Canada proposes action on the CD’s agenda – outside the CD

In 2005 Canada joined five other states to propose a plan to move the four priority issues mired in the stalemated CD into a UN General Assembly process for action. The plan was abandoned in the face of strong opposition, but in the last session of the still moribund CD, Canada suggested it be given another look.

There is a ritual at each closing session of the UN’s Geneva Conference on Disarmament (CD) – the sessions just before a recess or at the close of each year – in which diplomats take up their microphones to lament the failure to reach agreement on a program of work and to broadly bemoan the absence of any negotiations – that being the CD’s main purpose. It is now an 11-year tradition, the length of time the CD has lain essentially dormant due to deep rooted differences that can, according to CD rules, be resolved only through consensus – i.e., unanimity.

So, when the first part of the CD’s 2010 session wrapped up on March 23, the same lamentations were heard yet again – but the Canadian speech came with a refreshing new twist.

Ambassador Marius Grinius again voiced Canada’s disappointment in the CD’s performance, or non-performance, but then added: “If we truly care about disarmament, Canada believes we must be ready to look for alternative ways forward outside of this body. One such alternative was explored in 2005. Five years later, it may be time to re-examine it.”[i]

A commentary in this space in February[ii] pointed to that 2005 proposal, as have many, as a way out from under the CD’s embarrassingly stalemated agenda and as a way for states to move forward with substantive work on each of the four key items on that agenda, and then asked, “Is Ottawa up to the challenge” of reviving that 2005 plan. Now it looks like Canada might just find the will to act.

The CD has long agreed on four priority goals: a Treaty to halt production of fissile material for weapons purposes; legally-binding commitments by nuclear weapon states not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states (negative security assurances); a multilateral forum to advance global nuclear disarmament discussions and planning; and measures to prevent an arms race in outer space. Various states favor negotiations on some and only discussions on others, but all agree that these are the priorities. However, under the CD’s consensus format, unless all agree on which are to be negotiated and which are to be discussed, nothing happens.

The 2005 plan for getting out of this deadlock was the work of six states: Brazil, Canada, Kenya, Mexico, New Zealand, and Sweden. In a draft resolution destined for the UN’s First Committee and General Assembly, but never formally submitted, the six states proposed an Ad-Hoc Committee of the General Assembly for each of the four priority topics:

"The General Assembly, recognizing the importance of resuming substantive work on priority disarmament and non-proliferation issues, concerned with the protracted impasse in the Conference on Disarmament which has prevented it to date from adopting a Programme of Work, mindful of the need to ensure complementarity and avoid duplication between the work of the General Assembly and the Conference on Disarmament, decides, pending agreement on a Conference of Disarmament Programme of Work, to establish open-ended Ad Hoc Committees on the four priority issues…”

The four Ad Hoc Committees were then defined, using the term “negotiate” with regard to negative security assurances and a Treaty on fissile materials, and using the terms “deal with” and “exchange [of] information and views” regarding nuclear disarmament, and the term “deal with” regarding the prevention of an arms race in outer space. The proposed mandates were extensive and pointed to broad ranging studies in the latter two cases and the objective of legally binding instruments in the two proposed negotiation processes.

The draft resolution was explicit in also “deciding” that once the CD began to actually function, the Ad Hoc Committees in the General Assembly would be terminated and the results of their work would be transmitted to the CD, where the negotiations and discussions would continue. It also proposed to name chairs for each committee and provided a detailed work schedule. In an accompanying note, the six sponsoring states said “this resolution is intended to complement the CD and ideally will serve as a catalyst for unblocking that forum.”

In other words, the resolution and the four Ad Hoc Committees, with participation open to any interested UN member state, provided a persuasive solution to the dysfunctional CD – the neglected work of the CD would now be pursued and once the CD became operational again the fruits of that work would return to the CD for continuing work.

But it all came to nothing when the US Bush Administration fired back, sending a two page statement to UN missions. It argued, in not very diplomatic language, that the proposed course of action would undermine the General Assembly’s First Committee, undermine efforts to get the CD to start doing its work, create a “phantom” CD, and would spell the end of the CD.  “The outcome of this resolution will be to retard the very international nonproliferation and disarmament objectives that its sponsors seek to advance.”[iii] Of course, the reality was that leaving the issues to languish in the CD was what was "retarding the very nonproliferation and disarmament objectives" that the US then wanted to retard and block. The US statement went on to say: “We also wish to make it clear that the United States will not participate in any international body to whose establishment the United States does not agree. Moreover, the United States will not consider itself bound in any way by any agreement emerging from such a body.”

In the end the six countries withdrew the resolution, reporting that they had reached an understanding with the incoming Presidents of the CD that they would undertake a structured, though informal, discussion of the core issues within the CD. The latter proved to be a short-term improvement in the operations of the CD, but it was no substitute for actual negotiations, and it was not sustained.

So now Canada has given notice that this initiative, or one like it, could be pursued again this fall at the First Committee. This time, it seems likely that the new US Administration would be less hostile and perhaps even supportive of the plan. It’s a good and urgently needed plan and Ottawa is to be encouraged to see it through. Now, with an international climate unusually disposed toward concrete action on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, the world can’t afford disarmament machinery in perpetual disrepair.


[ii] “It’s time to sideline the Geneva disarmament conference,” February 18.

[iii] The resolution, the accompanying statements by the six sponsors, and the American response were all distributed informally in hard copies and are not electronically available.

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