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– Lisa Beyer
Bloomberg News
August 27, 2018
The Conference on Disarmament: Getting Back to Business
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Ambassador Paul Meyer

The 65-member-state Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva last negotiated a treaty in 1996, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and for the intervening decade has been engaged in on-and-off discussions that often seemed remote from its mandate as the world’s “sole multilateral disarmament negotiating forum.”

This disappointing state of affairs in turn reflects CD members’ inability to agree on what issues they should take up and how they are to be treated.

For years, the CD has continued with the same underlying agenda, which consists of seven broad, substantive items ranging from “cessation of the nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament” to “transparency in armaments.” Yet, it has failed to agree on a program of work that would translate the general categories of the agenda into a plan for tackling specific issues.

At the root of this failure are differing national priorities, interests, and threat perceptions among the CD member states. To break the logjam, several proposals have been put forward over the years for a CD work program, all entailing activity on four core issues: nuclear disarmament, a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS), and negative security assurances, which are guarantees by nuclear-weapon states not to threaten or use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states. Yet, so far no proposal has received the general acceptance that this consensus-based body requires.

Developing countries have consistently emphasized the need for nuclear disarmament while developed countries have cited conclusion of an FMCT as their top goal. Russia and China consider PAROS to be their priority issue. The differences are exacerbated when some states insist that only their preferred item should figure in an eventual CD work program. For instance, the United States has insisted on limiting the work program to an FMCT while Russia and China demand attention to PAROS. The United States decries this Sino-Russian “linkage” as others are equally vocal about the necessity to ensure that their priorities are also accommodated. Whether one prefers to speak of “linkage” or “respect for the concerns of others,” it has long been evident that, in a body that follows a strict consensus rule for decision-making, it will not be feasible to obtain agreement on a program of work that does not at least address these four core issues.

Frustration over the impasse at the CD has been steadily mounting in the wake of the failed nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference in 2005 and the absence of any agreed text on nonproliferation and disarmament in the UN Summit Outcome document later that same year. In response, the six presidents of the CD for 2006 ( Poland, South Korea, Romania, Russia, Senegal, and Slovakia) launched an initiative to have a “common platform” to govern CD activity during the year. Previously, each president had acted independently during his or her tenure. The so-called six presidents’ (P6) initiative established a timetable for 2006 that included one week of “focused structured discussion” for each of the seven substantive items on the CD agenda.

The P6 initiative was a major experiment and yielded some distinct benefits. It provided much needed continuity among all six presidents. It identified specific times for the focused discussion, thus allowing for proper preparation, including the possibility for expert participation. As a presidential initiative, it did not require formal agreement by the conference and could simply proceed. The exchanges that did occur during the designated “theme” weeks were intense, involving in many cases experts from capitals, and generated several useful working papers that complemented the oral interventions. During a week in mid-May that focused on an FMCT, the United States tabled a draft negotiating mandate and draft treaty text. That marked an important sign of U.S. re-engagement in the conference after a protracted period in which Washington was enmeshed in an internal review of the FMCT issue and did not take a position on the question within the CD.

A swallow does not a summer make, however, or a week’s discussion a negotiating forum. Although the P6 initiative brought some benefits, it also had some clear deficiencies, which became more apparent and irksome as the year proceeded. The process only provided for one week of focused discussion per agenda item, and its rigidity did not allow work on a given topic to continue after its week in the limelight was over. It also did not differentiate between an issue such as an FMCT, which enjoys wide support and is ripe for negotiation, and an item such as “Comprehensive Program of Disarmament,” with no current proposal for action. Finally, as the P6 initiative was an informal one, there was no official status granted to the work done pursuant to it and no formal way of carrying this work forward. The prospects for next year remain wide open and in the hands of the incoming president, Ambassador Glaudine Mtshali of South Africa. Mtshali is already actively consulting with member states as to what could be done with the CD in 2007.

