For the first time in fully a dozen years, the UN’s disarmament forum agreed last May to a program of substantive work, but in early August it has run into another obstruction.

The 65-member UN Conference on Disarmament (CD) has become best known for being stalemated for more than a decade, unable to go beyond informal consultations because delegations could not reach consensus on what all would accept as a balanced program of work. Then, at the end of May, the Geneva-based negotiating forum finally agreed on a 7 point program that, among other topics, mandated the start of negotiations on a critically-important treaty to ban the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.[i] This did not mean there was consensus on the issues themselves, only that they would begin to formally address those issues.

Now the implementation schedule,[ii] the schedule for getting down to work on the issues that the May agreement included in the overall program of work, has run afoul of the Pakistani delegation – and because the CD works strictly according to consensus, which in that context has unfortunately come to mean that every member state has a veto, Pakistan’s dissent means everything is stalled once again.

So the stalemate continues.

While the point of Pakistan’s opposition is far from clear, it is not focused on the substance of the implementation plan. As reported by “Reaching Critical Will,”[iii] the current CD President, Australian Ambassador Caroline Miller, told delegates that Pakistan wanted changes, not specified by her, to the language of the chapeau or introductory paragraph to the document – a source of “puzzlement,” said Amb. Millar, since she had understood that all issues had been worked out and agreed to in the course of extensive advance consultations.

So that is where the matter stands, with delegates still hoping that this is a mere glitch and not the start of another prolonged period of inaction.

What’s at stake is not only the future of the CD, but also, not to be too dramatic about it, the future of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). If the time for the 2010 NPT Review Conference arrives without there having been any concrete progress in addressing key disarmament measures, the NPT will suffer a further and serious blow to its credibility as a nuclear disarmament instrument.

The CD’s agreed program of work now includes 7 elements:

  1. Negotiations on a fissile materials treaty;
  2. A working group for discussions on nuclear disarmament generally;
  3. A working group to discuss preventing an arms race in outer space;
  4. Another working group on negative security assurances (assurances against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon state parties to the NPT);
  5. The appointment of a coordinator to gather the views of states on new and emerging weapons;
  6. Another coordinator to seek views on “comprehensive” disarmament; and
  7. A coordinator to seek views on transparency.

Each of these issues is important, but work on fissile materials especially so. The need for immediate negotiations on a treaty on fissile materials was agreed to in 1995 (in fact, the centrality of controlling fissile materials, the core component of nuclear weapons, has been proposed and agreed to since the dawn of the nuclear age), and was in fact a key condition of converting the NPT into a permanent Treaty.

Failure, once again, to deliver on a disarmament promise would have major repercussions – but here’s hoping it’s too soon to panic.

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[i] Discussed here on June 1: “Finally, the UN’s Geneva disarmament forum gets to work.”

[ii] CD/1870/Rev.1, 6 August 2009. “Draft decision on the implementation of CD/1864 (that being the program of work agreed to on 29 May 2009.

[iii] Regular reports on the CD are available on the website of Reaching Critical Will, the pre-eminent NGO monitor of UN-related nuclear disarmament diplomacy.

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