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Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
Chinese Concession Fails to End UN Disarmament Conference's Stalemate

Wade Boese

Proving the adage that “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” the 66-member Conference on Disarmament (CD) Sept. 10 concluded its fifth straight year without holding any negotiations. The stalemate persisted even though China compromised on an issue perceived to be a key obstacle blocking progress in the UN arms control negotiating forum.

No clear explanation has emerged as to why the conference failed to revive after China dropped its long-standing insistence that any work program must include the drafting of a treaty on the prevention of an arms race in outer space. That demand has long been a stumbling block to negotiations: the disarmament conference operates by consensus, and the United States has refused for several years to support any negotiations for limiting weapons in outer space. Washington, which is exploring space-based interceptors for its proposed layered missile defense system, claims such a treaty is unnecessary. The CD has not completed any arms control agreement since it wrapped up the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996.

Several factors appear to have continued to block progress in the wake of China’s Aug. 7 announcement, which occurred in the last weeks of the conference’s negotiating period for the year. By conference rules, negotiations started one year do not carry over to the next. Some delegations probably wanted to avoid a repeat of 1998 when negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty were started in August, shelved in September, and not resumed the following year.

Disputes about the proposed outer space accord was also not the only controversial issue holding up the proposed CD work program, just the most prominent. Misgivings remain about nuclear disarmament talks, a negative security assurances treaty, and a fissile material cutoff treaty, which would forbid the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons purposes.

Despite their recent tensions on Iraq and other issues, France and the United States are of the same mind on not wanting to discuss nuclear disarmament in a multilateral setting. Russia reportedly shares this reluctance.

Joined by the United Kingdom, these three nuclear-weapon states also have little enthusiasm for negotiating an accord on negative security assurances, which are commitments by nuclear-weapon states not to use nuclear weapons against countries without them. All four countries have consented to such negotiations before because the implicit understanding was that nothing would happen. Speculation exists that the United States might not support a repeat of such a charade, given February 2002 remarks by U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton questioning the value of negative security assurances (See ACT, March 2002) and general Bush administration distaste for international negotiations.

Further dampening prospects for negotiations on negative security assurances is China’s insistence that an agreement include commitments by all nuclear-weapon states to forswear the first-use of nuclear weapons. London, Moscow, Paris, and Washington all reserve the right to use nuclear weapons first and oppose the Chinese proposal.

The United States has essentially declared that it will not compromise on issues it does not want addressed. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control Stephen Rademaker told the conference in February that Washington would only consent to a “clean resolution” to start fissile material cutoff treaty negotiations. He warned that tying issues together to “win approval for dubious, unpopular, or outdated proposals must end if this body is to have a future.”

Although rhetorically enjoying consensus CD support, a fissile material cutoff treaty negotiation is not without detractors and potential pitfalls. Israel, for example, opposes the treaty, and relented to the start of treaty negotiations in 1998 only after intense U.S. arm-twisting. Israel’s Prime Minister at the time, Benjamin Netanyahu, warned that Israel had “fundamental problems with the treaty.”

Egypt, Pakistan, and Syria have argued that a completed treaty should not be limited to barring future production but also take into account existing stockpiles. They contend a treaty failing to do so would unacceptably codify unequal holdings of weapons-making material.

Aside from conflicting views about the conference’s work program, there is also an undercurrent of skepticism about whether all members, notably the United States, want the CD to succeed. A former senior U.S. government official familiar with the conference said in a Sept. 16 interview that Bolton and others in the Bush administration “detest the CD.”

The United States did not have a dedicated CD ambassador during this year’s round of negotiations, though in June the Bush administration nominated Jackie Wolcott Sanders, currently a deputy assistant secretary of state, for the position. The Senate has not yet voted on her nomination.

Regardless of the reasons, the conference found itself in a familiar position nearing the end of this year’s negotiating session. On Aug. 21, Japanese Ambassador Kuniko Inoguchi, who was serving as the rotating conference president, described the CD as being at a “serious impasse.” Expectations for the conference’s Jan. 19 start next year are not optimistic.