Concluding its third straight year without negotiations, the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD) met July 30-September 14 in Geneva and closed the last third of this year’s negotiating session. The current CD president, Ambassador Roberto Betancourt-Ruales of Ecuador, warned September 13 that all 66 conference members were greatly concerned about an erosion of the CD’s credibility as the sole forum for disarmament negotiations.
Since its 1996 completion of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the conference has been unable to agree on which issues to negotiate next. The United States, along with its European and Asian allies, has sought negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty, which would ban the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for weapons purposes. Other countries, led by India, have pressed for nuclear disarmament negotiations, and China has made preventing an arms race in outer space its top priority. All CD delegations must reach consensus before any negotiations can begin.
During the past year, all members publicly supported a fissile material cutoff treaty, but China and Russia tied beginning work on the cutoff treaty with starting negotiations on outer space. The United States opposed this linkage, claiming it would only conduct “exploratory discussions,” but not negotiations, on outer space issues. Neither side would compromise, cementing the deadlock.
Many CD delegations feel that the conference’s stalemate reflects the wider international security climate, in which many countries—particularly China and Russia—have objected to U.S. ballistic missile defense plans and have voiced concern about perceptions of growing U.S. unilateralism and hegemony. In the conference, these concerns are seen as leading countries to adopt more rigid negotiating stances.
In a September 13 farewell address, retiring U.S. Ambassador Robert Grey blasted the CD for doing “nothing that would justify its existence” during the past three years. He warned that the “business of disarmament will shift to other venues” if the CD continues to be “irrelevant.” A U.S. government official interviewed September 20 said Washington is “not actively considering” moving to new venues, explaining that Grey was underscoring the need for the conference to “get down to work” at some point.
Other CD ambassadors expressed similar, but not quite as dire, concerns during the last weeks of the negotiating session. Speaking the same day as Grey, German Ambassador Gunther Seibert, who was also concluding his CD service, offered a more optimistic view of the conference, saying that it “has not outlived its days” and that “its greatest tasks may still lie ahead.” The conference will meet again January 22, when it starts its 2002 negotiating session.