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"[Arms Control Today] has become indispensable! I think it is the combination of the critical period we are in and the quality of the product. I found myself reading the May issue from cover to cover."

– Frank von Hippel
Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
June 1, 2018
Nations Remain Split on Disarmament

Wade Boese

This year, national governments have failed on several occasions to agree on measures to take steps toward disarmament, particularly of nuclear weapons. The latest setbacks occurred in September at a high-level meeting at the United Nations in New York and the 65-member Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva.

World leaders gathering in New York Sept. 14-16 for a UN summit endorsed a document setting out a broad agenda for the international organization and its member states in the coming years. However, the document contained no action plan for mitigating threats posed by chemical, biological, and nuclear arms.

It represented the second major setback on nuclear disarmament in five months, following a May nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference, at which a full month of talks among 150 states-parties did not yield any consensus on steps to strengthen the accord. (See ACT, July/August 2005.) The NPT obligates states without nuclear weapons to forswear them and nuclear-armed states to work toward giving them up. It also provides for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy under international supervision.

An early August draft document for the UN summit included a disarmament and nonproliferation section consisting of 21 separate items. But UN members, beginning with the United States, started to weigh in on the draft later in the month, whittling this section down to seven elements before deciding on the eve of the summit to scrap them all because of a lack of consensus.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan harshly criticized the result Sept. 13. “This is a real disgrace,” Annan declared. He continued, “We have failed twice this year.… I hope the leaders will see this as a real signal for them to pick up the ashes and really show leadership on this important issue when we are all concerned about weapons of mass destruction and the possibility that they may even get into the wrong hands.”

Following the fruitless NPT review conference, Annan had seized on the September summit as a second chance for finding common ground on addressing global weapons threats. “Bold commitments at the September meeting would breathe new life into all forums dealing with disarmament and nonproliferation,” Annan wrote May 30 in the International Herald Tribune.

Seven countries—Australia, Chile, Indonesia, Norway, Romania, South Africa, and the United Kingdom—banded together to see if they could help bridge the growing fissures exposed by the May meeting. In a July 26 statement, they warned that, if countries could not put aside their differences and unite on nonproliferation and disarmament, “[w]e believe that failure to do so may ultimately imperil peaceful nuclear cooperation and our shared vision for a world free of nuclear weapons.”

Yet, the same divisions that frustrated the NPT conference confounded the September summit. Saying the focal point should be stemming proliferation, the United States spearheaded opposition to all language supporting disarmament. Egypt and other members of the Nonaligned Movement pushed back, insisting on the inclusion of disarmament.

Negotiators also had to contend with additional opposition from India, Israel, and Pakistan to any reference calling for treaty commitments to be made universal. These three nuclear-armed states have never signed the NPT and had not participated at the May meeting.

In a Sept. 1 letter on the proposed summit document sent to other delegations, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations John Bolton criticized that it “does not express the gravity of the WMD threats facing the international community, nor does it place this challenge in the proper context.” Indeed, he argued that one element “emphasizes disarmament, when the true threat to international security stems from proliferation.”

Bolton further objected to any mention of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which bans nuclear testing. The Bush administration opposes the CTBT but says it has no plans to conduct a nuclear test. However, it maintains that the emergence of new threats or a technical failure in existing U.S. weapons may necessitate a resumption of testing.

Richard Grenell, spokesperson for the U.S. mission to the UN, told Arms Control Today Sept. 19 that “nobody should be surprised” by the September outcome because of long-standing U.S. positions on these issues. He added, “We put forward a lot of creative ideas on punishing proliferators, but others were not willing to be as creative and just wanted to talk about disarmament.”

Two arms-related initiatives were preserved in the peacekeeping section of the final document adopted by world leaders. One calls for implementation of the 2001 UN program of action on preventing illicit transfers of small arms (see box), and another urges states to adhere to their commitments on limiting the use of or eliminating anti-personnel landmines.

One of the many disarmament items that the United States succeeded in stripping from the document was a call to revitalize the moribund CD, which last produced an agreement, the CTBT, in 1996. Any hope of injecting life into the CD, however, will have to wait until 2006 because it closed its third and final session Sept. 23 without having started treaty negotiations.

The United States pushed the conference this year to negotiate a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) to prohibit the production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium for weapons purposes. It also asked members to conclude this agreement without verification measures because the United States claims an FMCT cannot be crafted to prevent cheating. This stance conflicts with past U.S. positions and a 1995 CD decision to negotiate an “effectively verifiable” FMCT. (See ACT, September 2004.)

Some CD members opposed the U.S. FMCT position. Other members, led by China and Russia, demanded that the United States consent to talks on the prevention of an arms race in outer space in conjunction with FMCT negotiations. Others called for similar attention to nuclear disarmament. The United States adamantly rejected such linkages. As a result, the conference, which operates by consensus, was stalemated all of 2005. It will resume meeting in January 2006.