A new year brings renewed tensions in the world of disarmament

A view of the Conference on Disarmament meeting at the United Nations in Geneva, May 2019. (Credit: Keystone / Salvatore De Nolfi)

The annual Conference on Disarmament (CD) got off to a tense start last month when member states Iran and Turkey blocked rivals Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Cyprus from taking part in the forum.

A controversial manoeuvre widely condemned by other states, the actions of Iran and Turkey brought fresh attention to the deadlock that has plagued the multilateral negotiating forum since it was founded in 1978, succeeding other Geneva-based forums established during the Cold War.

Speaking at the opening of last year’s meeting, Tatiana Valovaya, director general of the United Nations in Geneva (UNOG), said much more had to be done to “overcome deep divisions that contribute to, among other things, the paralysis that has crippled this body for the past two decades”, and to address “the atrophying state of our disarmament instruments, institutions and aspirations”.

As the world reaches new heights of uncertainty and insecurity, progress on key items on the disarmament agenda is long overdue, meaning the tensions that play out in the forum are attracting more scrutiny.

The nuclear problem. The CD is the only multilateral forum to bring all countries that possess nuclear weapons together with non-nuclear possessing states. Nuclear disarmament is the focal point on the agenda along with issues ranging from  “negative security assurances” -  guarantees by nuclear weapon states not to strike against countries that do not hold nuclear weapons - to outer space security. But with different agendas at play and political tensions running high, it’s difficult to imagine how such divisive issues could be overcome.

“The disarmament world is a very divided one, and that shouldn't be a surprise because what we are talking about is the fundamental security strategies of states,” says Aidan Liddle, UK ambassador and permanent representative to the CD.

“There are a group of states who have built their entire national security doctrine on the existence of nuclear weapons, and there are a lot of other states who see the existence of nuclear weapons as the single biggest threat to world peace and the survival of humanity,” he continues. “So trying to reconcile those two positions obviously is not easy, and anybody who thinks that there are sort of quick solutions to particularly nuclear disarmament hasn't been paying attention.”

Decades of deadlock. The last treaty the forum managed to agree was the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), adopted in 1996 and banning all nuclear weapons test explosions - though it will not enter into force until eight key states, including the US, ratify it. The lack of concrete resolutions on nuclear disarmament since then has prompted criticism over its role in arms control negotiations, as former counsellor to the conference Marc Finaud explains.

“It’s becoming more and more irrelevant because it hasn't adapted to the new world, and it doesn't understand that all these issues that are on the agenda of the conference need to be addressed in a holistic way,” says Finaud, who is now head of arms proliferation at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP). “This explains why all the agreements on arms control and disarmament which have been adopted by the international community over more than 20 years have been negotiated and adopted outside the CD.”

In the first month of 2021 alone there have been a number of major shifts in the world of global arms control. On January 22, the landmark UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) came into force banning all activities involving nuclear weapons in signatory states, of which there are now more than 60. Just a week later, Russia and the US struck a deal to extend the New START nuclear arms control treaty - the only major accord regulating nuclear rivalry between the two powers.

As the CD makes decisions on consensus between member states, treaties such as the TPNW could not be reached within its meetings in the current nuclear landscape. However, Ambassador Liddle explains that in the absence of consensus, it’s value lies in laying the groundwork for future treaties related to the key items on the disarmament agenda. Then, when ever or if ever the political will to negotiate a treaty is established, the forum will be ready. “If we don’t do this work now,” explains Liddle, “when the window to negotiate a treaty opens up - and it might shut again pretty quickly - we won’t be ready and we’ll be failing in our duty.”

A tense landscape. The new US administration looks set to alter the global arms landscape this year, with President Biden’s team already moving quickly to seek ways to revive negotiations with Iran over the 2015 nuclear deal thwarted by Donald Trump in 2018. But there are seldom quick-fixes in the world of disarmament. A number of conventions that were not discussed in 2020 due to Covid-19 disruptions will feature high up on the forum’s agenda in the coming months, including talks on outer space security and ending the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.

One of the major events will be the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) review conference, postponed twice last year and now due to take place in August. The treaty now includes 185 countries who have agreed not to venture down the nuclear path, and recognises five nuclear weapons states - the US, the UK, China, France and Russia - as such. India, Israel and Pakistan never signed it, and North Korea withdrew.

Although there has been growing pressure in recent years to move beyond the NPT’s maintenance of the status quo towards a world without nuclear weapons, as is the goal of the recent TPNW’s nuclear ban, Ambassador Liddle says that this can only be achieved through consensus.

“The consensus rule is often what's pointed out as being the CD’s main downfall, but we're talking about things which are absolutely existential to state security and the state's place in the world, and if you didn't have the consensus rule, frankly, most of these states wouldn't turn up,” says Liddle.

“You're not going to get to a world without nuclear weapons without the participation of all the countries that have nuclear weapons,” he goes on. “Those countries are all in the CD so there is no other place where we can talk to them about nuclear weapons and these sorts of issues. The fact that there are tensions actually makes this more important and more relevant, even though it makes it more difficult.”