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Conference on Disarmament

Ambiguity and frustration on nuclear disarmament in the Conference on Disarmament (CD)

by Tim Caughley

Negotiations to bring about the elimination of nuclear weapons are not going to happen in the Conference on Disarmament (CD) anytime soon. Efforts of the current president of the CD (Mexico) to achieve agreement on a programme of work CD/WP.584 for 2015 have so far proved fruitless.

In an attempt to bridge the divergence of views over the CD’s priorities, the president proposed that all items on the agenda of the Conference be taken forward on an identical footing. Negotiations would be undertaken on each item in plenary (the default forum of the CD) according to a schedule spelled out in the programme of work.

CD exterior

Exterior of the CD in Geneva

The president’s draft work programme envisaged seven negotiations. The negotiation of a treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons was first on the list. Next came negotiations on nuclear disarmament, prevention of the deployment of weapons in outer space, multilaterally agreed security assurances and so on. But the proposal fell at the first hurdle when Pakistan opposed negotiations on a fissile material treaty.

1. Under the CD’s rules a single country is able to prevent the Conference from pursuing a proposed course of action. When the proposal–as in this case–encompassed a number of actions, objection to one of them resulted in all being stopped in their tracks. So long as the future of one action in the work programme is so intrinsically linked to the future of another, they are all stillborn.

2. The CD’s rules also require that the work programme be formally adopted before any engagement on substance can occur. The rules are not intended to obstruct progress but to facilitate it. In that spirit, the president no doubt hoped that difficulties any member had with a proposed negotiation would be voiced during the actual negotiations on that item rather than to prevent any negotiations even taking place.

3. The all-or-nothing outcome has a worrying side effect. Blocking one element of the package means that the viability of none of the others is tested. If the fissile material negotiation had not been a problem for one state, would another CD member have opposed negotiations on nuclear disarmament or outer space etc.? Are other countries hiding behind Pakistan? The answer to this question hangs unhealthily in the CD’s torpid atmosphere.

Once again in the CD, bad habits have overcome hope. This latest decision, however, has an upside—if there is an upside for a body whose last success, the CTBT, was almost 20 years ago. The proposal has in effect narrowed the CD’s choices to two: adjourn indefinitely to save the Conference from the indignity of continued lack of productivity, or develop a programme of work pared down to the essentials along these lines:

The Conference will carry out its work in plenary, agenda item by agenda item, until it deems it desirable for a subsidiary body to be established to negotiate that item in a more intense, informal manner. The Conference will then decide on a mandate for such a body. If several subsidiary bodies are required, their mandates will not be linked unless the CD decides otherwise. A schedule of activities is attached (i.e. a timetable would be part of the decision).

This would not guarantee a new lease of life for the CD. But it might return the Conference to the better practices of its early existence. It would, in any event, facilitate a reality check among the CD’s members. If no discussion matured sufficiently to justify setting up a subsidiary body, the fate of the relevant item would then be clear to members, at least in terms of its future in the CD (as opposed to the United Nations General Assembly with its more flexible decision-making rules and procedures).

Meanwhile, as far as nuclear disarmament is concerned, the attention of most of the Conference’s members will now turn from the CD to the NPT Review Conference at the end of April, and to the growing demand of NPT parties for the negotiation of effective measures towards the elimination of nuclear weapons. This will also be a focus for comments on this website in the weeks between now and 27 April when the Review Conference gets underway as well as during its four-week session.