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Disarmament Body Faces "Irrelevancy": U.N. Chief

The international Conference on Disarmament convenes in 2009 in Geneva, Switzerland. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday denounced a years-long deadlock at the 65-nation body while vowing to oppose the forum's "decline into irrelevancy" (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus). The international Conference on Disarmament convenes in 2009 in Geneva, Switzerland. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday denounced a years-long deadlock at the 65-nation body while vowing to oppose the forum's "decline into irrelevancy" (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus).

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday lashed long-lasting stalemate at the international Conference on Disarmament, but vowed that he would not allow the forum to "decline into irrelevancy" amid talk of moving arms control negotiations to another venue (see GSN, Jan. 23).

The 65-nation body in Geneva, Switzerland, has not produced a new disarmament treaty in close to 16 years after negotiating or assessing pacts such as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Chemical Weapons Convention, Biological Weapons Convention and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, according to Ban.

The conference in 2009 broke a deadlock that had lasted for more than a decade, agreeing to a work plan that would focus on negotiating an accord prohibiting the generation of new fissile material for nuclear warheads; preventing the militarization of outer space; nuclear disarmament; and providing negative security assurances to non-nuclear armed nations. After initially voting in favor of the work plan, Pakistan later withdrew its support and has blocked movement on the matter. Islamabad argues that a fissile material cutoff treaty as planned would harm its national security interests in relation to its fellow nuclear-armed state and longtime rival India. The conference operates on the principle of consensus.

"This distinguished body is no longer living up to expectations," Ban said in remarks delivered by the director general of the U.N. Office at Geneva. "The last occasion on which the conference fulfilled the negotiating role given to it by the United Nations General Assembly was in 1996, when the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty emerged from an intensive three-year process."

"Not only do the members of the conference disagree over its priorities, but the consensus rule, which has served this body so well in the past, is currently used as a de facto veto power to stall every attempt to break the impasse," Ban said.

He noted that member nations also differ in their prioritization of disarmament issues such as a fissile material cutoff pact or preventing competing national efforts to launch weapons into space.

"Even if a large majority of the members is ready to begin negotiations on a fissile material treaty, some are eager to 'precondition' the outcome of such negotiations, even though it is clear that national security interests can be defended most effectively during the negotiations and, later, in the national signature and ratification process," the U.N. chief continued.

A number of countries including France, the United Kingdom and the United States have informally discussed beginning discussions on a fissile material ban outside of the conference (see GSN, May 17, 2011). Ban, though, said he "cannot stand by and watch it decline into irrelevancy, as states consider other negotiating arenas."

Ban said the conference would face unprecedented scrutiny this year and that excuses such as an "absence of political will" could not be used to justify the body's lack of action.

"The [U.N.] General Assembly is seized of the matter and, if the conference remains deadlocked, is ready to consider other options to move the disarmament agenda forward," he said (United Nations release, Jan. 24).

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller in a Tuesday speech to the conference said Washington had observed some worthwhile efforts last year, including a set of of technical workshops organized by Japan and Australia on issues surrounding an FMCT pact and talks among the five recognized nuclear powers on options for moving past the gridlock on fissile material talks within the conference (see GSN, Aug. 4, 2011).

"At the most recent session of the [U.N. General Assembly] First Committee, we all witnessed and experienced the growing international frustration with the status quo here in Geneva. Not surprisingly, and with no small amount of justification, many in the international community are losing patience with the current situation in the CD," said Gottemoeller, a top U.S. negotiator on arms control issues.

Gottemoeller said agreeing to a fissile material pact "is an absolutely essential step for global nuclear disarmament."

"Simply stated, we can't get to the end, if we don't start at the beginning. A verifiable end to the production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons is necessary if we are to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons," she said.

The U.S. diplomat acknowledged disagreements on the "scope" of a potential treaty. Pakistan has argued that the accord should address existing stores of fissile material, where it believes India has the edge (see GSN, Jan. 26, 2011).

"The U.S. position is clear: FMCT obligations, including verification obligations, should cover only new production of fissile material," Gottemoeller said. "A step-by-step approach would serve us well with an FMCT. One essential step in the process should be a legal ban on the production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons."

She added: "We are fully aware that many CD members have a different view and this will be the subject of vigorous debate. ... The United States is ready to have that debate. What is not helpful is an effort to 'prenegotiate the outcome of any negotiations by an explicit reference to existing stocks in a negotiating mandate" (U.S. State Department release, Jan. 24).

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