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former Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration
March 7, 2018
Stalled CD Sparks Plans for Sept. UN Meeting
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Peter Crail

Members of the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament (CD) remained sharply divided in August over the body’s work, as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon prepared for an effort to kick-start talks on substantive issues. The CD is the sole multilateral negotiating body on disarmament issues.

In May the parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) invited Ban to hold a high-level meeting in September to support the work of the CD, which operates on a consensus basis and has been plagued by years of deadlock. With brief exceptions, the CD has been unable to begin substantive work since 1995.

Ban announced last month that he would hold such a meeting Sept. 24, stating that the dialogue “will provide a unique opportunity to discuss how to revitalize the work of the Conference on Disarmament and build consensus on the broader challenges of disarmament—including moving forward” on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT). The CD’s current primary agenda item is the negotiation of an FMCT, which would halt the production of material for nuclear weapons.

The high-level meeting is scheduled for five hours Sept. 24 and will be open to all UN members to deliver brief statements, primarily by their foreign ministers. The UN Secretariat has indicated that the outcome of that meeting will consist of a chair’s summary by Ban, which would include his own views as well as those of the participants.

Diplomatic sources said that expectations for the UN gathering were low, given continued intense disagreement over key substantive and procedural issues. Sources also said that some delegations have suggested that a follow-up discussion to the high-level meeting during the General Assembly later this year would be helpful to ensure continued efforts to break the deadlock.

CD members held discussions on the high-level meeting in late August, but several delegations expressed concern over the purpose and prospects of such a session.

Pakistan in particular, which has held up CD consensus on starting negotiations on an FMCT, said during an Aug. 24 discussion that Western countries were only interested in an FMCT and predicted that the UN Secretary-General summary would reflect this preference. Diplomatic sources said that the five NPT nuclear-weapon powers want the Sept. 24 meeting to focus solely on starting FMCT negotiations next year. Iran, Pakistan, and other developing states have pressed for negotiations on other topics, such as nuclear disarmament.

Beyond the high-level meeting, the CD discussed the prospect of holding a parallel process outside the CD to address an FMCT, skirting the body’s strict consensus rules. CD Secretary-General Sergey Ordzhonikidze said during the Aug. 24 session that the CD likely has a year to start substantive work before some members organize such outside initiatives.

The effort could be similar to a 1996 Canadian-led initiative that brought the issue of an anti-personnel landmine ban outside the CD, resulting in a global treaty banning such weapons the following year. Many key countries making use of such arms, however, remain outside that accord, including the United States.

Several delegations, including those of Canada, Germany, Mexico, and the Netherlands, expressed support for a parallel process on an FMCT. The Dutch ambassador, Paul van den Ijssel, stressed that his government did not want to wait another year for the CD to start negotiations on an FMCT.

A number of delegations opposed such a move, and Algeria and Pakistan suggested that the high-level meeting prevent initiatives outside the CD. Islamabad added that it would not attend any negotiations outside the CD on an FMCT.

Pakistan has been scaling up its fissile material production in recent years.