Unfreezing Disarmament

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Nuclear Abolition News | IPS Columnist Service
By John Burroughs*

NEW YORK (IPS) - Since 2008, eloquent affirmations of the desirability and necessity of achieving a world without nuclear weapons have poured out from many quarters, not least from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and US President Barack Obama. Yet the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva has displayed an impressive immunity to the marked shift in rhetoric, remaining mired in deadlock. Operating under an absolute rule of consensus, the UN-affiliated body has conducted no negotiations whatsoever since it produced the text of the agreement banning all nuclear test explosions in 1996. [P] JAPANESE TEXT PDF

Patience with this lack of productivity has run out. Throughout October, at UN headquarters in New York, UN member states meeting in the First Committee of the General Assembly engaged in a heated and substantive debate on how to get multilateral disarmament moving again. They then approved two resolutions that the General Assembly will formally adopt in early December. The resolutions signal that if the stalemate in the Conference on Disarmament continues, next year, as the body ultimately responsible for pursuing one of the United Nations' central aims, the General Assembly is prepared to act.

One course of action would be for the General Assembly to establish a process not subject to the rule of consensus outside the Conference on Disarmament until the latter can deliver results. This was proposed in the First Committee by Austria, Mexico, and Norway, and gained substantial but not majority support. Working groups would address nuclear disarmament and the achievement of a world without nuclear weapons; guarantees of non-use of nuclear weapons against countries not possessing them; negotiation of a treaty to ban production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons, a Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty (FMCT); and prevention of the weaponisation of space.

All of those topics are on the agenda of the Conference on Disarmament, but it has been disabled by the ability of just one government to stop work by the 65-member group. The majority of member states, many from the Global South, prioritise negotiations on total nuclear disarmament. This is refused by the nuclear-armed permanent five members of the Security Council (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and United States). To keep arms control in motion, in the late 1990s the majority reluctantly accepted the position of the Western nuclear powers: negotiations on an FMCT and discussions on other items. Nonetheless, work has not begun.

To buy time to build up its nuclear stockpile, since 2009 Pakistan has blocked negotiations on an FMCT. In the mid-2000s, it was the United States stopping talks, when the Bush administration took the baseless position that an FMCT could not be verified. And before then, China and Russia insisted on – and the United States opposed – simultaneous commencement of negotiations on the prevention of space weaponisation.

The history of successfully-negotiated multilateral nuclear treaties also demonstrates the need to avoid the trap of consensus. In the case of the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, banning tests in the atmosphere, and the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, not all countries then possessing nuclear weapons participated in the negotiations or were initial parties. But they later joined in. And the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was adopted by the General Assembly, not the Conference on Disarmament, over the strong opposition of India.

Beginning in 2009, the Permanent Five for the first time ever are holding occasional meetings on transparency and verification. This is a welcome development. However, it also underlines the possibility that future nuclear disarmament negotiations would be carried out by states possessing nuclear weapons, rather than in a UN setting. That would be unwise, because it would result in less stringent agreements that lack the legitimacy and effectiveness that only global buy-in could produce. To be used, though, UN-based processes need to be workable as the Conference on Disarmament, paralysed by the rule of consensus, has not been for 15 years.

In addition to flexibility regarding consensus, an approach encompassing more than one multilateral measure at a time is needed. That is another merit of the Austria, Mexico, and Norway proposal. The United States and its allies are adamant that a nuclear weapons-free world must be achieved through a step-by-step approach. But saying that no other multilateral agreement can be pursued until negotiations on an FMCT are completed is a formula for putting off indefinitely decisive action to end the age of nuclear weapons.

An FMCT will likely take years to negotiate and even longer to enter into force. Moreover, as currently envisaged by the permanent five, it would simply end future production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons. Since the older nuclear powers -the United States, Russia, United Kingdom, and France- already have huge stocks of weapons-grade materials, such a cut-off will have little or no practical effect on their military capabilities.

So the step-by-step policy must be discarded and a policy of working on disarmament measures in an integrated and parallel fashion put in its place. Governments should simultaneously negotiate, or at least prepare to negotiate, a fissile materials agreement, non-use obligations, and an agreement on the global elimination of nuclear weapons or combine them all into one negotiation.

If the Conference on Disarmament cannot find a way to resume work in the coming year, the General Assembly should take responsibility and create new pathways to disarmament.

*John Burroughs is Executive Director of the New York-based Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy and co-editor and contributor, Nuclear Disorder or Cooperative Security: U.S. Weapons of Terror, the Global Proliferation Crisis, and Paths to Peace (2007). [IPS Columnist Service | November 2011]

Picture Credit: Ivon Bartholomew

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