States have reached an impasse over disarmament issues. The standoff is particularly apparent at the Conference on Disarmament, which was meant to be the single multilateral forum for negotiating disarmament when it was created. The body has not achieved a single agreement for over fifteen years. 

This prolonged lack of results has justifiably increased global skepticism, particularly within the security community, about the effectiveness of existing multilateral institutions that address disarmament, nonproliferation, and international security. 

Overcoming this stalemate and skepticism is about much more than revamping the procedures of international institutions. The main source of tension is a pervasive lack of trust—between nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states as well as among nuclear-weapon states themselves. Making progress will require a change in current international structures and the creation of a security framework that addresses the concerns of all states. 

The Evolution of Disarmament Bodies 

At the outset, the international disarmament machinery seemed to be sustaining momentum. The evolution of contemporary disarmament bodies began with the establishment of the Ten-Nation Committee on Disarmament in 1960. Membership in that committee initially included five members from NATO and another five from the Warsaw Pact, and the body was enlarged in 1962 to include eight new members not belonging to either alliance. Thereafter, to reflect the increased membership, the committee was known as the Eighteen-Nation Committee on Disarmament. It subsequently evolved into the Conference of the Committee on Disarmament (1969) as membership continued to enlarge. 

This body eventually became the Conference on Disarmament. In addition to the conference, the current United Nations disarmament institutions consist of a number of bodies that were established by the General Assembly’s first special session on disarmament in 1978 (commonly known by its acronym, SSOD-I). 

The First Committee of the General Assembly considers all questions of disarmament within the scope of the UN Charter, from general principles governing the regulation of armaments to the promotion of cooperative agreements. The Disarmament Commission is a deliberative body that makes recommendations on various disarmament issues, follows up on any disarmament decisions, and reports annually to the General Assembly. And the Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters advises the UN secretary general on matters related to arms limitation and disarmament. 

But the Conference on Disarmament is, according to the United Nations, the international community’s “single multilateral disarmament negotiating forum.” It has a rotating chairmanship among 65 members, and demands for increased membership continue to be made. 

The evolving versions of the conference have successfully negotiated and promoted the adoption of a number of important agreements in the field of disarmament, including the Partial Test Ban Treaty (1963), the Seabed Treaty (1971), the Biological Weapons Convention (1972), the Chemical Weapons Convention (1993), and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (1996). The conference also served as the venue for discussions on a draft of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1965 and 1966, sponsored by the United States and the Soviet Union. 

Yet, despite its historic successes, the conference has been unable to engage in new disarmament negotiations since the mid-1990s. The intransigence of many state positions has frustrated all previous attempts to increase the effectiveness of UN disarmament institutions. In fact, voting patterns at the First Committee clearly demonstrate the permanence of deep divisions on many disarmament issues, and for most of the past decade the Disarmament Commission has not even been able to agree on session agendas. Even when consensus on agenda items exists, conference reports to the General Assembly simply record the disagreement on the disarmament issues under discussion, which does nothing to promote conceptual progress and agreement on substance. 

This beleaguered situation compounds frustration over the persistent lack of substantive negotiations at the Conference on Disarmament. 

An Attempt at Revival

To be fair, UN disarmament institutions are attempting to address these challenges. Particularly since the 1980s, organizational procedures in the First Committee of the General Assembly and the Disarmament Commission have been changed. Members chose to reduce the duration of conference sessions, to avoid the annual reintroduction of a number of resolutions, and to group issues in clusters for debate instead of addressing them one by one, among other steps. These procedural changes, however, have not facilitated new agreements on questions of substance. 

States are not in agreement on what to do about the Conference on Disarmament. Even as UN disarmament bodies have evolved over the past few decades in the search for increased efficiency, the productivity of the Conference on Disarmament has decreased. 

While many states, including the P5, strongly support the conference’s status as the single multilateral negotiating body and argue for leaving its rules of procedure intact, structural and procedural changes to the Conference on Disarmament have been proposed. 

Some advocate changing the rule that all conference decisions require consensus. Others argue that enlarging conference membership could stimulate the development of novel disarmament approaches. Still others have simply proposed the termination or replacement of the conference in its present form. 