The view that next year’s deliberations at the CD cannot be a simple repetition of 2006 is widely held. At a minimum, many delegations would want to see a program that would provide for sustained work and a far greater utilization of the time available to the conference (the conference often meets only one or two half-days per week when it is in session). In addition, an improved program would need to differentiate between issues instead of applying an artificial equality of treatment among the different agenda items. Finally, it should allow for some official status to its proceedings so that progress is built on and appropriately recorded.

Ideally, the conference would agree next year to establish one or more subsidiary bodies to focus activity on the selected issues. Subsidiary bodies, such as ad hoc committees or working groups, would enable the various issues to be treated at their own pace, as decided by the chairs of the respective bodies, and would thus avoid the problem of the conference having to decide on an equitable allocation of time per issue. Contrary to what some suggest, nothing in the CD’s rules of procedure equate the establishment of an ad hoc committee with acceptance of a negotiating mandate. Subsidiary bodies are simply organizational tools that assist the conference in its functions.

From a Canadian perspective, a CD work program that would be both substantive and generally acceptable would have three components: a negotiating mandate for an FMCT, a discussion mandate for PAROS, and a discussion mandate for nuclear disarmament under which rubric the topic of negative security assurances could be subsumed. This would represent a manageable work program reflective of these issues’ relative state of development. Further, such a program would enable all key constituencies of the CD to claim that their priority issue was being addressed. It is worth recalling that the immediate commencement of negotiation of an FMCT and the establishment of a subsidiary body on nuclear disarmament were two specific tasks that the 2000 NPT review conference assigned to the CD. The failure to deliver on these agreements has been one of the factors contributing to the current crisis of confidence surrounding that treaty.

Similarly, the international community for many years has called for the establishment of an ad hoc committee on PAROS at the CD in a series of UN General Assembly First Committee resolutions. The most recent resolution was adopted with the support of 166 states. Only the United States stood in opposition, while two countries, Israel and Cote d’Ivoire, abstained ( Cote d’Ivoire’s representatives subsequently stating that they had intended to vote yes). These indicators demonstrate the wide political support for the CD taking action on an FMCT, nuclear disarmament, and PAROS.

The outgoing and incoming CD presidents are tasked with conducting consultations during the current intersessional period and recommending a program of work that could be agreed on. It is Canada’s hope and that of many other CD members that the consultations will yield a breakthrough in identifying a program of work that could command consensus support when the CD reconvenes next month. A promising indicator in this regard was the statement made to the CD on May 18 by Stephen Rademaker, then assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, which included the affirmation that the U.S. delegation “believes that the CD could continue to discuss other, so-called traditional issues as it conducts FMCT negotiations.” This stance appears compatible with a program of work that would combine negotiation of an FMCT with discussion of PAROS, nuclear disarmament, and possibly nuclear security assurances.

All the elements of a generally acceptable work program for the CD are at hand. All that is required now is an act of political engagement by some key member states to realize an agreement. Some have decried the “linkage” politics that they see being applied at the CD, but realistically, in a consensus-based, multilateral forum, there needs to be something for everyone if a universally acceptable outcome is to be arrived at. At the St. Petersburg summit this July, the Group of Eight states dedicated themselves to the reinvigoration of multilateral disarmament and nonproliferation fora “beginning with the Conference on Disarmament.”

Progress on multilateral arms control and disarmament is particularly critical now, given the grave challenges facing the global nonproliferation, arms control, and disarmament regime and the growing concern that we are sliding back into an anarchical nuclear world. There is nothing wrong at the CD that a little concerted diplomacy cannot fix. The alternative is another year of “going through the motions” at the CD while failing to progress on issues of real importance for the health and future viability of the regime.

Ambassador Paul Meyer is Canada’s permanent representative to the United Nations for disarmament. In that capacity, he has led Canada’s delegation to the First Committee of the UN General Assembly, to the Conference on Disarmament, and to meetings of states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the Biological Weapons Convention. He has served in Canada’s Foreign Service for three decades, including as director-general of the international security bureau from 1998 to 2001. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada.