Since it was founded in 1959, the CD (originally known as the Ten Nation Committee on Disarmament) deserves credit for some major accomplishments in the field of arms limitation and non-proliferation. The framework of the CD, with its broad membership, closed proceedings, and decision-making based on consensus, has proved useful for the negotiation of complex global arms control issues. During the Cold War, the CD served to bring together representatives from the major players, and while the immediate accomplishments were limited, the wider diplomatic community slowly built up expertise and experience in the role of arms limitation in security, verification, dual-use technologies, and related topics. In 1963, after the US, USSR and UK agreed on the general terms for the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT), the agreement was negotiated in the CD. Later, the CD produced the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT - 1968), the Sea-Bed Treaty (1971) and the Bacteriological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC - 1972). Most recently, the successful conclusion of the long and complex negotiation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC - 1993) and, despite India’s blocking of consensus, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT - 1996) are important contributions to the global regulation of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It is doubtful that other institutions, such as the First Committee of the United Nations, could have served in a similar capacity.

As a result of this success, the number of potential new, universal, and realistic global arms limitation agreements is very limited, as is reflected in the difficulties in defining the future agenda and objectives for the CD. For the foreseeable future, additional cuts in the nuclear arsenals of the US and Russia will continue to be negotiated in bilateral talks. Broader talks incorporating reductions in the capabilities of France, Britain and China, and towards the long-stated goal of a nuclear-weapon-free-world (NWFW) are still far from realistic. Similarly, efforts to negotiate a viable global fissile material production cut-off with credible verification mechanisms face major obstacles - particularly the effort by some States to link a cut-off to other nuclear disarmament objectives - that are unlikely to be overcome in the short term.

This is not to say that all of the global problems of proliferation, particularly of weapons of mass destruction have been solved. Additional challenges include efforts to ban the production, export and use of anti-personnel weapons, the negotiation of a verification regime for the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, and the potential use of commercial high-resolution satellite imagery for intelligence purposes in unstable regions. However, dedicated institutions focusing exclusively on these subjects have been created and these issues are increasingly being debated in other frameworks. Talks on land mines and anti-personnel weapon limitations have also taken place outside the framework of the CD, specifically in the 1996 Ottawa Conference, and the follow-on conferences in Brussels and Oslo in 1997. Similarly, with respect to the BWC, a series of PrepComs, Review Conferences, and periodic meetings of a specially created working group have been held, like the NPT Review Conferences, outside of the framework of the CD.

Such dedicated structures have also been developed for export control and technology suppliers regimes, including the Nuclear Suppliers “club”, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), and the Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-use Goods and Technologies (created in 1995). Supplier regimes are clearly global issues, and only effective and consistently implemented international agreements can prevent the proliferation of military and dual-use technology to rogue States. The “holes” in the Nuclear Suppliers regime almost allowed Iraq to become a nuclear power, and the continued transfer of nuclear facilities and technology to Iran are enabling Teheran to advance towards the same goal. The failure to incorporate North Korea in the MTCR-related restrictions (as well as continued Russian and Chinese sales of missile components to Iran, Syria, Egypt, and Libya) illustrate the limitations of this approach, and the challenges that still exist in this area. However, due to sharp differences in interests on this issue between the industrialized States, led by the United States, and some of the non-aligned States, such as India and Iran, who oppose export limitations (1), it seems that such issues are not amenable to discussions and negotiations in the CD.

Conventional arms limitations remain extremely important, and have been relatively neglected, although this topic is included in the CD’s mandate. However, such limitation agreements are generally best addressed in regional contexts, where specific asymmetries can be analyzed and stable balances negotiated. This was the case for the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, and will be true when other regions get around to dealing with this topic., Global frameworks such as the CD are not particularly useful in this context (2). At best, the CD can contribute to conventional weapons limitations through measures to increase transparency in the arms trade.