And there have been several recent attempts to revive the conference. Among other initiatives, in 2010 the secretary general of the United Nations convened a high-level debate aimed at revitalizing the disarmament machinery, emphasizing the conference in these deliberations. The secretary general requested that the Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters discuss ideas on the revitalization of the disarmament machinery, but the body did not achieve consensus on any practical recommendations. In 2011, the General Assembly adopted a resolution inviting states to “explore, consider and consolidate options, proposals and elements” for the regeneration of the United Nations disarmament bodies. Concrete results from these debates, however, continue to elude the international community.

The First Committee addressed this quandary at the General Assembly’s 2012 session and ultimately adopted three resolutions supported by expressive majorities. Many delegations and civil society observers hope that productive results will stem from these resolutions, despite a number of negative votes and abstentions.

One of these resolutions (A/RES/67/53), initiated by Canada, calls on the conference to start “immediate” negotiations on a treaty banning the production of fissionable material for weapons purposes or other nuclear explosive devices. This resolution also requests that the secretary general seek the views of member states and experts on such a treaty and establish a 25-member expert group to “make recommendations on aspects which could contribute to, but not negotiate, a treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices” in 2014 and 2015 or until the conference reaches agreement on this matter. 

The second resolution (A/RES/67/56), sponsored by twenty states including Austria, Mexico, and Norway, calls for convening an open-ended working group in Geneva for fifteen days in early 2013 to “develop concrete proposals to take forward multilateral negotiations for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons.” 

The Nonaligned Movement sponsored the third resolution (A/RES/67/60), which called for the next General Assembly to convene a high-level meeting addressing nuclear disarmament in September 2013. All three resolutions were motivated by general frustration on the part of many nonnuclear states regarding the current pallor of international disarmament. 

Nuclear-weapon states that abstained or voted against all three resolutions expressed concern that the creation of new institutions outside of the conference would be unsuccessful and could harm current conference efforts to break the impasse. Many states emphasized the role of the conference as the sole negotiating body on disarmament issues and supported its continued existence even in the absence of consensus on any of its agenda items. 

The Art of Negotiation

It has never been easy to achieve agreement, either of procedure or substance, on disarmament issues. The difficulties, however, increased gradually and became ostensibly insurmountable from the mid-1990s onward. It is somewhat ironic that the end of the Cold War did not facilitate a narrowing of differences among the international disarmament community but instead seems to have exacerbated rivalry and disagreement on many disarmament questions. 

To a certain extent, the present impasse on disarmament stems from institutionalized 1950s power dynamics. Structures that functioned reasonably well in the few decades after the end of World War II—despite deep rivalry, mistrust, and arms buildup between the two superpowers proclaimed, ushering in a new and highly complex era of regional interdependence and multipolarity. In short, the current international panorama bears little resemblance to the one that prevailed well into the 1980s. 

The end of extreme East-West confrontation and North-South divisions gave rise to new and different security interests and agendas. At the same time, emerging centers of regional power find little, if any, recognition in the current international structures. The most glaring example of this is the composition of the Security Council, virtually unchanged since 1945 and so far impervious to reform.

Nuclear-weapon states and some of their allies, as well as a few other significant players, still adhere to the logic of confrontation and parochial security perceptions rather than to a committed search for common solutions that would increase the security of all. It appears that refusing to join in efforts to forge a general consensus is more expedient than trying to work out differences. 

Despite an ostensible commitment to a world free of nuclear weapons, nuclear-weapon states demonstrate no inclination to accept legally binding, irreversible, and multilaterally verifiable constraints on their nuclear arsenals. They continue to argue that multilateral disarmament negotiations are “premature” and refuse to engage in a debate on a nuclear-weapons convention, even if little, if any, justification can be found for the permanence of their huge arsenals. 

Conversely, states that have already given up the option of possessing nuclear arms appear unwilling to enter into new multilateral agreements for fear they will curtail the right to pursue peaceful nuclear activities, and hence prospects for development, under the pretext of preventing proliferation. 

