Deadlocked and Waiting at the UN Conference on Disarmament

Arms Control Today, December 2000 | Go to article overview
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Deadlocked and Waiting at the UN Conference on Disarmament


Ambassador Robert T. Grey, Jr. has been the U.S. permanent representative to the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD) since October 1997. The CD, which convenes in Geneva for several weeks three times each year, has met since 1979 as a forum for multilateral disarmament negotiations.

This year, the 66-member conference successfully passed its agenda-consisting of broad categories that are open for discussion-but was unable to reach the consensus needed to establish a program of work, which is composed of mandates outlining discussions or negotiations on selected topics. For example, the work program could establish an ad hoc committee to conduct formal negotiations on an issue, with the goal of eventually concluding a treaty, or to hold discussions on a topic, aiming simply to explore members' views. Without a work program, the CD cannot formally negotiate or discuss any agenda item.

After completing negotiations on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996, the conference was unable to reach consensus on a work program in three of the next four years. In 1998, the conference did agree to a work program and began negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) in August, but it made little headway before its negotiating session ended September 9. Though all CD members currently support FMCT negotiations, a few have insisted that those negotiations can only take place if negotiations are also conducted on nuclear disarmament and prevention of an arms race in outer space, a linkage that the United States has opposed.

Prior to heading the U.S. delegation to the CD, Ambassador Grey led the State Department UN Reform Team. He was counselor for political affairs for the U.S. Mission to the UN from 1989 to 1994 and acting deputy director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency from 1981 to 1983. Before holding these posts, Ambassador Grey was the Political-Military Affairs Bureau's deputy office director in the Office of Military Sales and Assistance and the executive assistant to the undersecretary of state for political affairs. He joined the Foreign Service in 1960.

On November 27, Arms Control Association Senior Research Analyst Wade Boese spoke with Ambassador Grey about the causes of the current stalemate at the CD and the possibility of progress. The following is an edited version of their conversation. Arms Control Today: When I interviewed you two years ago (see ACT, October 1998), you expressed cautious optimism that the Conference on Disarmament would begin negotiations in 1999, specifically on a fissile material cutoff treaty. But now, after CD sessions in 1999 and 2000, the conference is still deadlocked and has not agreed on a work program in the last two years. Why?

Ambassador Robert T. Grey, Jr.: First, the CD actually did get started for a brief couple of weeks on an FMCT a couple years back, in August 1998. That decision to go forward was heavily influenced by international concern over the nuclear weapons tests that India and Pakistan carried out that spring. But since everyone knew that the CD could not really achieve anything in the few weeks left in that year's session, some countries probably went along with the decision to establish an ad hoc committee as a show of their "good faith." In other words, I doubt that all 66 members of the CD really had a strong commitment to FMCT negotiations as an independent endeavor for its own sake.

In January 1999, the situation turned out to be considerably more complicated. Basically, there were two issues that blocked work that year and in 2000. The first one, which I think we may now have worked out, was the interest of the non-aligned countries to get something started on nuclear disarmament in the conference. As we worked with them, it became clear that there was a possible way to accommodate their interests, and we have come up with a proposal to discuss nuclear disarmament in the conference-various aspects of it-but we would not negotiate on it.

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