Canada leads the “dead in the water” Conference on Disarmament

This month and next, Canada shoulders one of the least coveted leadership posts within the United Nations system – the presidency of the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD).

The travails, frustrations, and abject failure of the CD, the UN’s only disarmament negotiating forum, have become legendary over 15 years of regular meetings that have produced not a single agreement. That includes especially the failure to agree even on a working agenda – a simple list of issues to be negotiated or debated.

The fruitless travails of the CD have centred for a decade and a half on a futile search for agreement on an agenda; the frustrations are heightened by the fact that, even though 64 of the CD’s 65 member States agree on a critically important four-part agenda or program of work, consensus continues to elude them; and the abject failure of the CD owes to a perverse convention that defines consensus as unanimity, meaning that a single “no” vote can block the work that every other member state wants to pursue.

And that’s the CD that Canada must now lead for a brief two months. In his first speech as the CD President, Canada’s Geneva-based UN Ambassador, Marius Grinius, recalled the frustrations voiced by one of his Canadian predecessors when opening the first session of the CD in 2001 – already then Canadian diplomats were descrying the disheartening waste of opportunities and waste of time and professional energies of delegations to that body.[i]

There is a proposed agenda that enjoys overwhelming support. Indeed, on 29 May 2009, a red letter day in recent CD history, unanimous agreement was reached on a program of work.[ii] It consisted of the four key items that have been acknowledged all along as needing primary attention: 1) negotiations to halt production of fissile materials for weapons purposes; 2) a working group to address nuclear disarmament more broadly; 3) a working group on measures by which nuclear weapon states promise not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states; and 4) a working group on preventing an arms race in outer space.

The first three of these items were affirmed in 1995, essentially as conditions for the indefinite extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The May 2009 action also agreed to the appointment of three “special coordinators” to advance discussions within the CD respectively on emerging weapons technologies, a “comprehensive programme of disarmament,” and “transparency in armaments.”   

It was a short-lived agreement when Pakistan, which is fundamentally opposed to a Treaty mandated halt in fissile materials production because it fears that India has much more extensive existing stocks, subsequently withheld consent for the work to commence.

Now, in 2011, the frustrations and sense of waste are even more intense, even as Pakistan’s opposition to negotiating on fissile materials also becomes more deeply entrenched. Pakistan has a point, as its Ambassador argued at the CD last week: “Over the last two years, Pakistan has clearly stated that it cannot agree to negotiations on a FMCT [fissile material cut-off treaty] in the CD owing to the discriminatory waiver provided by the NSG [Nuclear Suppliers Group] to our neighbour for nuclear cooperation by several powers, as this arrangement will further accentuate the asymmetry in fissile materials stockpiles in the region, to the detriment of Pakistan’s security interests.”[iii]

Pakistan has watched its principle rival, India, being courted by the international community through an exemption from Nuclear Supplier Group prohibitions on civilian nuclear cooperation. India’s rehabilitation as an acknowledged nuclear weapon state continues, even though, as the Arms Control Association’s Daryl Kimball put it, “U.S. support for Indian membership in the NSG undermines U.S. efforts to shore up the global nonproliferation system, prevent the transfer of sensitive nuclear technologies, and makes it far more difficult to slow the South Asian nuclear arms race.”[iv]

Pakistan agrees and essentially announced an accelerated nuclear arms race to the CD: “Apart from undermining the validity and sanctity of the international non-proliferation regime these measures shall further destabilize security in South Asia. Membership in the NSG will enable our neighbour to further expand on its nuclear cooperation agreements and enhance its nuclear weapons and delivery capability. As a consequence Pakistan will be forced to take measures to ensure the credibility of its deterrence. The accumulative impact would be to destabilize the security environment in South Asia and beyond or to the global level. From our perspective in the CD, this would further retard progress on non-proliferation, arms control and disarmament measures.”[v]