Structural Changes in the CD

The recent expansion of the CD was necessary to allow significant players to have an active role in important issues, such as the development of the verification regime for the CTBT. Without such active involvement, and the ability to help shape issues which are vital to their national security interests, States such as Israel would not have signed this agreement.

However, it is clear that in its present form, the CD is unwieldy. This is not an insurmountable obstacle when there is general consensus on a particular issue, such as the CTBT, India not withstanding, and the number of key players with a strong view on the details of the agreement is far smaller. However, this situation is not likely to characterize other issues on the arms limitation agenda. The CD is also plagued by a tacit political structure that is antiquated (3). The current unwritten structure, based on the Cold War divisions of East, West, and Non-Aligned (and China) serves no useful purpose, and the divisions within these groups are far more significant than any differences between them.

In addressing the issue of structure, Patricia Lewis has proposed a “more fluid ad-hoc grouping of States” allowing “like minded States” to gather around a particular issue (4). The definition of like-minded is problematic, since it is precisely the need for different views and national interests to be included in negotiations and agreement that makes the CD unique. However, ad-hoc groupings that shift according to issues are increasingly characteristic of the CD. Indeed, this informal de facto structure proved very useful in the final negotiation phases of the CTBT. These structural factors were at least as important as substantive issues in providing the basis for active participation for States such as Israel in drafting the verification and other important provisions in the CTBT.

Regional Arms Limitation Regimes

The end of the bipolar system and other changes in the international political order (or disorder) after the Cold War has shifted the nature of the threats to international security. Increasingly, the primary sources of conflict and instability are regional, ethno-national, religious and resource-based conflicts, rather than the global nuclear and conventional standoff between East and West. As a result, the factors in and requirements for arms limitation have also shifted from a global emphasis to regional frameworks. For example, the NPT has reached its maximal extent under existing political conditions because the three non-NPT threshold States are involved in regional conflicts that have led their decision makers to the decision that accession to the NP/IAEA regime is inconsistent with their vital national security interests.

As a result, in the cases of India, Pakistan and Israel, for example, the acceptance of limitations with respect to nuclear technology will require changes in the security and threat structures in South Asia and the Middle East. This zonal trend is also evident in the proliferation of nuclear weapons free zones in Latin America (the Treaty of Tlatleloco), the South Pacific (Rarotonga), Africa (Pelindaba) and Southeast Asia (Bangkok). (5) Similarly, the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is based on a regional approach to security. In this context, the regional security system began with a number of confidence and security building measures, and after the political changes of the mid-1980s, led to broader agreements, including the 1990 CFE Treaty. This model was also the basis for the founding of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Central Asia and the ASEAN Regional Forum.

In both the Middle East and South Asia, the negotiation of agreed limits on nuclear weapons is dependent on the negotiation and implementation of peace agreements and of a broader regional security structure. For example, in the context of the Arab-Israeli peace process, participants have proposed a Middle East Organization on Security and Cooperation, based on the model of the OSCE. Such a structure would begin with a number of confidence- and security-building measures (CSBMs), including measures to prevent surprise attack, and prenotification of military exercises. Regional security agreements also must consider quantitative and qualitative limits on conventional weapons (in this region, massive conventional forces constitute threats to national survival and mass destruction), as well as mutual verification on a regional basis (6). Such measures would provide the basis for agreement on limiting or prohibiting acquisition, testing, and deployment of weapons of mass destruction and the ballistic missiles to deliver them.

Similarly, in South Asia, amelioration of the conflict between India and Pakistan (and of the tensions between India and China) are prerequisites for arms limitation agreements. As result, in this region as well, local or zonal CSBMs and discussions on the architecture of cooperative security have priority. On the Korean Peninsula, progress towards limiting the North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile programs will require and end to the military threats in this area, while agreed limits involving China and Taiwan are dependent on the negotiation or evolution of political understandings between these adversaries.

