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Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
Negotiations Elude Disarmament Body Again
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Wade Boese

Despite its claim to be the “single multilateral disarmament negotiating forum of the international community,” the 65-member Conference on Disarmament (CD) recently concluded its ninth consecutive year without any treaty negotiations. A majority of members failed to persuade China, Iran, and Pakistan to support the latest proposal to revive work at the moribund conference, but many pledged to continue their efforts next year.

Since completing the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, conference members, particularly the United States and China, have clashed over negotiating priorities. Washington, Tokyo, and European capitals back the conclusion of a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) to end the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for weapons purposes. The Geneva-based conference briefly held FMCT negotiations in 1998, but they did not produce any results, and the talks did not carry over to the following year.

Beijing and Moscow, in contrast, support negotiating a new agreement on restricting future weapons deployments in outer space, while non-nuclear-weapon states lobby for action on nuclear disarmament and assurances that they will not be attacked with nuclear arms.

After 1998, members have debated various compromises to satisfy all of the competing demands. None has won the consensus required to officially start work.

Members this year focused on a March 23 initiative as the best hope to end the negotiating dry spell. That proposal calls for FMCT negotiations and less formal talks on outer space, nuclear disarmament, and assurances for states without nuclear weapons. (See ACT, April 2007. )

Many countries quickly threw their support to the package or, like France and the United States, signaled they would not block it. Russia postponed until next year submission of a draft treaty on the prevention of an arms race in outer space, reportedly to avoid bogging down deliberations over the March initiative.

Still, some states raised reservations or objections to the March proposal. A few of those countries, such as India, eventually and grudgingly accepted the package; but China, Iran, and Pakistan could not be swayed before the 2007 conference’s Sept. 14 close.

China, as well as Iran, contends the package does not ensure enough “substantive” work on issues other than an FMCT. Although Beijing in August 2003 dropped its insistence on outer space negotiations, it apparently wants reassurance that consenting to outer space discussions under the current proposal would not foreclose the possibility of future negotiations.

Some Western officials familiar with the conference speculate that Beijing is using the outer space issue to avoid FMCT negotiations. China is the only recognized nuclear-weapon state—the other four are France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—that has not publicly declared a moratorium on fissile material production for weapons. A senior U.S. official Sept. 20 told Arms Control Today that “if China decides negotiations on an FMCT are in its interests, Iran and Pakistan may reevaluate their position.”

Several CD diplomats interviewed in September by Arms Control Today, however, suggested that Pakistan presents the biggest hurdle to future adoption of the March package. Masood Khan, Pakistan’s ambassador to the conference, said in a Sept. 13 speech that the four core issues should receive “equal and balanced treatment.” That position is unacceptable to several countries, particularly France and the United States.

Islamabad also charges that the fissile material treaty part of the package is inadequate. The proposal states that FMCT negotiations should be conducted “without any preconditions.”

Pakistan maintains that a prescribed goal of any fissile material treaty negotiations should be an accord that is verifiable, an objective initially endorsed by the entire conference in 1995 but rejected by the Bush administration in 2004. (See ACT, September 2004. ) Administration officials say governments would waste money and time on creating verification measures that ultimately would burden lawful states and fail to deter cheaters.

The U.S. position has little support, yet most CD members, unlike Pakistan, have relented on proclaiming “verifiability” as a fixed goal of negotiations to accommodate the United States. The senior U.S. official said that Washington understands that not all governments accept the U.S. position at “face value” and therefore it is “prepared to make [its] case in the course of negotiations if others should propose a [verification] regime.” 

Pakistan also wants a fissile material treaty negotiation mandate to explicitly note that countries may explore measures on existing stockpiles of fissile material instead of focusing narrowly on halting fissile material production for weapons. Pakistan has long favored such an approach because it does not want a future FMCT to have the effect of freezing existing fissile material imbalances between it and India.

Indeed, Islamabad is pointing to a two-year-old Bush administration initiative to increase U.S. and global civilian nuclear trade with New Delhi as jeopardizing Pakistani security and justifying its hard-lines on a fissile material treaty. Pakistan’s National Command Authority, which includes President General Pervez Musharraf and Pakistan’s foreign affairs and defense ministers, warned in an Aug. 2 press release that the U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation deal would “enable India to produce significant quantities of fissile material and nuclear weapons.”

Washington contends the deal is solely about aiding India’s nuclear energy growth, while critics charge it also will benefit India’s military complex by enabling New Delhi to devote more of its limited domestic resources to building nuclear bombs. (See ACT, September 2007. ) Islamabad argues that it should have been offered a similar arrangement.

Despite the stiff resistance of Pakistan to the March proposal, the CD diplomats interviewed by Arms Control Today see it as the likely starting point for discussions when the conference reconvenes Jan. 21, 2008. Sergio Duarte, the UN high representative for disarmament affairs, exhorted the conference Aug. 21 that it “stands tantalizingly one short step away from resolving its long-standing impasse.”

Some ambassadors ending their tenures at the conference used farewell speeches to express their frustration with the conference’s failure to move sooner. Speaking Aug. 16, departing Canadian Ambassador Paul Meyer argued that “[i]f the CD was a business, it would have been declared insolvent long ago and shut down,” while Italian Ambassador Carlo Trezza lamented Sept. 13 that conference diplomacy amounted to “negotiation on negotiations.”

Swedish Ambassador Elisabet Borsiin Bonnier complained sharply Aug. 30 of witnessing “an anemic stalemate with delegations resorting to recitals of ceremonious mantras, covering up the traces of their own passivity by useless finger-pointing and blame games, hiding behind the commas of the rules of procedure and shamelessly abusing the consensus rule to abort any attempt to seriously tackle difficult or sensitive issues.” Nonetheless, she concluded by saying that she left the conference “with hope and expectations.”

Then-Acting Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Stephen Rademaker implied last year to the conference that if it did not initiate FMCT negotiations soon, the United States would reconsider its CD participation. The senior U.S. official declined to say if the United States would scale back its presence next year, simply saying that “Americans believe in results, not endless process games.” The United States is scheduled to be one of six countries to occupy the body’s rotating presidency next year.