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UN disarmament conference "in crisis"

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The United Nations Conference on Disarmament is in a state of crisis and the priority must be to "keep it alive", according to a senior Swiss diplomat.

This content was published on January 24, 2006 - 17:54

The annual conference, which gets underway in Geneva this week, aims to rid the world of weapons – both nuclear and conventional – through peaceful negotiation.

But in recent years the talks have become bogged down by infighting between member states.

"The conference is in a crisis and has been for many years. So our first priority [this year] must be to keep it alive," Jürg Streuli, deputy permanent representative of Switzerland to the conference, told swissinfo.

He said the conference – the only international body with a mandate to negotiate on disarmament - had in the past "proved it can be useful".

"But at the moment it's not working because of the [attitude of] member states," he added.

Since it was set up in 1979, the conference has negotiated a number of agreements, including the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, as well as separate conventions on chemical and biological weapons.

Under fire

But the negotiating body, which meets once a year in Geneva, has come under fire of late for failing to make significant progress with the implementation of existing treaties.

Critics argue that like the discredited UN Commission on Human Rights – which is set to be overhauled next year – the disarmament conference is also badly in need of reform.

Streuli does not believe, however, that reform for its own sake will make much difference to the success or failure of the conference.

"You can change the structures all you like, but as long as the position of the members stays the same it is not going to make any difference," he said, adding that countries were unwilling to compromise or adapt their "different positions and concerns".

The Swiss diplomat stressed that progress had been made, even though member states seemed unable to reconcile their own interests.

"If you take a global picture of disarmament as a whole, the mine-ban treaty has been a success, and progress has been made in tracing small arms.

"We are making slower progress with the conventional weapons convention, the chemical weapons treaty is working but the convention on biological weapons is only going very slowly."

Streuli is keen to stress that talk of crisis does not mean that renewed attempts to push forward with negotiations should be abandoned.

"It would be wrong to say that the conference is totally useless," he said.

"Twenty years ago people were talking about the prospect of 40 nuclear powers by the end of the century. Today India and Pakistan are the new ones, but that's about it. Libya has been a success and things are going along the right way in North Korea."

Iranian problem

The Swiss ambassador to the conference admits that the "main problem" is Iran, which earlier this month defied international protests by breaking the seals at its nuclear facilities.

Tehran has repeatedly denied that it is seeking to build nuclear weapons, claiming it wants to use the technology solely as a source of energy.

The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is due to meet early next month to discuss whether to refer Iran to the Security Council – something which Streuli believes should only be done as a last resort.

"In principle countries are entitled to develop nuclear power for civilian use, but this must be under the strict control of the IAEA and it has to be credible that it is not for military purposes.

"So far I think Iran has not been able to prove that it is engaged in purely civilian research."

Streuli said Switzerland would support attempts to find "confidence-building measures and ways" of persuading Iran to abide by IAEA rules and prove that its nuclear-programme intentions are peaceful.

swissinfo, Ramsey Zarifeh

Key facts

The United Nations Conference on Disarmament was established in 1979 as the single multilateral disarmament negotiating forum of the international community.
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.

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