Meanwhile, the stalemate continues. But there may yet be a positive outcome to these growing frustrations – also voiced by the UN Secretary-General.[vi] And that is in the growing interest in taking negotiation of a fissile materials Treaty out of the CD.  Washington’s Rose Gottemoeller, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, was s bit more direct. Given that the CD is “dead in the water,” she said, “if we cannot find a way to begin these negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament, we will need to consider other options.”[vii]

Canada has been among the most direct in pushing for an alternative. Ambassador Grinius issued the challenge almost a year ago: “If we truly care about disarmament, Canada believes we must be ready to look for alternative ways forward outside of this body.”[viii]

He referred in particular to a 2005 proposal in which Canada joined five other states – Brazil, Kenya, Mexico, New Zealand, and Sweden – in putting forward a resolution in the UN General Assembly asking it to mandate, by simple majority vote, four special committees to work on the four priority disarmament issues (listed above).

The point was to take these four crucial issues out of the “consensus prison” of the CD. Working as Committees of the General Assembly, they would not be bound by consensus rules and thus states would finally be allowed to deal substantively with these key issues. The drafters of the resolution were careful not to strip the CD of its function, and so built into their resolution a commitment to transfer the results of the work of these four ad-hoc committees back to the CD as soon as it finally agreed on its proposed agenda of work and was actually prepared to start negotiating. [ix]  Ironically, if there are to be negotiations on fissile materials, and eventually they will begin, it will be in Pakistan’s interests to have them conducted in the CD, where the consensus rule will guarantee that its concerns are taken seriously.

The 2005 plan failed due to heavy hostility from the George W. Bush Administration, but the new nuclear disarmament environment is more promising. Ambassador Grinius opened his presidency by telling CD member states that “2011 will be a pivotal year” for the CD. He cited the positive context for nuclear disarmament efforts, noting the Security Council Summit meeting on the issue in 2009, the Washington Nuclear Security Summit, the New START agreement, and the successful 2010 NPT Review Conference. “At all these milestones, ‘political will’ seemed abundant,” he said. “In contrast to all these positive security developments elsewhere, the Conference on Disarmament appeared to be an oblivious island of inactivity where ‘political will’ continued to be absent.”[x]   

For now there is still time for the CD to make itself relevant; but let’s all hope that time is running out.


[i] Marius Grinius, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Canada, “President’s Statement,” 25 January 2011. Available at the NGO disarmament monitoring group, Reaching Critical Will:

[ii] “Decision for the establishment of a Programme of Work for the 2009 session.” Conference on Disarmament (CD/1864, 29 May 2009).

[iii] Ambassador Zamir Akram, Statement at the Conference on Disarmament, 25 January 2011.

[iv] Daryl G. Kimball, “Obama’s Message to India: Proliferation Violations Don’t Have Consequences,” US Arms Control Association Blog, 6 November 2010.

“In a statement Saturday from Mumbai, Mike Froman, the Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economic Affairs said ‘…the United States will support India’s full membership in the four multilateral export control regimes. These are the Nuclear Suppliers Group; the Missile Technology Control Regime; the Australia Group; and the Wassenaar Arrangement.’”

[v] Ambassador Zamir Akram, Statement at the Conference on Disarmament, 25 January 2011.

[vi] “Remarks delivered by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to the Conference on Disarmament,” 26 January 2010, available at the NGO disarmament monitoring group, Reaching Critical Will:

[vii] Rose E. Gottemoeller, “2011 Opening Statement to the Conference on Disarmament,” 27 January 2011. Available at:

[viii] March 23, 2010 speech to the Conference on Disarmament.$file/1180_Canada.pdf.

[ix] Elaborated in this space: “It’s time to sideline the Geneva disarmament conference,” 18 February 2010.

[x] Marius Grinius, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Canada, “President’s Statement,” 25 January 2011. Available at the NGO disarmament monitoring group, Reaching Critical Will:

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