By Wade Boese
The UN Conference on Disarmament (CD) extended its record of futility for a fourth consecutive year September 12 when the conference closed the final round of its annual three-part session without having held any negotiations. Signaling its displeasure with the CD’s lack of activity, the United States is reassigning its conference ambassador to another diplomatic post.
As in the past few years, the central issue blocking formal talks stemmed from member differences, primarily between the United States and China, over whether the CD should draft a treaty on the prevention of an arms race in outer space. China supports the effort and has tied the beginning of any arms control negotiations at the 66-member conference, which operates by consensus, to the start or promise of work on an outer space treaty. Claiming that such an accord is unnecessary, the United States staunchly opposes the Chinese position and linkage. Along with most CD members, Washington favors the immediate negotiation of a treaty to ban production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium for nuclear weapons purposes.
Frustrated by the stalemate, the CD ambassadors of Algeria, Belgium, Chile, Colombia, and Sweden formally submitted a proposal August 29 to bridge the gap between the Chinese and U.S. positions on outer space. Not explicitly calling for negotiations, the five ambassadors proposed setting up formal talks between all CD members to look at all options on the issue, including a treaty, without prejudicing the outcome. Several countries endorsed the proposal, but neither the United States nor China publicly accepted or rejected it, although Beijing is reportedly not satisfied.
Conference members also could not find common ground on any proposals to expand the CD, improve its functioning, or change its annual agenda, according to special coordinators appointed last March to look into these subjects.
Several ambassadors lamented the state of the conference in year-ending speeches, and the Hungarian Ambassador András Szabó, who held the rotating CD presidency at its close, warned that the conference risks becoming marginalized. Weeks earlier, Algerian Ambassador Mohamed Salah Dembri had compared the CD’s long-running effort to start negotiations to the search for the “Holy Grail.”
Indicating U.S. dissatisfaction with the CD, Bush administration officials confirmed in the last week of September that Ambassador Eric Javits will leave the negotiating body and represent the United States at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which oversees the implementation of the treaty banning chemical weapons. Officials said the move reflects both U.S. support for the new OPCW Director-General Rogelio Pfirter and the OPCW’s mission, as well as U.S. frustration with the CD. Javits was sworn in as the U.S. permanent representative to the conference in December 2001.
U.S. officials said the United States is not pulling out of the CD and will continue to be represented there. One official said a replacement for Javits will be appointed before the start of next year’s first of three working periods, which will take place January 20 to March 28. The other two session parts are scheduled for May 12 to June 27 and July 28 to September 10.