The 66-member Conference on Disarmament (CD) began its 2003 negotiating session January 21 with a wish from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for a “most productive” year, but its initial five weeks of meetings suggest this year may well be a repeat of the previous four years of gridlock with no negotiations.
One potential impasse, however, was resolved February 14 when Iraq informed Annan of its intention to forgo its turn as conference president, a position that rotates on an alphabetical basis for four-week working periods to all CD members. Two days earlier, Secretary of State Colin Powell had told the House International Relations Committee that the United States felt outraged over the prospect of an Iraqi presidency, adding that Washington would work to prevent Iraq from assuming the position. If the United States failed, Powell pledged, “We would, you know, simply find ways not to participate.”
Notwithstanding the averted showdown over an Iraqi presidency, the conference, which operates by consensus, remains deadlocked over what issues to negotiate. The key dispute is still whether negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), which would prohibit the production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium for weapons purposes, should proceed without negotiations on other subjects, namely the prevention of an arms race in outer space.
Speaking February 13, Stephen Rademaker, U.S. assistant secretary of state for arms control, said the United States wants a “clean” agreement simply to begin negotiations on an FMCT. He condemned efforts to link the start of one negotiation with another, asserting that “the practice in the CD of holding vital international security initiatives hostage to win approval for dubious, unpopular, or outdated proposals must end if this body is to have a future.”
Yet, other countries, most notably China, desire parallel negotiations on weapons in outer space and are unlikely to accept the U.S. proposal to work solely on an FMCT. U.S. plans to begin researching space-based missile defense interceptors for possible deployment beginning in 2008 (See ACT, March 2003.) might further reinforce insistence by China and other countries for outer space negotiations.
The United States argues that the outer space issue is not ripe for negotiations because there is no current arms race in outer space. The United States and Israel, however, were the only two CD members to abstain from a UN General Assembly vote last November for a resolution calling on the conference to work on outer space in 2003. No country voted against the resolution.
As CD president over the first few weeks of this year’s session, India explored whether members would set aside the FMCT and outer space disputes and explore new issues, such as enforcing compliance of existing treaties or preventing terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. But several members rejected this approach.
The conference last completed negotiations on an agreement, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, in 1996. Since then, CD members have held only a few weeks of negotiations, in 1998.
The United States is still without a permanent representative to the conference after shifting Ambassador Eric Javits from the CD to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons last year in a move meant to convey both U.S. displeasure with the former and support for the latter. Rademaker assured the conference that the United States would name a new permanent representative.
This year’s first negotiating recess is set to begin March 28. The negotiating session will then resume for two additional periods: May 12 to June 27 and July 28 to September 10.