament has been the primary hurdle. The Group of 21 (G-21) non-aligned states, led by India and Pakistan, linked negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty, which is the priority of the United States and the so-called "Western group," with the start of talks on a timebound framework for nuclear disarmament, which is opposed by all nuclear-weapon states except China. But in 1999, the G-21 relaxed its linkage, and the Western and Eastern groups, including Russia, accepted the idea of informal discussions for exchanging views on nuclear disarmament within an ad hoc working group. However, the precise language of a working-group mandate satisfactory to all has yet to be agreed upon.
In response to increased U.S. national missile defense activities, the prevention of an arms race in outer space emerged last year as the key conference issue. The United States singularly objected to negotiations on the subject, while China was the leading supporter.
At the close of the 1999 session and during the past few months, Washington has declared its willingness to show flexibility on the outer space issue. Yet U.S. officials have made clear that flexibility does not include formal outer space negotiations, but rather informal discussions, such as an ad hoc working group.
In its first statement to the 2000 conference on January 27, China stressed that the outer space issue, including the prohibition of anti-ballistic missile systems, remained its top priority, and that the CD should establish an ad hoc committee on outer space. Hu Xiaodi, China's permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, also called for "serious multilateral negotiations" on nuclear disarmament.
The conference did manage to approve its standard agenda on January 18-a perfunctory step required before a work program can be decided upon-opening seven broad topics for negotiation (though the conference president noted that any issue with consensus could be addressed during the session). The CD will break for its first recess on March 24 and then resume on May 22.