The UN Conference on Disarmament (CD) started its annual session January 22 with a message from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan urging the 66-member body to overcome its three years of “stagnation” and “prolonged inactivity,” during which it has failed to start any negotiations. Yet after its first five weeks of discussions, the conference remains hung up on the prevention of an arms race in outer space, the issue that deadlocked the conference last year.
Most members of the CD, which works by consensus, support or would accept holding talks on the two issues of outer space and nuclear disarmament, and negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty, which would prohibit production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.
China, however, insists that the CD must start negotiations on outer space for it to hold negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty—a proposal the United States opposes. Most, if not all, other members also support or would accept outer space negotiations, but few, perhaps only China, are willing to hold up fissile material cutoff treaty negotiations for formal outer space negotiations.
Russia and Pakistan backed the Chinese position last year, but it seems that may no longer be the case. Pakistan has not yet voiced support for China this year, and Russian CD Ambassador Leonid Skotnikov told the conference on January 22 that Russia supported negotiations on a fissile cutoff “without linkages to other issues.”
Yet, Skotnikov stressed that Russia still views outer space as a top priority, particularly in light of the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Addressing the conference on January 24, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton said that the United States believed the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which bans the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in outer space, is sufficient and that there is no need to negotiate further agreements on outer space.
Like Russia, many countries used their first CD statements of the year to register criticism with the Bush administration’s ABM Treaty withdrawal announcement, its July 2001 rejection of a protocol negotiated for the Biological Weapons Convention, or its public opposition to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. To counter this widely perceived U.S. unilateral approach to arms control, several speakers called for a renewal of multilateralism. But Bolton told the conference that U.S. policy was neither unilateralist nor multilateralist, just “pro-American.”
The CD divides its annual session into three parts. This first period will conclude March 29. The conference last negotiated a treaty in 1996 when it completed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.