Geneva disarmament talks: same problems, different outcome?

UN Geneva Secretary General Tatiana Valovaya delivering opening comments at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, 25 January 2022. (Credit: Tatiana Valovaya)

The Conference on Disarmament (CD) began its 2022 session in Geneva last month, with hopes of breaking the years-long deadlock further marred by Covid delays, heightened global insecurity, and escalating tensions over Ukraine. As delegates prepare to meet again this week, can this year’s conference deliver a different outcome?

In recent years, questioning the relevance of the Conference on Disarmament (CD) has become as much of a preoccupation as the conference itself.

Headlines like “Does the Disarmament Conference have a future?” and “Diplomats see little hope of reviving arms talks” have persisted for more than two decades as its 65 member states locked horns over some of the world’s most contentious and foreboding issues – halting the nuclear arms race and preventing nuclear war; so much so that for years they have been unable to even agree on the programme of work for the negotiations.

As the 2022 session of the conference kicked off last week, delegates gathered once again with a sense of déjà-vu. “Expectations are pretty low and it’s unlikely we will see a breakthrough,” British Ambassador Aidan Liddle told Geneva Solutions.

“Because it has been deadlocked for so long, because we have faced countries blocking processes for various political reasons, in the current political environment it is difficult to see what would shift,” he said.

Speaking at the opening plenary session, Ambassador Li Song of China, which assumed the rotating presidency from 24 January until 18 February, said the conference had been “severely swayed and hampered by politicisation” and that he looked forward to hearing ideas from member states on how to move past these issues.

“The failure of the conference to start any treaty negotiations in recent years is caused in essence by the growing complication of the global strategic and security situation, which has had a deep impact on the conference itself.”

China will in the coming days share its plans for a proposed programme of work for progressing on key items of the disarmament agenda. However, this is where delegates have become unstuck in recent years.

Geneva’s Sleeping Beauty

The CD is the only multilateral forum to bring all countries that possess nuclear weapons together with non-nuclear possessing states. It’s responsible for negotiating major agreements such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary last month.

However, over the last quarter of a decade, member states have not been able to make headway on any further agreements, the one last being the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), adopted in 1996.

“I have used this expression in the past, Geneva’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’, to describe the conference,” says Marc Finaud, a former diplomat and head of arms proliferation at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.

“It remains paralysed with no impact, no influence. So it's completely irrelevant if you like.  And that's a paradox because actually, it is probably the best structure that exists to address these issues which are critical for world security,” he tells Geneva Solutions.

Reaching a consensus between its 65 members has become increasingly difficult, with countries exercising their right to veto, blocking progress, among the reasons that many negotiations have since taken place outside of the conference.

This was the case for the landmark Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which came into force last year. Over 86 states have either signed or ratified the agreement, however, nuclear-armed states including China, Russia, US, UK, and France remain opposed.

“The incapacity of the CD to advance in those discussions for almost 25 years really raises some fundamental and urgent questions,” Switzerland's disarmament ambassador, Felix Baumann, told Geneva Solutions.

Unlocking the programme of work

One of the long-standing problems that have stalled the work of the conference is how to go about discussing the politically-sensitive topics on its agenda.  The topics have already been adopted by the UN General Assembly and CD member states. But where countries disagree is how to implement the so-called programme of work, and what topics to begin with.

“This is where there has been no consensus since 1996 because it is an issue which is seen as a zero-sum game,” says Finaud.

“Some countries want to negotiate on issues like nuclear disarmament but they don't want to negotiate on other issues like production of fissile material. There are all these combinations of national interests. And because one country like Pakistan doesn't like the provision on fissile material, they will just block the negotiation,” he adds.

International talks on a treaty to ban the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons or other explosive devices is seen as a promising area for the conference, however, it has been long blocked by Pakistan in its search for parity with India.

“There should be a sort of understanding that programme of work does not mean that everybody supports everything, because the actual rule of consensus doesn't mean that you're enthusiastic about it, but you can live with it,” says Finaud.

Baumann sees two possibilities for advancing the agenda: “One would be simply to come back to a simplified programme of work that would enable us to structure our work and that would not be linked to a negotiation mandate.”

The other would be to establish different subsidiary bodies, a proposal that Switzerland pushed during its 2018 presidency. “Each one would deal with a subject on the agenda, precisely to advance on the substance, with the aim of getting us closer to a negotiation mandate.”

Both options would offer an alternative to the “all or nothing” approach of recent years, he said. “Essentially, we can't advance if we don't have a negotiating mandate and we really have to work on this because it really paralyses the CD,” Baumann adds.

Although cautious on next week’s progress, Liddle says: “What we do hope to see is a return to substantive discussions on the main agenda, including nuclear disarmament and outer space.”

A win for observing states

Despite diplomats’ expectations for new deals running low, the conference marked a significant breakthrough last week after its members approved all the requests by non-member states who want to take part as observers.

Baumann said this “was an encouraging sign” after requests from several countries were blocked over the last two years. In 2021, Iran and Turkey blocked Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and Cyprus respectively, from attending. The move was widely criticised for setting the rest of the conference on an acrimonious tone.

“CD is limited in its membership to 65, even though the issues discussed in it relate to all UN member states, so for Switzerland, it's always been important that at least those states that ask to be involved in its work, can do so,” says the Swiss ambassador.

CD president Li has been credited for working hard to overcome states’ concerns behind the scenes.

Outside the CD

Despite deep frustrations over its lack of progress, disarmament experts say that it would be unfair to dismiss the CD’s importance. They argue that its influence extends far beyond the forum itself. “​​The CD is only the visible part of the iceberg of a much broader community of practice,” says Finaud.

In Geneva, that broader community is advancing discussions on other important topics such as biological weapons, cluster munitions, urban warfare, and regulating new technologies, such as lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS).   A new open-ended working group aimed at reducing security threats in outer space will meet for the first time in Geneva this week.

"As the only permanent multilateral disarmament forum, the CD remains an important instrument for dialogue. But it's also important to Geneva because a whole range of expertise and competencies gravitate around the CD, which really makes Geneva the capital of disarmament,” says Baumann.

This range of expertise “also allows us to break the silos, which is also important in disarmament issues”, he adds.

The work of the conference also comes amid an increasingly fragile security environment, growing tensions over Ukraine, as well as increasing competition and the race to develop new technologies, making its work ever more important, member states stressed during their opening remarks last week.

Beyond the CD, another key moment in the disarmament agenda this year will be the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) review conference, already postponed three times and tentatively scheduled for August.