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Multilateral disarmament US walks out of disarmament conference over Syria role

US Disarmament Ambassador Robert Wood

US Disarmament Ambassador Robert Wood leaves his seat in protest against the Syrian presidency at the Conference on Disarmament at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, on Tuesday May 29


The United States has staged a walkout in protest at Syria's presidency of the Conference on Disarmament (CD) at the United Nations in Geneva. Opinions were split among other states attending the forum.

“It is a travesty that the Syrian regime - which continues to indiscriminately slaughter its own people with weapons banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention - should presume to preside over this body,” US Ambassador Robert Wood told diplomats at the CD on Tuesday.

This week, Syria began a four-week presidency external linkof the world’s main multilateral forum for disarmament issues in accordance with a long-standing protocol based on the English alphabetical list of membership. Previously, the rotating presidency was held by Switzerland. 

+ Read more about the controversy over Syria's presidency of the CD

In his speech on Tuesday, the Syrian ambassador declared he would take a “constructive” approach towards leading the CD. However, as soon as he started speaking Wood left the chamber in protest.

Washington does not plan to boycott the four-week presidency but wants to hold Syria accountable for its use of chemical weapons, Wood told reporters. The US will not take part in the five working groups adopted under the Swiss presidency to advance work at the CD, which has been deadlocked for over 20 years.

Disapproval, support

International investigations have confirmed Syria’s violations of the Chemical Weapons Convention - concluded by the CD and signed in 1993 - on at least four occasions. But Syria has always denied these claims and says it has destroyed its stockpile.

Other countries expressed their disapproval of the Syrian presidency. Israel’s ambassador Aviva Raz Shechter also left the chamber on Tuesday, citing an “unacceptable” situation. France will not be represented by its ambassador at the CD, and Britain will not take part in meetings. Syria received support from various countries, including Russia, China, Pakistan, India, Vietnam and Cuba.

The CD was established in 1979 as the single multilateral disarmament negotiating forum of the international community. However, the forum, which meets several times a year at the United Nations Palais des Nations complex, has been blocked ever since the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was adopted in 1996. 

Disagreements between states on which disarmament topics should be negotiated, linkages between issues and the need to agree by consensus have left the forum unable to agree on a way forward. Under Switzerland's presidency in March, states appointed five working group coordinators and agreed to adopt a timetable to explore common ground on nuclear disarmament “core issues”. 

Multilateral nuclear talks Geneva's long-running diplomatic ballet

Photographer Mark Henley takes a behind-the-scenes look at the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament.


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