WASHINGTON -- The international Conference on Disarmament begins its 2013 session on Monday, but there is little hope that the 65-nation body will break a nearly two-decade freeze on negotiations of new arms control accords.
“My hope at this point is very modest,” said Laura Kennedy, U.S. permanent representative to the forum in Geneva, Switzerland. “It’s been 16 years since the conference actually negotiated a treaty text, so the level of frustration is indeed very high.”
Another year of inaction would mean another year in which a key Obama administration arms control goal, establishment of a global ban on production of fissile material for nuclear weapons, remains out of reach.
The conference is the sole permanent multilateral forum for negotiation of disarmament agreements. It worked on the Chemical Weapons Convention and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, among other accords, before faltering in the 1990s.
In May 2009 members agreed on a work plan that would initiate negotiations on four distinct arms control issues, including nuclear disarmament and the fissile material pact. Pakistan, though, stepped back from the agreement “almost before the ink was dry,” Kennedy said in a Jan. 11 telephone interview from Geneva. The conference operates by consensus, so any of the participating nations can hold up its work.
Different nations have put forward updated work proposals in recent years as they took the rotating conference presidency, but none has overcome Pakistan’s opposition. Hungary will lead off the first of this year’s three sessions, which continues through March 29.
The Hungarian mission in Geneva has been consulting with other delegations on a possible program of work, deputy permanent representative Márk Horváth told Global Security Newswire this week. Any action would come only after weeks of public statements from national delegations and bilateral and group discussions among diplomats.
“I can tell you that we remain optimistic at this point that there might be a chance. But who knows, it can change at any time,” Horváth said. “If there is no program of work adopted … there’s no working groups, which would be bad.”
Kennedy said any work program must involve consideration of a fissile material cutoff treaty, one of the measures President Obama cited in the April 2009 speech in Prague in which he pledged to pursue a “world without nuclear weapons.” Global nuclear disarmament is impossible without having such an agreement in place, she said.
Nuclear-armed Pakistan has objected to consideration of an FMCT accord as a threat to its effort to prevent longtime foe India from gaining a strategic advantage via a larger holding of such weapon-usable substances.
Islamabad’s embassy in Washington and mission to the United Nations in Geneva did not respond to requests for comments on the upcoming session.
Washington has not stood idly while the conference remained at impasse, Kennedy said. The administration supported several work plan proposals even if they were not its “ideal formulation,” according to the veteran diplomat, whose postings have included the U.S. ambassador to Turkmenistan.
U.S. officials have also sought a path forward in discussions with the other permanent U.N. Security Council member states and formal nuclear powers -- China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom.
Similar consultations have been held within a broader group of nations encompassing the P-5 states, India and Pakistan. Kennedy noted that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had also traveled to Geneva in February 2011 in hopes of underscoring the need for progress on the fissile material cutoff treaty and broader disarmament efforts.
“Despite all our efforts, we have not found the magic bullet, we do not have a breakthrough, and I’m certainly not forecasting despite all those efforts that anything is at hand,” she said. Nonetheless, “the objective continues to be a vital one, not just to President Obama’s agenda, but it’s one that has been endorsed by virtually the entire international community. We will continue to explore ways that we can get this process under way.”
There have been a number of suggestions in recent years for overcoming the impasse, from eliminating the conference’s consensus rule to moving deliberations on the fissile material pact to another forum. However, none of these ideas have developed into concrete action.
State Department leaders insist it is key to demand consensus when approaching critical national security issues, Kennedy said. The conference remains the administration’s “preferred venue” but not necessarily the only one that could take up arms control measures, she added.
“Some states I think are driven by a desire to preserve the conference at all costs. That’s not our position,” Kennedy said. However, “we also value the CD because it brings together all the military significant players.”
There is no existing forum that could fill the role of the Conference on Disarmament, the envoy said. She played down the potential for a special U.N. General Assembly meeting on disarmament. The full U.N. membership conducted three such sessions from 1978 to 1988, but only the first event produced a consensus report. “Frankly, we don’t see that as a magic bullet either,” Kennedy said, adding that the conference, the U.N. Disarmament Commission or the General Assembly's First Committee are all sufficient venues for such discussions.
Developing nations within the Nonaligned Movement, in a wide-ranging 2012 resolution, called for the General Assembly this year to take up the issue of nuclear disarmament. The measure passed both the First Committee and full membership, but was opposed by the United States and fellow nuclear powers France and the United Kingdom. India, Pakistan and Israel, which also hold atomic arms, also voted against the resolution.
First Committee members also last fall put forward two additional resolutions aimed at breaking the deadlock in the international “disarmament machinery,” according to Sergio Duarte, former U.N. high commissioner for disarmament.
One measure urged the conference to initiate “immediate” talks on a fissile material pact. It also called for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to form a panel of government experts to “make recommendations on aspects which could contribute to, but not negotiate, a treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”
A separate resolution mandated establishment of a working panel in early 2013 to “develop concrete proposals to take forward multilateral negotiations for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons.”
The Obama administration supported the fissile material resolution but voted against the nuclear disarmament negotiations measure. Both documents passed the General Assembly; government experts are due to convene in Geneva for two weeks in both 2014 and 2015, while the working group is scheduled to meet this year for no more than 15 days.
“Nuclear-weapon states that abstained or voted against all three resolutions expressed concern that the creation of new institutions outside of the conference would be unsuccessful and could harm current conference efforts to break the impasse,” Duarte wrote in a commentary for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Many states emphasized the role of the conference as the sole negotiating body on disarmament issues and supported its continued existence even in the absence of consensus on any of its agenda items.”