"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."
– Senator Joe Biden
January 28, 2004
UN Tackles Disarmament Machinery

Peter Crail

Following a rare high-level meeting of UN members in September discussing ways to “revitalize” UN bodies addressing disarmament and nonproliferation, this year’s First Committee deliberations paid considerable attention to the role and methods of the international “disarmament machinery.”

At the heart of the discussions on the disarmament machinery lies an increasing frustration with the failure of the Conference on Disarmament (CD), the UN disarmament negotiating forum, to commence substantive work over the past 12 years. The high-level meeting convened by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Sept. 24 focused particularly on the working methods of the CD, which requires consensus for substantive as well as procedural issues, and placed the issue on the First Committee agenda this fall. (See ACT, October 2010.)

Diplomatic sources said in October that the First Committee discussions following that meeting only retraced the divisions that existed. The First Committee is the UN General Assembly forum in which UN members discuss disarmament and international security matters.

Although some delegations argued in the committee that the difficulties faced in the disarmament bodies are related to a lack of political will rather than the machinery itself, others pointed specifically to the workings of the UN bodies as hurdles to progress on disarmament issues.

“It is particularly frustrating that, at a time when the momentum on disarmament has rarely been stronger, the machinery itself has become an obstacle to capitalize on this momentum,” Ambassador Hilde Skorpen of Norway said during an Oct. 18 debate on the topic.

A number of countries, including Australia, Japan, and the United States, echoed her sentiments and suggested that if the CD remained unable to begin negotiations on a treaty banning the production of fissile material, such a treaty should be pursued outside the CD.

The CD adopted a work program last year for the first time in more than a decade, but since then, Pakistan has blocked the start of negotiations, expressing concerns that a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) would not affect India’s existing stocks of fissile material.

In an Oct. 18 statement, Laura Kennedy, U.S. permanent representative to the CD, said that “it strikes us as unwarranted for a single country to abuse the consensus principle and thereby frustrate everyone’s desire to resume serious disarmament efforts.”

Islamabad’s opposition to language on an FMCT in the First Committee was far more pronounced than in previous years. Although Pakistan joined the consensus in a resolution supporting the commencement of negotiations on such a treaty last year, it was the sole country to vote in opposition in October. North Korea and Syria abstained.

Pakistan also cast the sole “no” votes against amendments calling for FMCT negotiations in two separate resolutions on nuclear disarmament and joined China and North Korea in voting against a similar amendment in a third such resolution. The third resolution, sponsored by Japan, not only promoted FMCT negotiations, but also called on states to declare moratoriums on fissile material production.

China is the only recognized nuclear-weapon state not to have declared such a moratorium, although it is widely believed to have stopped fissile material production in the early 1990s.

In an Oct. 14 statement explaining Islamabad’s position on an FMCT, Pakistani Permanent Representative to the CD Zamir Akram suggested that a 2008 exemption for civilian cooperation with India in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) “shall further accentuate the existing asymmetry of fissile material stockpiles in our region.” (See ACT, October 2008.)

The NSG is an informal collection of 46 major suppliers of nuclear goods.

U.S. Hesitant on Space Initiatives

In the First Committee’s discussion of outer space and space security issues, the United States continued to highlight its ongoing consideration of transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space and of legally binding space security measures following its decision to carry out a space policy review last year. Washington released its new space policy in June in a document promoting confidence-building measures in space and stating an openness to arms control measures “if they are equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the national security of the United States and its allies.” (See ACT, September 2010.)

Between 2006 and 2009, the United States opposed multilateral arms control initiatives on space.

In spite of the policy shift, the Obama administration indicated that it still would not vote in favor of the specific First Committee resolutions on space, including those promoting transparency and confidence-building steps, and legally binding arrangements.

The United States abstained on a Russian-sponsored resolution calling for a group of governmental experts to study the prospect of transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space because of a preambular reference to a Chinese-Russian proposal on a treaty banning weapons in outer space in the CD.

In an Oct. 22 statement, Kennedy said the United States could not support “artificial linkages” between transparency and confidence-building measures on the one hand and “fundamentally flawed proposals for arms control” such as the Chinese-Russian treaty proposal on the other. She noted that China and Russia acknowledge that such a treaty is unverifiable and that it does not prohibit the development of ground-based anti-satellite weapons.

The measure was otherwise adopted with 167 countries voting in favor, none opposed, and none besides the United States abstaining.

The United States continued to abstain on the annual resolution in the CD calling for the negotiation of a treaty on preventing an arms race in space. U.S. officials have said that Washington supports discussions, but not negotiations, on this topic at the CD.

Debate on Small Arms

Prolonged negotiations took place during the committee session over the adoption of a resolution tabled by Colombia, Japan, and South Africa on combating the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons.

Although no states opposed the measure, Mexico submitted an amendment stating that such illicit trade hampers social and economic development. The language in the amendment was agreed at a June meeting, chaired by Mexico, of states-parties to the UN program of action on small arms, an international instrument on combating illicit small arms proliferation. (See ACT, July/August 2010.)

The amendment also called for the 2012 program of action review conference to consider ways to strengthen the accord.

Japan indicated that the Mexican language was included in an initial committee draft, but that Japan could not obtain consensus on the language and removed it. Mexico insisted that it would not favor the adoption of the resolution without the amended language.

In an Oct. 29 vote, the Mexican amendment was defeated by a vote of 19-54, with 70 countries abstaining. The states voting against the amendment included major industrialized countries, including the United States, and many developing nations.

The original resolution then was adopted with 167 votes and Mexico abstaining.