I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb.

– Vincent Intondi
Professor of History, Montgomery College (Takoma Park, Maryland)
July 1, 2020
Conference on Disarmament Comes Up Empty Again

Manasi Kakatkar

Despite urging from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and many participating governments, the 65-member Conference on Disarmament (CD) proved unable in 2008 to break its long-standing stalemate on negotiating priorities. It has been 12 years since the CD last produced an arms control agreement.

In March, this year’s conference presidents proposed a program of work for the 2008 session, but it failed to win consensus support from members even by the end of the session in September. The draft program included appointing Ambassador Sumio Tarui of Japan as the coordinator for negotiations on a proposed fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), which would ban the production of fissile material—plutonium and highly enriched uranium—for weapons purposes. Such negotiations would be conducted without preconditions, including over verification issues, and allow all delegations to pursue their positions and submit proposals on issues relevant to them.

Since the UN General Assembly called for FMCT negotiations in 1993, differences over whether the talks should address existing stocks and require “effective verification” and how to define materials have stalled progress. Some see a treaty excluding existing stocks of fissile materials as useless and weak. In 1995, members of the conference had agreed to begin negotiations on an “effectively verifiable” FMCT under the Shannon mandate, which refers to a negotiating directive for the treaty brokered by Canada’s then-ambassador to the conference, Gerald Shannon.

The Bush administration withdrew its support for the Shannon mandate in 2004 after an internal policy review raised concerns about the verifiability of an FMCT. (See ACT, September 2004.) As such, U.S. officials claim that requisite verification measures would ultimately burden lawful states and fail to deter cheaters. Similarly, France and Pakistan have expressed concerns about intrusive and expensive verification regimes. Several countries have also raised concerns that verification negotiations could prolong talks by years, allowing countries to produce fissile materials until final agreement is reached. However, countries such as Australia, Canada, Japan, and the United Kingdom had distanced themselves from the U.S. position and stressed that verification arrangements are necessary to make an FMCT credible and effective.

In addition to FMCT negotiations, the proposed draft program of work for 2008 would have assigned coordinators to preside over less formal talks on issues of nuclear disarmament and the prevention of nuclear war, prevention of an arms race in outer space, and negative security assurances for non-nuclear-weapon states. (By providing negative security assurances, countries pledge not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states.) The program of work would not have required that specific decisions regarding these issues be taken by the end of the conference, nor would it have prejudiced any future decisions at the conference on these issues.

Most of the countries welcomed and supported the proposal as a compromise basis for ending the stalemate in the conference. However, countries such as Pakistan, Russia, and South Korea criticized it for laying greater emphasis on FMCT negotiations rather than placing equal priority on all four issues or discussing their preferred issue. Ambassador Masood Khan of Pakistan said that the proposal “is crafted with a built-in prejudgment about the outcome of discussions and negotiations.”

Replying to Pakistan’s criticism and demand for a renewed program of work, New Zealand’s ambassador, Don Mackay, said that the program of work does not need to be perfect and states should be willing to put their positions to test without laying down any preconditions for the results of such negotiations. He claimed that the work program was not prejudicial.

Procedural reforms in the conference were also discussed. Norway criticized a conference rule that requires consensus for a work program to move forward, saying that countries misuse it, hampering progress in the CD. Hilda Skorpen, the Norwegian deputy permanent representative, said that it was “time for an open and honest debate about working methods, rules of procedures, consensus principle, seating arrangements for that matter, and not least, the workings of the regional groups.” Ambassador German Mundarain Hernandez of Venezuela demurred, saying that the consensus rule acted as a safeguard in reaching and implementing agreements.

Skorpen also expressed concern that if the conference did not resume substantial discussions, countries would go outside to other fora and methods of negotiations. The United States had expressed similar concern in the past. For example, Stephen Rademaker, acting assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, warned in 2006 that without progress, “the real work of confronting today’s security threats will shift to other fora that are producing results for the international community.” (See ACT, December 2006.)

The session also ended without any action on a draft proposal by Russia and China on the “prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space and the threat of use of force against outer space objects.” The United States maintained that ensuring compliance with a space weapons ban would be difficult due to the inherent ambiguity and dual-use capability of many space technologies and systems. Although the draft proposal obligates parties not to threaten outer space objects, it would not prevent the research and development of air-, sea-, and land-based anti-satellite weapons. (See ACT, March 2008.)

The 2009 CD session will be held in three periods: Jan. 19 to March 27, May 18 to July 3, and Aug. 3 to Sept. 18. The next six rotating presidents of the CD are slated to come from Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe.