Geneva arms control talks limp on

Pakistan, which tested a nuclear weapon in 1998, refuses talks on the production of fissile material unless they are linked to disarmament and stockpiles Reuters

After recent hopes to break a 15-year deadlock at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) were dashed, some observers say the body’s future is at stake.

This content was published on April 12, 2012 - 11:00

Others argue that many states, including the big nuclear powers, are happy with the present stagnation at the Geneva-based conference – the sole multilateral forum for negotiating disarmament treaties.

The words “deep disappointment” and “frustrating failure” were once again heard echoing through the corridors of the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva as the first meeting of the 65-nation conference in 2012 drew to a close.

Amid calls from all sides to finally get down to real work, last month Pakistan once again blocked consensus on the programme of work.

Pakistan’s ambassador Zamir Akram told diplomats that given its special security situation, which had worsened over the past year and where the high stakes were “of an existential nature”, there was “no room for ambiguity”.

“In conference negotiations Pakistan would always take a position which protected its security interests. In doing so it was not acting differently from any other state,” he added.

Since 2009 Pakistan has refused to enter into talks about the production of fissile material - a so-called Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) – unless they are linked to disarmament and deal with disparities in existing stockpiles. In this respect Pakistan’s neighbour India enjoys a comparative advantage.

The other core topics under consideration at the CD include assurances that nuclear weapons will not be used on non-nuclear states, and preventing an arms race in space. The deadlock has tightened since linkages were demanded between the issues.


Addressing the two-day Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea, on March 27, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the current stalemate at the CD was “unacceptable”. He urged member states to start negotiations on an FMCT.

The world's main nuclear disarmament forum has not produced anything substantial since the 1996 nuclear test-ban treaty.

“The relevance of the CD is at stake. If the stalemate is not resolved during the 2012 CD session, the international community must explore alternative avenues,” said Ban.

He was hinting at last year’s attempt by Austria, Mexico and Norway to create working groups on the core issues that would report directly to the UN General Assembly. This initiative may get another chance when disarmament is discussed next September in New York.

“What are we talking about? The CD is staying in Geneva. But taking the substance of the institution and dealing with it elsewhere? If nothing happens before autumn, there is a real objective risk,” Swiss ambassador Alexandre Fasel told

“But taking the substance outside the CD doesn’t necessarily mean leaving Geneva.”

Battle lines drawn

The battle lines are now drawn between states which reject the idea of the CD being on its death bed, and those who have lost patience and say it’s obsolete.

Fasel said he shared diplomats’ frustrations but said the CD remained an important institution which simply reflected current developments.

“It corresponds to the intergovernmental reality determined by member states,” he noted, adding that now was the time to re-inject new life into the forum.

But disarmament activists say the multilateral forum has already become irrelevant.

“I think you have to recognise its achievements. It’s negotiated lots of very important treaties, but 15 years later I don’t think that’s enough to keep it alive,” said Beatrice Fihn, project manager of the non-governmental organisation Reaching Critical Will.

She said “lots was going on” presently, including the conventional Arms Trade Treaty talks at the General Assembly, cluster munitions and landmines initiatives outside the UN system, bilateral negotiations between the US and Russia and talks between the Security Council's five permament members (P5), “but nothing multilateral in the CD”.

“It worked well during the Cold War when there were two blocs but today we have a completely different world and the CD is not adapted to the current power dynamics,” said Fihn.

“It’s definitely not adapted to deal with regional issues such as southeast Asia, India-Pakistan, the Middle East or the Korean Peninsula which have an international impact. The CD is struggling to keep up,” she said.


Observers say the nuclear-weapons states - and the group of smaller states (the G21) - now find themselves in a sort of disarmament "comfort zone" preferring the current status quo to surrendering the consensus rule.

There is neither political will to push too hard nor any intention of accepting nuclear disarmament wanted by others, they say.

Pakistan may be blocking the current talks but it is not to blame for the 15-year stalemate, said Fihn.

“No one is proposing an alternative solution as everyone knows that the P5 countries would block it. The problem is that for 15 years everyone has different priorities. And if you try to change the consensus rule you need consensus, so it’s not going to happen… it’s Kafka-esque,” she said.

Changes ahead?

Activists say things could start moving if there were changes at the head of the key nuclear powers.

But the chances are slim said Fihn: “I think it will remain paralysed. Lots of countries are cutting back on delegations and focusing resources elsewhere. They can’t afford to keep lots of diplomats and ambassadors here.”

Ultimately, changes would only come from new attitudes towards nuclear doctrine, the Swiss ambassador said.

“When the nuclear weapon powers start to openly discuss what is being talked about in secret in military circles, namely that nuclear weapons don’t make sense from a strategic military perspective, then the deadlock will be broken. But that’s not possible right now,” said Fasel.

The Conference on Disarmament (CD)

Established in 1979 as the single multilateral disarmament negotiating forum of the international community, the CD was a result of the first Special Session on Disarmament of the United Nations General Assembly held in 1978.

It succeeded other Geneva-based forums, which include the Conference for the Reduction and Limitation of Armaments (1932-34), the Ten-Nation Committee on Disarmament (1960), the Eighteen-Nation Committee on Disarmament (1962-68), and the Conference of the Committee on Disarmament (1969-78).

The terms of reference of the CD include all multilateral arms control and disarmament problems. It currently focuses on: cessation of the nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament; prevention of nuclear war, including all related matters; prevention of an arms race in outer space; effective international arrangements to assure non-nuclear-weapon states against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons; new types of weapons of mass destruction and new systems of such weapons including radiological weapons; comprehensive programme of disarmament and transparency in armaments.

When it was set up, the conference was made up of 40 members; 65 countries now belong to it. The conference meets once a year in Geneva and is divided into three parts of ten, seven and seven weeks. The first sessions traditionally begin in the penultimate week of January. The CD is presided by its members on a rotating basis.

It reports to the General Assembly annually, or more frequently, as appropriate. Its budget is included in that of the United Nations. The Conference conducts its work by consensus.

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Past successes

- The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (signed 1968/effective 1970)

- The seabed treaties (signed 1971/effective 1972)

- The Environmental Modification Convention (signed 1977/effective 1978)

- The Biological Weapons Convention (signed 1972/effective 1975)

- The Chemical Weapons Convention (signed 1993/effective 1997)

- The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (signed 1996/not in force)

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