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The Conference on Disarmament Agrees to Start Working: A Wake-up Call for 'Sleeping Beauty'?

The Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD) recently decided to start substantive work after failing to adopt a programme of work for two decades.  

Is this the result of the adoption of the Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons and the attribution of the Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Ban Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)? Does this procedural decision imply more flexible positions on the part of some countries, including those possessing nuclear weapons? Is there any chance that the CD would commence serious negotiations about the items on its agenda? Expectations seem to remain modest in the Geneva disarmament community.

On 16 February 2018, after intensive consultations, the current President of the Geneva Conference on Disarmament (CD), Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha of Sri Lanka, banged his gavel to mark the decision of the CD to start substantive work. This decision may not have hit the headlines in the world media, but for most members of the disarmament community, it was an unexpected achievement. 

In recent years, the 65 Members of the Conference, established in 1979, agreed by consensus on a formal programme of work only in 1998 and 2009. Those attempts were short-lived since they were defeated by further disagreements about which items to negotiate on and on linkages established between some of those issues. This is why the CD, which had not negotiated any single agreement since the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty adopted in 1996, was often derided as the ‘Geneva Sleeping Beauty’.

Traditionally, the Non-Aligned countries (Group of 21) demanded negotiations on nuclear disarmament, on assurances of non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states, or on the prevention of an arms race in outer space (supported by Russia and China). Those topics were not considered ripe for the actual negotiation of treaties by Western countries, which gave priority to a treaty prohibiting the future production of fissile material for nuclear weapons (FMCT). The latter was opposed by countries like Pakistan, which wanted to include provisions about past production or existing stockpiles.

A Compromise to Start Working

The compromise achieved thanks to the diplomatic skills of the President paves the way for the establishment of four subsidiary bodies (Ad Hoc Committees) to explore the possible common ground on the so-called four ‘core issues’ of the agenda (adopted by the UN General Assembly):

  1. Cessation of the nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament
  2. Prevention of nuclear war, including all related matters
  3. Prevention of an arms race in outer space
  4. Effective international arrangements to assure non-nuclear-weapon States against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons (“negative security assurances”)

 In addition, a fifth subsidiary body will examine the remaining agenda items:

  1. New types of weapons of mass destruction and new systems of such weapons; radiological weapons
  2. Comprehensive programme of disarmament
  3. Transparency in armaments

This decision reflects the necessary ‘constructive ambiguity’ and the flexibility required to rally consensus between the states that wish to jump start the negotiations and those who are less enthusiastic and advocate more exploratory talks.

The Secretary-General of the United Nations welcomed this adoption by stating that “the current international security situation underscores the vital need to restore disarmament as an integral component of our collective efforts to prevent armed conflict and to maintain international peace and security.” Indeed the international context of tensions and increased risk of use of nuclear weapons calls for a more rules-based, less declaratory, multilateral approach aiming at restoring dialogue and mutual trust, which are prerequisites for regulating or eliminating armaments.

Unlikely Prospects for Breakthroughs

The main advantage of the framework offered by the CD is its representativeness: it includes the five nuclear-weapon states party to the Non-proliferation Treaty (China, France, Russia, UK, US) as well as the other possessor states (India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan) and a number of key regional countries. This gives each Member State the confidence that it can protect its national security interests by vetoing any step it disapproves. But, as was demonstrated for years, this is also a cause for paralysis of the institution. As a matter of fact, all the major arms control and disarmament agreements adopted in recent years by the international community were negotiated outside this framework: the Ottawa Treaty on Antipersonnel Landmines, the Cluster Munition Convention, the Arms Trade Treaty, and the Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons.

This process was a sign of frustration shared by many states in the international community and large civil society movements such as the International Campaign to Ban Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). Whether the recent decision of the CD was a reaction to this evolution, to regain relevance and credibility is difficult to demonstrate. However, the coincidence seems worth mentioning.

What will the CD be able to achieve within this new framework remains to be seen. Many sceptics fear that nothing will change substantially because procedural decisions cannot overcome the reality of major differences. On the one hand, nuclear-armed states are intent on clinging to their weapons indefinitely and, on the other hand, a majority of countries are determined to achieve their prohibition and elimination sooner than later. In this respect, little room for compromise exists. One can only hope that honest and serious discussions will lead to more respect for past arms control agreements and pave the way for more ‘interim steps’ on the long road towards complete nuclear disarmament.

Marc Finaud is a Senior Programme Advisor and Arms Proliferation Cluster Leader, Emerging Security Challenges Programme, at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP). The author expresses personal views.