Nations seem to have forgotten the ancient art of negotiation through enlightened compromise. Diplomats continue to talk past each other without troubling themselves to search for merit in proposals other than their own. For example, proponents of banning the future production of fissionable material for weapons purposes do not want to include their own stocks in the negotiations. In that case, most non-nuclear-weapon states contend, the ban would simply be redundant, because such production is already prohibited for them under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Yet, if an agreement to include stocks were reached, it could open the way for substantive progress on other issues in the conference’s agenda. The two sides, however, do not seem willing to negotiate. 

The suggestion by many UN member states, particularly those in the Nonaligned Movement, to convene a new special session on disarmament in the General Assembly to assess the whole issue and make appropriate decisions is a constructive one. The convening of the fourth special session on disarmament (over twenty years after the failure of its most recent predecessor) could provide the impetus many consider essential to reach meaningful disarmament agreements. At the same time, it could address the realities of the twenty-first century that others deem intrinsically necessary. 

States must realize that negotiation implies giving something in exchange for something else—it is not about imposing one set of views as the only possible way to solve a problem. In the post–Cold War world, the provision of credible qualification-free negative security assurances (as an interim measure, pending the achievement of nuclear disarmament) would help strengthen existing nonproliferation commitments and could provide an incentive for non-nuclear-weapon states to accept further controls on their peaceful nuclear activities. In order to make progress on disarmament issues, both nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states must seek out ways to find common ground in their agendas. 

Contagious Acceptance

Just as intransigence in the major disarmament bodies has increased, the interest of large sections of civil society in nuclear disarmament issues has waned—reducing political pressure for the elimination of such weapons. 

In nuclear-weapon states, citizens seem reconciled to the existence of nuclear weapons—as long as the status quo remains intact. The doctrine of deterrence, which the secretary general of the United Nations has called “contagious,” seems a chronic and accepted condition in countries whose security is based on weapons belonging to another state. There is also the risk that some non-nuclear-weapon states will be victims of the “contagion” and decide they too must acquire nuclear means of deterring perceived threats.

In some nuclear-weapon states, officials appear more concerned with the possibility that nuclear weapons might fall into the hands of nonstate actors than with the threat posed by the mere existence of the weapons themselves. 

In many developing non-nuclear-weapon states, global issues such as unfair trade practices, economic and social development, the environment, urban violence, civil rights, and drugs and organized crime are the foremost preoccupations. For many people in these countries, the threat of catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences stemming from the intentional or accidental use of nuclear weapons seems a very distant possibility that does not raise much concern. 

Accordingly, in many nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states, demands for new multilateral efforts toward nuclear disarmament are largely not reflected in broad public opinion, despite the efforts of civil society organizations dedicated to disarmament. Citizens in all states, both those possessing and those without nuclear weapons, must wake up to the real threats of global nuclear arsenals and put pressure on their governments to pursue a disarmament agenda. After all, people worldwide are increasingly skeptical about the size of current military expenditures in the face of an economic crisis that generates rising unemployment and cutbacks in social spending.

In Good Faith 

The disarmament impasse is in part a reflection of the growing lack of trust among members of the international community. Simply engaging in procedural gimmicks will not help to overcome the fundamental and substantive discord between the concerns, objectives, and expectations of nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states. Experience since the inception of the Ten-Nation Committee on Disarmament suggests that ad hoc changes in disarmament institutions will have little chance of alleviating the current impasse.

If international disarmament bodies are to work properly, there must be broad-based consensus on all disarmament issues. Each nation has to perceive that its security interests are duly protected and recognize that by engaging in concrete disarmament negotiations it stands to gain more than it will lose. States should muster the necessary political will to take a constructive look at proposals that have been made to begin concrete nuclear disarmament negotiations, which nuclear-weapon states have thus far refused to do. 

In the meantime, UN member states can engage in one essential, if obvious, measure—they can faithfully carry out their commitments and fully abide by their obligations under existing multilateral disarmament and nonproliferation agreements. If states fulfilled their responsibilities, the current disarmament climate would certainly improve and would provide the indispensable basis of confidence upon which progress must build. 

The indefinite permanence of the current impasse is alarming, for it risks unraveling positive results painstakingly achieved over the past several decades. It is high time that the international community start to confront the real need to increase security for all—rather than perpetuate the outdated concept of undiminished security for a few. 

Sergio Duarte is the former United Nations high representative for disarmament affairs.