It’s time to sideline the Geneva disarmament conference

The UN’s one disarmament negotiating forum recently seemed set to emerge from a wasted decade of deadlock, but the celebrations were premature. Disarmament is obviously way too important to be left to the Conference on Disarmament, so it’s time to look for another venue – and on that Canada has, or at least had, a great idea.

If diplomatic patience is a virtue, there is a host of saints toiling away at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva. For more than a decade diplomats have been showing up for work to implore each other to get down to the business of negotiating disarmament agreements, and without fail they’ve been unable to agree on a “program of work.”

The main elements of the agenda they should be working on are well known and not disputed. More than a decade ago they agreed on four priority objectives:

1. A Treaty to halt production of fissile material for weapons purposes;

2. Legally-binding commitments from nuclear weapon states not to use or threaten to use nuclear  weapons against non-nuclear weapon states;

3. A multilateral forum to advance global nuclear disarmament; and

4. Agreements to prevent an arms race in outer space.

Some in the 65 member CD, the only UN disarmament negotiating forum, favor “discussions” over “negotiations” on some of the issues. It’s a matter that can’t be settled by a simple majority vote because the CD operates by consensus – essentially interpreted as giving each member a veto. In 2003 a group of five ambassadors to the CD developed a formula that was widely agreed. There would be negotiations on fissile materials (these have been unanimously called for by all 188 states parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – NPT) but only discussions on the other three items (leaving open the possibility for moving towards negotiations in the future). It became known as the A-5 formula[i] and it honored the important principle that the international community not allow certain powerful states or groups to determine where multilateral attention is focused – instead, the priorities of all deserve attention.

But with that agreed, the CD was still in dispute over the scope of the negotiations on fissile materials – that is, should a fissile materials treaty simply ban, or cut off, future production, or should it also place controls on stockpiles and require reductions of already produced fissile materials for weapons purposes? Again, it’s not a new disagreement and was in fact essentially solved back in 1995 when Canadian Ambassador Gerald Shannon, having been asked to find a way through this dispute, set out a basic compromise: the formal mandate for fissile materials negotiations would focus on a “ban on the production of fissile material,” but it would also allow delegations to raise other issues, including controls on and reductions of existing stocks, during the course of negotiations. This compromise became known as the Shannon mandate.[ii] The Shannon mandate also reflected an important principle – that the international community not permit a single state or a small group of states to set pre-conditions or define in advance the limits and parameters of multilateral negotiations on a particular issue.

The Administration of George W. Bush added another barrier to action when it insisted that a fissile materials treaty could not include verification provisions.

The US position has now changed and in May 2009 there was agreement to move forward on the 4-point program of work -- both the A-5 formula and the Shannon mandate being key elements of the agreement.[iii]To reach agreement they had to expand the priorities to seven – there was, of course, no consensus on the issues themselves, but all were deemed worthy of immediate attention in a work program that would include the following:

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.

Now, however, Pakistan has withdrawn its consent. Concerned about its imbalanced security relationship with India, Pakistan insists that the fissile materials negotiations must be defined in advance as including fissile materials stocks (to address India’s larger inventory). The Shannon mandate would allow Pakistan to raise stockpile issues during the course of negotiations, but Pakistan now rejects that arrangement. It has further suggested that the CD agenda be expanded to include regional conventional arms control – an expansion India will not countenance.[iv]

So that’s where we stand once again, with nothing happening – the only thing to survive is the CD’s saintly patience.

CD diplomats are slow to talk of alternatives that would sideline a body that earlier successfully negotiated the comprehensive test ban treaty – but Canada did have a plan to circumvent the stalled CD. In 2005 it joined five other states – Brazil, Kenya, Mexico, New Zealand, and Sweden – in putting forward a resolution in the UN General Assembly asking it to mandate, by simple majority vote, four special committees to work on the four priority disarmament issues included in the A-5 formula.

The point was to take these four crucial issues out of what the Canadian Disarmament Ambassador called the “consensus prison” of the CD. By working as Committees of the General Assembly, they would not be bound by consensus rules and thus states would finally be allowed to deal substantively with issues that are widely understood to be key to advancing global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. The drafters of the resolution were careful not to strip the CD of its function, but built into their resolution a commitment to transfer the results of the work of these four ad-hoc committees back to the CD as soon as it finally agreed on its proposed agenda of work and was actually prepared to start negotiating.

The plan failed then, and the resolution was withdrawn, because an angered Bush Administration accused the resolution’s sponsors of “souring” what it inexplicably called the “positive reform atmosphere” of the day and of compromising the work of the CD – the same CD that had at that time done no work for eight years. Washington also declared it would not participate in any of the proposed committees.

But now there truly is a largely positive international atmosphere with regard to disarmament prospects. The same proposal today could take the CD’s stalemated agenda and transfer it to specially mandated committees of the General Assembly. The committees could get down to work immediately – and if and when the CD decided to become relevant the work and the results to date could be transferred back to the CD. Is Ottawa up to the challenge?


[i] Initiative of the Ambassadors Dembri, Lint, Reyes, Salander andVega. Proposal of a Programme of Work revised at the 932nd plenary meeting on Thursday, 26 June 2003. CD/1693/Rev.1, 5 September 2003.

[ii] Report of Ambassador Gerald E. Shannon of Canada on Consultations on the Most Appropriate Arrangement to Negotiate a Treaty Banning the Production of Fissile Material for Nuclear Weapons or Other Nuclear Explosive Devices. CD/1299, 24 March 1995. Available at

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

[iv] “Pak stonewalls talks to ban fissile material,” The Times of India, 23 January 2010.

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