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Former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and WMD Terrorism
UN Body Forms Group to Break Deadlock
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Tom Z. Collina

Seeking to overcome 16 years of gridlock, the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD) agreed Aug. 16 to create an informal working group tasked with developing a work plan for the 65-nation negotiating body.

The new working group, open to all member states, will be co-chaired by Luis Gallegos Chiriboga of Ecuador and Peter Woolcott of Australia, those countries’ ambassadors to the CD. The group will meet for the remainder of the 2013 session and can be reconvened in 2014.

Like the CD itself, all decisions of the working group must be made by consensus. The lack of consensus has prevented the full conference from agreeing to a work plan for the past 16 years. The last arms control treaty negotiated by the UN-backed CD was the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, completed in 1996.

Since then, the United States, Russia, and many Western countries have sought a mandate at the conference to negotiate a treaty to ban the production of fissile materials for weapons, known as a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT). But Pakistan opposes the start of FMCT talks unless the negotiating mandate explicitly includes the issue of existing stocks of materials, not just new production. The United States, Russia, and others oppose that approach.

A preliminary work plan was approved in 2009, but then collapsed after Pakistan withdrew its support. Pakistan says that it has a smaller stockpile of fissile materials than India and that a production freeze would put Islamabad at a disadvantage.

The ongoing CD stalemate has led to efforts to seek progress in other forums, such as the United Nations in New York. In November, the UN General Assembly First Committee passed three resolutions that create other, complementary bodies, such as a group of governmental experts. In an April statement, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States “expressed the hope” that the group of governmental experts “will help spur negotiations” in the CD. (See ACT, May 2013.)

Mohammad Sabir Ismail, the Iraqi ambassador to the CD and president of the body, said he hoped that the decision on the working group would start a new phase for the CD and lead to a return to substantive work. But given the consensus requirement for the working group, independent UN observers were less optimistic that the decision represented a step forward. The nongovernmental group Reaching Critical Will, which monitors UN negotiations, said in a statement that “16 years of deadlock has significantly lowered the bar for what constitutes progress.”