Positive Steps at the Conference on Disarmament

Tasneem Jamal

Sarah Estabrooks

The Ploughshares Monitor Autumn 2003 Volume 24 Issue 3

After nearly a decade of stalemate, in which the Conference on Disarmament (CD) was unable to agree on a program of work, recent announcements by Russia and China might indicate a break in the logjam of multilateral arms treaty negotiations.

The Conference on Disarmament is the world’s primary multilateral disarmament treaty negotiating body. In theory, the 66 member States address all areas of disarmament and arms control. Since completion of difficult negotiations on the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1996, however, the CD has been in deadlock.

The greatest source of disagreement has been the item, Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS), which was up for discussion in 1995. Disagreement between China and the US prevented the creation of an ad hoc committee to continue negotiations. The US has consistently opposed PAROS, arguing that there is no space race, and therefore no need to negotiate a treaty. In 1997 China insisted that PAROS discussions continue in parallel with the final negotiations of the Fissile Material Control Treaty (FMCT). China’s insistence on linking the items and US opposition to PAROS effectively paralyzed the CD, which operates on consensus.

The most recent proposal to break the CD deadlock is known as “The Five Ambassadors’ Initiative,” referred to as the A5 proposal. Submitted in January 2003 by the Ambassadors of Algeria, Belgium, Chile, Colombia, and Sweden – all former CD Presidents – the proposal calls for the creation of four ad hoc committees: one to complete negotiations on a treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other explosive devices; a second to negotiate an effective agreement on negative security assurances; and the third and fourth to “deal with” the issues of nuclear disarmament and PAROS. In addition, three Special Coordinators would be appointed to examine new types of nuclear weapons, including radiological weapons; the comprehensive program of disarmament; and transparency in armaments.

On June 26, seeking to gain full support for the A5 proposal, Ambassador Lint of Belgium proposed compromise PAROS language. The original text stated: “The Ad hoc Committee shall identify and examine, without limitation and without prejudice, any specific topics or proposals, which could include confidence-building or transparency measures, general principles, treaty commitments and the elaboration of a regime capable of preventing an arms race in outer space.” The amended language replaced “without prejudice” with “including the possibility of negotiating a relevant international legal instrument.”

On July 31, during the third session of the CD, Russia and China introduced a working paper on PAROS, Compilation of Comments and Suggestions to the CD (CD/1679), that presented ideas shared during informal discussions among member States. In releasing the paper, the Russian Ambassador welcomed the evolving A5 proposal, noting: “We hope that further contacts on this initiative will result in a compromise decisions [sic] and the Conference would be able to start at last its substantive work.”

A week after releasing the working paper, China announced its backing for the proposal, surprising most with its willingness to concede on PAROS:

In order for the CD to restart its substantive work and taking into consideration the concerns of relevant sides, China would like to demonstrate flexibility once again. China accepts the mandate of the PAROS Ad Hoc committee as proposed and tabled by the Five Ambassadors on June 26 and is prepared to join the consensus on the A5 initiative on the program of work (CD/1963, with the new wording as amended on June 26). It is our hope that other relevant sides respond positively to China’s constructive attitude, so that the CD could start substantive work as early as possible.

Noting that its preferred language was “with a view to negotiating a relevant international legal instrument” (emphasis added), China accepted the text as amended by Ambassador Lint.

The Chinese announcement was a significant breakthrough. There is wide support for the program of work in the A5 proposal among non-nuclear-weapon States, and now China, the UK, and Russia have indicated their support. France is still holding out on the nuclear disarmament issue, insisting that there is no French translation for the expression “to deal with.”

While the US has not officially stated its position, indications are that it remains the major holdout to acceptance of the A5 program of work. Along with negative security assurances, PAROS continues to be a sticking point. However, refusal to support the finalization of the FMCT negotiation, which is primarily a non-proliferation and anti-terrorist measure, clearly would not be in the best interests of the US in the current security environment. Rejecting the A5 proposal would mean blocking progress on negotiations of an initiative it supports.

The third and final session of the 2003 CD has ended with the final report submitted by the President, Ambassador Kuniko Inoguchi of Japan. It remains to be seen if the US will support the Five Ambassadors proposal and a program of work will be approved for the 2004 session.

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