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The single multilateral disarmament negotiating forum?

Beatrice Fihn | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF
31 July 2012

The Conference on Disarmament (CD) resumed its third and final part of the 2012 session on Tuesday, 31 July. The plenary meeting was devoted to discussing prevention of an arms race in outer space and statements were delivered by the CD President, United States on behalf of the P5, Sri Lanka, Cuba, the Russian Federation, Indonesia, the European Union (EU), the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), China, Chile, Australia, Egypt, United Kingdom, Poland, Belarus, and Algeria.

Legally binding treaty or voluntary measures?

While all speakers agree that action on protecting outer space for peaceful uses is needed, views on what should be done continue to differ. The delegations of Sri Lanka, Russia, Cuba, Indonesia, DPRK, China, Chile, Egypt, Belarus, and Algeria highlighted the need to negotiate a legally-binding agreement to prevent an arms race in outer space. Most of these speakers noted the draft Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space Treaty (PPWT) submitted by Russia and China in 2008 as a good basis to start negotiations. The delegations of the US, the EU, and Australia instead focused on the development of voluntary confidence-building measures, such as those discussed at the first session of the group of governmental experts (GGE) on transparency and confidence-building measures (TCBMs) and the draft international code of conduct on space activities presented by the EU in June 2012. Ambassador Woolcott of Australia argued that “it would be most fruitful, at this time, to focus on the development of [TCBMs]”.

Group of Governmental Experts (GGE)

Many speakers highlighted the first session of the UN GGE on TCBMs in outer space that took place in New York last week. Mr. Vasiliev of the Russian delegation, also Chair of the GGE, informed the CD of the result of the week long session. He shared information about the deliberations of the GGE on specific topics such as rules of conduct, information-sharing, operational measures, and consultative mechanisms. He also noted that in the coming sessions, the GGE will consider input from experts, research institutes, intergovernmental bodies, and civil society, and coordinate with other bodies and initiatives in the field of outer space, such as the UN General Assembly (UNGA)’s First Committee, the Conference on Disarmament, and the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Users of Outer Space (COPUOS). Most speakers welcomed the work of the GGE, including the delegations of China, United States, and United Kingdom. Ambassador Kennedy of the United States believed the GGE will provide a good framework to “conduct a comprehensive review of the role of bilateral and multilateral mechanisms to strengthen stability in space.”

The draft international code of conduct

Mr. Blazek of the European Union took the opportunity to answer some questions and clarify details on the revised draft of the International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities that the EU presented to the international community in June. He reminded delegations that due to the overarching nature of this initiative, the EU does not consider it appropriate to table it in any existing fora, such as the CD, COPUOS, or the first or fourth committee of the UNGA. Instead the EU wants the negotiations of this code to be a freestanding ad-hoc process, open to the participation of all states. However, he noted that existing bodies dealing with issues related to the code “should be kept duly informed of our progresses” and should be conducted “without prejudice to future work in these international fora.” He also took the opportunity to comment that choosing to pursue these negotiations outside the umbrella of the UN is due to the overarching scope of the initiative, which is not limited to either civilian nor disarmament fields, and that it should be seen as a “common project of the countries wishing to work on it”.

Mr. Blazek further noted that substantial negotiations on the basis of this text will start with a multilateral experts meeting in October 2012 in New York, which will be open to the participation of all UN member states. He argued that if necessary, up to three such negotiating meetings could be called before a possible final ad-hoc negotiating conference in 2013, at which the Code would open for signature.

The draft code was welcomed by most speakers. The US Ambassador stated she looked forward to participating in the negotiations in October and the Chinese ambassador said he was “ready to discuss improvements” of the draft. The Australian delegation noted that while such a code would not be a “silver bullet” to solve all issues relating to space security, it would be a “valuable, practical and achievable step.”

But some delegations also raised concerns and additional questions. The delegation of Cuba believed that while the draft code does not appear to contribute much to disarmament, it could contribute to making outer space more secure, especially if negotiated within the context of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). However, the Cuban representative raised some concerns about the draft’s reference to allowing for “self-defence,” arguing that this could easily turn into “preventive self-defence” and thereby actually fuel an arms race in outer space rather than preventing it. The Algerian representative asked how the principle of multilateralism could be integrated into the negotiations of the code, especially as the EU had already set a deadline of 2013. Mr. Khelif wondered if the code of conduct was actually ready for the swift negotiation schedule that the EU has planned.

Notes from the gallery

After a month of hectic and energetic (although currently unsuccessful) negotiations on an Arms Trade Treaty, the lack of progress and negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament is more obvious than ever. During the 14 year old deadlock, the international community has made significant progress on disarmament-related issues elsewhere. The international community has banned landmines, it has banned cluster munitions, and is on its way to finalize an international treaty regulating arms trade. In addition, nuclear non-proliferation is discussed at the nuclear security summits, nuclear disarmament is discussed in closed P5 meetings, and progress on space issues takes place in Vienna, New York, and most recently through ad-hoc negotiations on the EU draft code of conduct. The Conference on Disarmament might still be the forum where negotiations are supposed to take place, but the fact is that progress on all the core issues on the CD agenda are taking place elsewhere. While some countries continue to call for more efforts to resume work as “the integrity and credibility of the CD must be maintained,” it is important to recognize that it is no longer the single multilateral disarmament negotiating forum. It is in fact not a negotiating forum at all anymore.