Some form of regional structure is also likely to be central with respect to efforts to develop agreed limitations on the production, use, and export of land mines and other anti-personnel weapons. In some cases, military planners view such weapons as providing an important basis for defense against large-scale armored attack and against terrorist infiltration. States involved in ongoing conflicts and faced with the threat of attack will be reluctant to relinquish this capability in the absence in a compensatory decline in offensive capabilities that threaten their national security.

The CD’s Role in Encouraging Regional Negotiations

In the past 50 years, the pursuit of unrealistic objectives in the area of arms control and disarmament has slowed and in many cases blocked the efforts to reach less sweeping agreements based on consensus and the security interests of the States involved. Progress in specific areas, however modest and incremental, has resulted from maintaining a realistic political and security-based foundation. This approach succeeded in the case of the NPT, the CWC, and, if India eventually changes its position, in the CTBT.

If the members of the CD attempt to ignore the inseparable link between regional conflict and arms limitation, its work would become counterproductive. Such efforts would interfere with the regional negotiations, and would only succeed in turning the CD into a deliberating and debating body with no broad based mandate for negotiation and without the capability of reaching any agreements. Such a body already exists in the form of the First Committee of the United Nations.

The negotiation of regional security regimes, and other limitation agreements, are outside the purview of the CD, which, as noted, is a global structure. Indeed, efforts by some States to use global institutions, including the CD, the UN, the IAEA, NPT Review Conferences, etc., to pressure States, whose vital interests are threatened by regional conflicts, to accept limits in the absence of a regional security framework, have been unsuccessful and counterproductive (7).

Although the CD’s mandate focuses on negotiating global arms limitation agreements, as the emphasis shifts to regional negotiations outside the CD’s purview, the members may decide to amend the mandate to encompass the change in focus. Even without negotiations aimed at specific treaties, the CD can continue to provide a forum for broad discussion of global arms limitation issues, for maintaining the long-term goal of a NWFW, and of reducing the threats across the spectrum of weapons, both conventional and non-conventional. In practice, this means that the CD can hold discussions and define general parameters and guidelines for the separate regional negotiations for agreements on conventional weapons limitations, agreements on missile acquisition and deployment, and additional regional nuclear weapons free zones.

Such discussions could define criteria for a stable arms balance between regional adversaries, clarify the differences between offensive and defensive capabilities, and propose guidelines for reporting and verification procedures. The members of the CD would be able to contribute to broader understanding of the nature of regional security structures, threat amelioration, arms limitation, and verification systems for conventional arms limitations and regional weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD)-free zones. In this way, the CD can encourage progress in the process of developing regional security and arms limitations, thereby continuing to serve a useful function in the short and medium term.


1. Rebecca Johnson, ‘First Committee Report,’ Disarmament Diplomacy, No. 10, November 1996, p.4.

2. Harald Muller, ‘Reforming the CD Agenda,’ Disarmament Diplomacy, No. 5, May 1996.

3. Patricia Lewis, ‘Disarmament and Security - The Holistic Approach,’ Disarmament Diplomacy, No. 12, January 1997.

4. Ibid., p.8.

5. Michael Hamel-Green, ‘Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones: Peeling the Nuclear Orange...From the Bottom Up,’ Disarmament Diplomacy, No. 9, October 1996.

6. See Shalhevet Freier, ‘A Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in the Middle East and Effective Verification,’ in Disarmament: A Periodic Review by the United Nations, Volume XVI, No. 3, pp.66-91; Gerald M. Steinberg, Arms Control and Regional Security in the Middle East,’ Survival, Vol.36, No.1, Spring 1994. For a general discussion of the link between conventional weapons limitation and nuclear arms control, see Harald Muller, ‘Reforming the CD Agenda,’ Disarmament Diplomacy, No. 5, May 1996.

7. Gerald M. Steinberg, ‘The 1995 NPT Extension and Review Conference and the Arab-Israeli Peace Process,’ Nonproliferation Review, Vol.4, No.1. Fall 1996.