Why the Conference on Disarmament still matters

By Fissile Materials Working Group | November 30, 2011

It has expanded from 10 member countries to 65, negotiated seven international nonproliferation and disarmament treaties, and next March turns 52 years old. It is the Conference on Disarmament (CD) — the world’s only disarmament negotiating forum — and, for almost 16 years, it has stagnated in deadlock. The ongoing stalemate has led some to question the forum’s utility and even to suggest conducting negotiations outside of the multilateral body in order to obtain a treaty to halt the production of fissile materials. This would be a mistake.

Enough fissile material for 100,000 nukes. Since the first nuclear explosion in 1945, enough fissile material for 100,000 nuclear warheads has been produced globally. Over the decades, the accumulation and spread of nuclear weapons material have led to calls for their international control to ensure security, nonproliferation, and disarmament. In 1995, the CD approved a mandate to negotiate a “non-discriminatory, multilateral and internationally and effectively verifiable treaty” to ban the “production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.” Such a treaty would have revolutionized nuclear security by limiting the chances that fissile materials are used in nuclear weapons — by state or non-state actors. Three years later, the mandate was adopted in the CD’s program of work, but stalled when consensus fell apart. With the CD in limbo, several countries and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have suggested the possibility that the UN General Assembly get involved. Meanwhile, at a meeting in August, the five recognized nuclear weapon states – the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China (P5) — reiterated support for fissile negotiations in the CD. The United States noted, however, that if the CD process failed, it would prefer negotiations led by the P5, which could potentially exclude vital voices that might be found in the CD or the General Assembly.

Either way, the CD’s history of negotiations demonstrates that the CD’s machinery is not what is holding up talks. Instead, it is countervailing national interests that have deadlocked in response to what has become a distinctly tiered system of nuclear diplomacy. Though it may be tempting for countries to campaign for a solution that includes the General Assembly or the P5 just to move the ball forward, the stalled and often frustrating CD is still the best forum. Why? Because only CD consensus can lead to a global agreement on nonproliferation and disarmament. While the CD can be maddening, no other forums offer buy-in by all major powers.

Climbing out of windows. The CD and its predecessors have established a range of globally recognized treaties that govern the possession of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Still, the CD had a slow start and these provisions were far from perfect: A study published in 1989 concluded that “efforts to curb arms has been decidedly meagre to date.”

But then came the end of the Cold War and the 1990s — years when diplomats were  locked in after a day’s talks had gone long past UN operating hours and were forced to climb out of the windows of Geneva’s Palais des Nations — yielding a flurry of negotiations and agreements:

1. Decades-long negotiations on the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) came to a close in 1993 with its entry into force four years later — the world’s first, and only, internationally verifiable disarmament treaty.

2. Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) negotiations were held from 1994 to 1996.

3. Parallel negotiations on a compliance protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) began in 1995 (outside of the CD, but inside the Palais).

4. The CD adopted a mandate for negotiating a treaty on fissile materials.

Disarmament diplomacy was on a high. The power of CD consensus facilitated the CWC’s entry into force with its unprecedented scope and third-party verification of possession, use, destruction, and nonproliferation of chemical weapons. These weapons were used without restraint throughout the last century, and CWC negotiations were a major global effort, taking nearly 24 years to complete. But the timeline for consensus was worth it: Today, the world is close to being entirely free of chemical weapons, and — with no state employing them in conflict since 1988 — the world is also enjoying its longest chemical peace in a 100 years. Nearly 62 percent of the world’s declared stockpile of 71,194 metric tons has been destroyed and the mission is ongoing. In short, the treaty is working.

Unfortunately, disarmament euphoria did not last. Talks on BWC compliance fell apart in 2001, and, while the CTBT opened for signature in 1996, the treaty still waits for nine countries to ratify or accede before it can enter into force. Despite the success of the CWC, the new millennium brought stagnation, disagreements, and shifting global powers. If CD diplomats are climbing out of windows today, it is because of disarmament despair, not a diplomacy high. Nevertheless, the success of the CWC clearly shows the vital importance of consensus. That’s why this despair is not a function of the CD. It is a reflection of a tiered system of nuclear governance.

