By Ramesh Jaura
The Geneva UN Conference on Disarmament (CD) has been turned into a talking shop because of the vested interests of a few mighty states without whose consent no genuine nuclear disarmament, not to speak of abolition of nuclear weapons, would ever be within the realm of possibility.
This formed the backdrop to an impassioned appeal by Ambassador Hellmut Hoffmann of Germany to representatives of 64 countries, including all nuclear weapon states, to avail of the potential of this United Nations body to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Germany took over from France the CD presidency on August 20.
The German Ambassador hit the nail of the head when he stressed that it was far from rewarding to engage in debates – as has become customary – about whether the CD was the only standing multilateral forum mandated to negotiate new agreements on disarmament and non-proliferation.
“But this is the point where I have to say that I would feel even more honoured presiding over our work if the Conference on Disarmament were actually in a state where it makes active use of this potential that is where it fulfils its own mandate. Unfortunately, as we are all aware, for many reasons this has not been the case for well over a decade,” Ambassador Hoffmann told UN Radio.
Back home in Berlin, the Foreign Office said, Germany will use the four weeks of its Presidency (August 20 to 14 September 14) “to breathe new life into the work of the Geneva Conference on Disarmament and in particular to sound out possibilities for rapidly starting negotiations on a treaty banning the production and transfer of fissile material (FMCT)”.
FMCT is a proposed international treaty to ban the further production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other explosive devices. The treaty has not been negotiated and its terms remain to be defined.
The world’s two leading nuclear powers, the United States and Russia differ on defining the fissile material. The United States maintains that fissile material includes high-enriched uranium and plutonium, except plutonium that is over 80% Pu-238.
According to a proposal by Russia, fissile material would be limited to weapons-grade uranium (with more than 90% U-235) and plutonium (with more than 90% Pu-239).
But neither proposal would prohibit the production of fissile material for non-weapons purposes, including use in civil or naval nuclear reactors.
It is not surprising, therefore, that in recent years, the Geneva Conference on Disarmament has failed to launch any new treaty negotiations. One reason for this is that the Conference’s decisions are not taken by majority, but by consensus. Due to individual member states’ veto power, the Conference’s efforts have been hampered since 1996.
Subsequently, no major progress has so far been achieved on the four core issues: FMCT, prevention of an arms race in outer space, nuclear disarmament and negative security assurances for non-nuclear weapon states.
It was with this in view that, concluding the CD Presidency of France, Ambassador Jean-Hugues Simon-Michel expressed regret that the Conference had still not been able to reach consensus on a programme of work. However, during the thematic discussions many members had expressed their views “in an interactive manner”, he added.
The Geneva Conference on Disarmament was established in 1979 as the United Nations’ central and permanent forum for disarmament. It succeeded other Geneva-based negotiating fora, which include the Ten-Nation Committee on Disarmament (1960), the Eighteen-Nation Committee on Disarmament (1962-68), and the Conference of the Committee on Disarmament (1969-78).
CD is the world’s single permanent, multilateral negotiating forum for disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation, and meets in an annual session for 24 weeks, divided into three parts. Germany has assumed CD’s Presidency after ten years. It will conclude the meetings in 2012.
German Foreign Office sources said: “The German Government is energetically pressing for disarmament and arms control. Together with its partners it has repeatedly developed initiatives to overcome the dead end in Geneva. Most recently, Germany and the Netherlands jointly organized a series of events dealing with the technical preparations for an FMCT.
“Federal Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has repeatedly pointed out the necessity of nuclear disarmament and advocated negotiations on a ban on the production of fissile material. In this respect, the Geneva negotiations play a key role.
“The Group of Friends of Disarmament and Non Proliferation, whose ten members include Germany, has time and again called for a revitalizing of the Geneva Conference on Disarmament and for the start of negotiations on a ban on the production of fissile material. However, to date these efforts have failed because of the obstructionist stance of some Conference members.”
The Conference participants very well know what is at stake. But vested interests have stalled the negotiations.
The on-going session of the Conference has on table a background note prepared by the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) on new types of weapons of mass destruction and new systems of such weapons, including radiological weapons.
The issue was first presented to the UN General Assembly in 1969 by Malta, and the Conference on Disarmament was consequently tasked with considering the implications of possible military applications of laser technology.
In 1975 the then Soviet Union tabled a draft international agreement in the General Assembly on the prohibition of the development and manufacture of new types of weapons of mass destruction and new systems of such weapons.
However Western States, while supporting efforts to ban particular weapons of mass destruction, objected to the conclusion of a comprehensive convention banning unspecified future weapons. During the 1980s a subsidiary body on radiological weapons considered a number of working papers but no consensus emerged.
As the outgoing Conference president Ambassador Simon-Michel pointed out, since 1993 there has been no subsidiary body. In 2002 Germany tabled a discussion paper for revisiting the issue in light of new threats. But discussions since then have remained inconclusive.
Ambassador Simon-Michel also outlined the history of a comprehensive programme on disarmament, an item which has been on the Conference’s agenda since 1980 but has not been considered as requiring a subsidiary body since 1989.
Views differ on whether nuclear disarmament could be conceived without parallel disarmament progress taking place in other areas such as radiological, biological and chemical weapons, with some States saying it should not be conditional on negotiations in other areas.
According to the Conference documents, some States have outlined in the on-going session the catastrophic danger that transfers of weapons of mass destruction to non-State actors and terrorists could entail, while one (unnamed) State highlighted new types of information and communication technologies which were capable of undermining stability and security just as much as weapons of mass destruction.
India – which is a nuclear power without being a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – favours a Comprehensive Programme on Disarmament that should consider not only nuclear disarmament but also other weapons and weapon systems which are crucial for maintaining international peace and security. The principles of such a programme should be universally applicable and relevant, and in that regard the Conference would play a leading role as the world’s sole multilateral forum on disarmament, India argues.
But India and Pakistan – two South Asian nuclear rivals – are at daggers drawn when it comes to achieving a consensus.
France argues that general and complete disarmament under effective international control is the ultimate goal of the Conference, and an agenda item frequently used by the General Assembly. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons is something to which France was especially attached.
But, the French representative at the on-going CD session said, nuclear disarmament could not be conceived without parallel disarmament progress taking place in other areas such as radiological, biological and chemical weapons, nor overall independence of the strategic context.
He added: “For over 30 years France had made efforts towards humanitarian disarmament – treaties which aimed to prevent or disrupt production of weapons which caused certain harm to humans – and was very attached to those, and called for its universalization. France also called for the universalization of The Hague’s Code of Conduct against the proliferation of ballistic missiles and stressed the importance of that instrument to promote transparency of ballistic missiles.”