In Geneva the United Nations Conference on Disarmament (CD) has begun what some will call yet another year of living pointlessly. For 10 years now, the world's only multilateral forum dedicated to negotiating disarmament agreements has failed to agree even on what they should talk about, much less actually negotiating.

That doesn't mean there are any doubts about the urgency of the CD's nuclear agenda. Indeed, the urgency is growing given that in less than three months the signatory states of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) will meet in a Preparatory Committee to begin planning for its 2010 Review Conference, and given that this new review cycle must be regarded as a make or break time for the NPT.

The last Review Conference, in 2005, ended in complete failure and cast a pall over the entire disarmament enterprise. The failure to make any headway in implementing the NPT's objectives - that is, to bring all states under its discipline and thus require the elimination of all current nuclear arsenals and prevent the spread of weapons - leaves many states increasingly doubtful that the international community is serious about nuclear disarmament and wondering whether they too should prepare to join the expanding nuclear club.

To turn these doubts around means facing some rather serious challenges:

  • In the North Asia region the nuclear weapon and ballistic missile tests of the DPRK threaten to destabilize the region and to undermine the agreed international objective of nuclear-free Korean peninsula.
  • In the Middle East, Iran's failure to satisfy the international community that its civilian nuclear programs are not a cover for developing a nucler weapons capability, combined with Israel's refusal to place all of its nuclear facilities under IAEA inspections, threatens a cascade of nuclear proliferation and obviously frustrates the international community's agreed pursuit of the Middle East as a zone free of all weapons of mass destruction.
  • In South Asia, the unilateral initiative by the United States to accept India as a nuclear weapon state threatens an ongoing nuclear arms race with Pakistan and with China, with severe implications beyond the region, and entrenches a nuclear double standard that threatens all other non-proliferation efforts.
  • The ongoing nuclear modernization programs of the nuclear weapon states, along with stalled efforts to pursue arsenal reductions, exacerbates that double standard and generates further global skepticism about the relevance and effectiveness of the NPT as an instrument for the pursuit of nuclear abolition.
  • The dangers of the unintended or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons are heightened by practices in the United States and Russia that keep nuclear weapons on high alert and available for firing within minutes of an alarm (or false alarm) and by the dangers that insufficiently secured weapons or weapons materials will fall into the hands of non-state groups committed to acts of terror.

The challenges are daunting, but there are signs, or at least slivers, of hope still present. A group of lapsed Cold Warriors, including former US Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and other former custodians of US nuclear expansion and deterrence strategies, has declared the world to be "on the precipice of a new and dangerous nuclear war" and thus issued a call to "leaders of the countries in possession of nuclear weapons to turn the goal of a world without nuclear weapons into a joint enterprise."

Their statement calls for a recommitment to the NPT's objective of nuclear disarmament and challenges the United States in particular to work toward "a solid consensus for reversing reliance on nuclear weapons globally as a vital contribution to preventing their proliferation into potentially dangerous hands, and ultimately ending them as a threat to the world."[i]

A recent article by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev descries the arrogance of military power and calls for reliance on "dialogue and cooperation rather than force."[ii]

Another source of continuing hope, or at least a basis for staving off utter despair, is the fact that the core cause for hope is that the core agenda is not in dispute. The stalemate in the CD is not based on any uncertainty about the work that needs to be done - the quarrel is really over priorities. The core disarmament agenda is widely agreed. It was articulated and affirmed by consensus at the 2000 NPT Review Conference, labeled there as the "13 practical steps."

And within those steps, even the items for priority action are generally agreed:

  • Ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty - a Treaty that was negotiated within the CD (its last piece of substantive work) but now awaits ratification by the United States and other key states - would be one of the most effective means of limiting the spread of nuclear weapons capability and of curtailing the growth of arsenals in the DPRK, India, Israel, and Pakistan.
  • Within the CD itself, the most likely route to it resuming its primary function of negotiating disarmament measures would be through a program of work that simultaneously involves negotiations on a treaty to halt the production of fissile materials for weapons purposes (the FMCT), formal discussions on preventing an arms race in outer space, and discussion of nuclear disarmament imperatives more broadly, including the formalization of security assurances given by nuclear weapon states to non-nuclear weapon states.[iii]

An early signal toward action on these two fronts would have a salutary effect on the disarmament environment and on the tone of the forthcoming NPT Preparatory Committee meeting.

Additional measures to build confidence in a revived nuclear disarmament agenda include:

  • The control and elimination of non-strategic nuclear weapons, facilitated by the immediate removal of such weapons from the soil of non-nuclear-weapon states of NATO; and
  • Further measures to reduce nuclear dangers by taking all weapons of high alert and redoubling efforts to bring all nuclear weapons and materials under effective security protection to prevent them from getting into the hands of non-state groups.

And for those with a surfeit of ambition, it could be turned toward:

  • The commencement of discussions, in the context of requiring Iran to meet its obligations toward the IAEA, of ways and means of pursuing a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East (in the context of a zone free of all weapons of mass destruction); and
  • The continued exploration of placing the weapon sensitive elements of the civilian nuclear fuel cycle - uranium enrichment and the reprocessing of spent fuel - under international controls.

A Canadian agenda for action should grow out of this list of policy imperatives:

  • A clear reaffirmation by the Harper Government of Canada's long-standing commitment to the elimination of nuclear weapons, a commitment that is more urgent than ever and eminently achievable;
  • A challenge to the United States and China in particular - the two states at the centre of the CD stalemate - to accept Ambassador Paul Meyer's formula for moving forward with negotiations on an FMCT and discussions of PAROS, nuclear disarmament, and negative security assurances;
  • Yet another call to the United States, India and Pakistan in particular to show global leadership by beginning steps toward their respective ratification of the CTBT; and
  • A renewed call to remove all nuclear weapons from the territories of non-nuclear weapon states of NATO and to challenge NATO to end its doctrine of nuclear reliance.

[i] The statement, "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons," was written by Mr. Kissinger along with former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, former Defense Secretary William Perry, and former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn, and was endorsed by a number of former officials and diplomats. It was published in the Washington Post, January 4, 2007.

[ii] Mikhail Gorbachev, "History is not preordained: A new cold war can be averted," The Guardian, January 18, 2007.

[iii] The formula put forward by the Canadian Ambassador for Disarmament, Paul Meyer, "The Conference on Disarmament: Getting Back to Business," Arms Control Today, December 2006.

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