Eight-Year UN Disarmament Stalemate Continues

GENEVA – The stalemate continues in the Conference on Disarmament (CD), which for the eighth year in a row ended its annual sessions this week without reaching an agreement on a working program among its 66 member states.

The CD works by consensus, which means it cannot undertake new work without the agreement of all of the member states.

The deadlock in the multilateral negotiating body reflects the current imbalance in international relations, in which the United States enjoys immense political and military power.

In terms of military arsenals, a wide gap separates the United States from the rest of the countries in the world, which is reflected in the negotiations within the CD, said a Latin American diplomat who asked not to be named.

Patricia Lewis, director of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), said the continuing impasse in the CD has to do with the expectations surrounding the Nov. 2 presidential elections in the United States.

In May, at the third session of the preparatory committee for the 2005 review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which was held in New York, the Arab countries were reluctant to grant concessions to the United States "on the grounds that if they are changing government in November, why give anything now," said Lewis.

She also noted that the Democratic Party presidential candidate, John Kerry, has clearly indicated that if he wins, there will be a change in the U.S. attitude towards the negotiations in the CD. She added, however, that "there would have to be a change" in Congress, especially the Senate, to get any treaty ratified.

The United States holds the key to overcoming the stalemate in the CD, which is waiting for a decision by Washington to jump-start a process that came to a standstill in 1996, after the successful debate on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) – the last document agreed at the Conference.

Authorities in the United States must decide whether they support the negotiation of a treaty banning the production of fissile material (plutonium and highly enriched uranium) for nuclear weapons (the Fissile Material Treaty or FMT), although they do not want a regime for verification of compliance.

The U.S. delegate, Jackie Sanders, confounded the CD when she announced on July 29 that her government had reached the conclusion that an effective FMT verification regime was not feasible.

Since then, the U.S. delegates have not explained to the CD just how they envision an FMT without a verification regime – the point that continues to paralyze talks on the rest of the issues.

When the Cold War came to an end, the United States vigorously pushed for the FMT, because like other nations, it shared the concern over where the stocks of fissile materials in the arsenals and laboratories of the countries of the former Soviet Union, which fell apart in 1991, would end up.

But after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks on the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, the United States modified its arms control policy and began to downplay the importance of verification regimes for international treaties.

The Moscow Treaty, which in 2002 required Russia and the United States to reduce their nuclear arsenals by two-thirds by 2012, has no verification regime.

The same is true of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, because the United States blocked agreement on a verification regime in November 2001.

Lewis pointed out to IPS that the United States was "not interested in the verification of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq" – a reference to the March 2003 invasion of that country led by Washington, based on the supposed existence of weapons of mass destruction, which have never been found.

The head of UNIDIR also believes the United States is no longer even interested in the FMT, which is currently bogging down progress in the CD.

"Another thing that is quite clear from the U.S. approach is that they – this particular administration – are not interested in treaties," she argued.

Adoption of the FMT would primarily affect countries with nuclear arsenals: the five nuclear powers – China, the United States, France, Britain and Russia – as well as India, Israel and Pakistan. The rest of the world’s countries are controlled by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

If the FMT or a similar accord goes into effect, the five nuclear powers would be allowed to keep their weapons, but on the condition that they cut off production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons, on which there is already basically a de facto moratorium among the five, Lewis pointed out.

But India and Pakistan "are still producing fissile material for weapons," she added. "So the question is how long it will take for them to build their stocks."

Israel, meanwhile, is a different case, because "as far as we know it is not producing weapons," she added. But if the FMT were to enter into effect, the verification regime would require it to open up its records on its decades-long nuclear program

That "would be very dangerous for Israel. I think this may be one of the key points that people are concerned about," said Lewis.

"Israel is very sensitive on this issue because India and Pakistan have declared themselves to have nuclear weapons. Israel has never done that," she noted.

The FMT is holding up progress in the CD on an issue that is very costly for China and Russia: the prevention of an arms race in outer space.

Nor has there been progress on the most pressing issues for the non-aligned countries, like nuclear disarmament and security guarantees for non-nuclear-weapon states.

The inertia of the negotiations has hurt the prestige and credibility of the CD, which does not strictly belong to the UN system, but uses the services of the world body’s secretariat in its Geneva headquarters.

Critics say the CD acts like "an exclusive golf club, or like a gentlemen’s club in London or New York," said Lewis.

In his closing message to the period of sessions Tuesday, the rotating president of the CD, Burmese delegate U Mya Than, said he believed that it is "the best club in the city" because it has "the best brains" representing the most refined traditions of multilateral diplomacy.

But Chilean delegate Juan Martabit acknowledged that an eight-year impasse has hurt the reputation of the CD, and that "legitimate questions about its future" have been raised.

He also stated that security and peace are not achieved by building up nuclear arsenals.

The real threats to peace, said Martabit, are the developing world’s lack of funds to confront poverty and hunger.