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Consensus on Disarmament Eludes International Nuclear Conference

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

(May. 25) -Zimbabwean Ambassador to the United Nations Boniface Chidyausiku, shown last year, chaired the committee on disarmament at the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference. The panel failed to obtain consensus on a proposal for a conference agreement (U.N. photo). (May. 25) -Zimbabwean Ambassador to the United Nations Boniface Chidyausiku, shown last year, chaired the committee on disarmament at the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference. The panel failed to obtain consensus on a proposal for a conference agreement (U.N. photo).

UNITED NATIONS -- A major panel charged with forging strategies for nuclear disarmament during this month's Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference yesterday concluded its work here without consensus on a number of points (see GSN, May 24).

"It is almost an impossible task," said Zimbabwean Ambassador Boniface Chidyausiku, who chaired the conference's committee on disarmament, describing his unsuccessful effort to obtain support from all of the accord's 189 member nations for a draft joint statement about efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons.

During a final two-hour meeting Monday, the panel's seventh formal gathering, Western nations differed sharply with many developing states over key passages of a 14-page draft report.

By midnight last night, the disarmament committee's text was to be folded in with those of two other panels -- one on nonproliferation and another on peaceful uses of nuclear energy -- to form an initial draft of an integrated conference statement. Summits such as the one convened here by member nations this month are held every five years to review these three major "pillars" of the 1970 treaty.

Though there remained disagreements over selected wording in the disarmament text, those differences would now be left to the conference plenary to sort out, Chidyausiku said.

The looming question hanging over the 2010 gathering is whether key issues under debate can be resolved by the conclusion of the conference at week's end. Member nations aim to reach consensus on a final resolution laying out ways to strengthen the accord, but if that fails, a mechanism is in place to adopt a statement by a two-thirds "super-majority" vote.

Although a number of other issues might ultimately stand in the way of final consensus -- including debate over how to pursue a WMD-free zone in the Middle East -- diplomatic kerfuffles over the process by which nuclear powers would move to disarm are proving more nettlesome than many had earlier imagined.

"Even if we had the whole day today, we're not going to get a consensus on the [draft disarmament] document put before you," said Chidyausiku, who serves as his country's permanent representative to the United Nations.

One central point of contention in Chidyausiku's draft text pertains to whether the five nuclear powers recognized under the treaty -- China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States -- should be pressed to establish a set schedule for eliminating their atomic arms.

"The conference affirms that the final phase of the nuclear disarmament process and other related measures should be pursued within a legal framework with specified time lines," reads a particularly controversial passage of the disarmament committee's in-progress report.

The reference to adhering to disarmament "time lines" has raised the ire of Washington and others. Representatives of a number of nations -- including the United States, France and Russia -- called yesterday for any timing imperative to be removed from the resolution.

Laura Kennedy, who represented the United States on the NPT review conference disarmament committee, joined her British and French counterparts in calling on all states to work harder and more collectively toward disarmament.

"We all have roles to play," she said at yesterday's committee meeting.

If disarming the five major nuclear powers were not challenging enough, significantly complicating the picture is the possession of nuclear arsenals by nations that are not party to the Nonproliferation Treaty: Pakistan, India and Israel. Another state, North Korea, withdrew from the accord after it developed a nuclear-weapons capability.

None of these nations is taking part in the conference and there is, thus far, no clear roadmap for how they might be brought along.

A number of member nations spoke up to defend the draft wording that calls for firm disarmament time lines. Those included an Egyptian representative speaking for two significant coalitions: the 116-member Nonaligned Movement of developing states and the geographically diverse New Agenda Coalition, representing Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and Sweden.

"We remain resolute" in backing the draft's "very mild language" regarding an initiative to draft time lines for disarmament, South Africa's delegate to the disarmament committee said. "Allow us to take something home," he appealed.

For its part, Mexico would not accept any "dilution" of the draft language on moving toward disarmament time lines, its envoy stated. "Public opinion would view negatively if we were not able to build" on the significant movement toward strengthening nonproliferation initiatives laid out during the 2000 conference, she said.

That gathering identified 13 steps that should be pursued to strengthen nonproliferation, including placing more effective controls on fissile material and implementing the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

The original draft of this year's disarmament committee report urged nuclear-weapon states to meet in 2011 to consider opportunities for expediting the disarmament process (see GSN, May 17). That would have been followed by an international meeting in 2014 to establish a schedule for ridding the world of nuclear weapons. The specific language calling for these summits, though, was reportedly removed from the document (see GSN, May 20).

There was a moment of minor drama yesterday when it came time for Iran's delegate to address the disarmament committee, but his microphone did not work.

Moving to the Estonian delegation's desk, Tehran's envoy complained that the Nonaligned Movement's recommendations for changes to the conference text were being ignored. Among other issues raised, the Iranian diplomat demanded that any nuclear-material sharing and any development of new weapons be "stopped immediately."

Meanwhile, a subsidiary panel of the main committee drafted a number of "action" items that could be taken to advance disarmament, with a third version of this list released on Friday.

However, this text was also subject to objections from several quarters early this week. Among the complaints were those offered by outside disarmament advocates, who asserted the parties were not moving decisively enough on the issue.

For example, the latest draft wording urges nuclear-weapon states to "convene timely consultations" on further reducing arsenals and lowering the risk that such arms might be used. Ray Acheson and Beatrice Fihn of Reaching Critical Will said this commitment is "significantly weaker" than an earlier version of the text.

"While the first draft of the [disarmament subcommittee] action plan provided forward-looking actions, the resistance of the [nuclear-weapon states] to accept any concrete commitments to nuclear disarmament within a specified time frame has meant that those states that do not possess nuclear weapons ... have had to fight to even keep the action plan from regressing from the one adopted in 2000," the two disarmament advocates stated in an essay posted online.

If the NPT member states fail to achieve consensus this week, it would be the second time in a row. The 2005 gathering resulted in deadlock, following successful conferences in 1995 and 2000 (see GSN, May 31, 2005).

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