Haves, have-nots, and non-haves that have. The 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) created a three-tiered system: “haves” (the P5), “have-nots” (non-nuclear weapons states), and “haves that are considered have-nots” (four non-NPT states parties that possess nuclear weapons — currently, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel). In 2008, a fourth tier was effectively created when India received an exemption by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to make it the only non-NPT state to engage in the global trade of nuclear technology (a move made outside of the CD). Not surprisingly, Pakistan is less than pleased with the NSG deal. For years, China, Russia, and the United States stalled the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) negotiations; since 2009, Pakistan has taken its turn, offering two ways out of the impasse: Either a similar deal is given to Pakistan, or a new treaty is needed to address Pakistan’s fissile disparity with India.

These tiers, and tensions between tiers, have also spilled into the peaceful uses of nuclear technology; emerging powers will not accept the continuation of a tiered system, particularly in the nuclear power industry. Although the ramifications of India’s “fourth tier” are not yet fully understood, it has clearly put additional strains on CD talks. With nine possessors of nuclear weapons today, coupled with a potential tenth, any nuclear negotiations leading toward a treaty are going to be long and arduous. But that is the nature of consensus, and it is the only way to create meaningful global treaties. Going outside of the CD, on the other hand, will lead to P5 nations potentially dominating global nuclear policy, the concerns of smaller states not being heard, a diminishment of worldwide goodwill, and the possibility of yet more tiers.

Tales from outside the CD. Notably — and often forgotten — the CD was unable to reach consensus on the CTBT, with India twice opposing the draft text in 1996. It took a procedural move to introduce the treaty’s text as a draft resolution to the UNGA later that year, where it was adopted by more than two-thirds of the General Assembly’s membership. But India noted that the draft was a non-consensus text and reiterated its opposition: The CTBT’s entry into force provision — requiring India and 43 other countries possessing nuclear reactors to ratify or accede to the convention before enactment — was a breach of international law and affected the sovereignty of India. India also argued the treaty lacked any real commitment toward nuclear disarmament. Since then, the CTBT has been waiting for nine of the 44 nuclear technology states to ratify or accede to the convention: China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, and the United States. In effect, the last treaty negotiated in the CD remains in non-consensus. Passing the CTBT through the General Assembly did not alter this reality; it also did not stop several nations — India, Pakistan, and North Korea — from testing nuclear weapons.

Negotiations on the disarmament of conventional weapons tell a similar story. In 1997, when the CD could not reach consensus for a ban on landmines, a process of civil society, global organizations, and governments took the campaign out of Geneva and held international meetings to draft a landmine treaty. A mine ban entered into force less than two years later; a similar process brought the entry into force of a treaty banning cluster munitions in 2010. But, unlike the CWC, the conventional treaties do not provide for international inspection. Moreover, only two (France and the United Kingdom) out of the nine possessors of nuclear weapons have ratified the conventional disarmament treaties. Conversely, all but two (Israel and North Korea) are party to the CWC, and all but Israel are a party to the BWC.

Frustrating but necessary. The CTBT and conventional disarmament treaties demonstrate that the use of forums outside the CD can yield treaties with some impact. But the CD’s record underscores that consensus rule is what makes treaties adoptable by major powers and therefore more effective. If circumventing the CD is an attempt to isolate Pakistan (or Iran) from the debate, the result could be similar to landmines or the CTBT — treaties that the United States itself has yet to endorse. In other words, the spread of nuclear technology has moved beyond the P5 and NSG, and today’s international disarmament negotiations require the multilateral legitimacy of the CD more than ever before. Reconciling interests in the CD may be a frustrating exercise, but it’s necessary to reach enforceable global nonproliferation and disarmament treaties. The world is too dangerous for anything short of total consensus.

Editor’s Note: This column was written by Cindy Vestergaard, a project researcher at the Danish Institute of International Studies and an international partner of the Fissile Materials Working Group.

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