Uncertain Prospects for UNSSOD III

By William Epstein | 1988-06-01 12:00:00

Despite the great political and psychological (but minor military) importance of the INF treaty, signed in Washington in December 1987, and the truly remarkable improvement in East-west relations, the outlook for the third U.N. Special Session on Disarmament (UNSSOD III) is still uncertain. Many delegations at the U.N. feel that it was premature to hold it during a U.S. ,residential election year. Past experience has shown the difficulties for the American government to develop any new initiatives, and even for the American delegation to the Special Session to receive any clear instructions from Washington on the new ideas presented by others. In fact, some experts fear that the Reagan administration will concentrate almost all its thinking and energy on the Moscow summit, being held at the end of May, and on the election in November, and that multilateral efforts for disarmament will get scant attention from the top U.S. officials. During the last year or so, there has been something akin to a evolution in American thinking about its policies toward and relations with the Soviet Union; in part, this has been a reaction 0 the "new thinking" in the Soviet Union with its policies of glasnost and its drive for a new comprehensive system of international security, with the U.N. as the centrepiece. Unfortunately, however, unlike the new Soviet thinking, the new U.S. thinking has not been broadened to include the U.N., the main multilateral organization of the entire world community.

UNSSOD I in 1978 was a remarkable success. The Final Document, adopted by consensus, was described by Lord Noel-Baker, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work for disarmament, as "the greatest state paper of the twentieth century." It is widely regarded as constituting the Charter of Disarmament; some have called it the bible of disarmament.

UNSSOD II in 1982, however, is regarded as a failure. Its main achievement was the adoption of "conclusions" noting "the unanimous and categorical reaffirmation by all Member States of the validity of the Final Document" and their "solemn commitment to it and their pledge to respect the priorities in disarmament negotiations, as agreed to in its Program of Action." In addition, it launched the World Disarmament Campaign, which has had only modest success.

WITH OPENING OF THE SPECIAL SESSION (it opens on May 31 and lasts for four weeks), no important new ideas have yet emerged that could command a consensus. The adamant opposition of the U.S., joined in most cases by France and the United Kingdom, to many of the most important proposals put forward by the nonaligned and neutral countries at the last General Assembly doesn't bode well for the Special Session. The U.S. opposed negotiations for a nuclear test ban and nearly all other nuclear disarmament measures, for preventing an arms race in outer space, for banning the development and deployment of anti-satellite and strategic defensive weapons, for banning or limiting the transfer of conventional weapons, for specific measures linking disarmament and development, and for strengthening the U.N. system of international security. Most of the NATO and other allies of the U.S., including Canada, while not joining in opposing those proposals, did not support many of them, but contented themselves with abstaining. China and the Soviet Union and its allies did not oppose any of the more than sixty resolutions adopted; the Soviet Union abstained on only one and China on ten.

The situation, however, is far from hopeless. While it may not be possible to achieve a consensus on specific or concrete disarmament measures, there is always a possibility of working out texts that are couched in broad general terms as desirable objectives. These could include most of the measures listed above on which no actual agreement seems likely. In addition, there could be a ringing affirmation of the Gorbachev-Reagan declaration that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. It should also be possible to reach a consensus on such disarmament objectives as calling for: early agreement on a fifty percent reduction of strategic missiles; a reduction or pullback of tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons; a reduction in conventional forces and weapons; reducing military expenditures; a total ban on chemical weapons; more confidence-building measures; and more openness and exchange of information on military matters. These are matters on which there has already been discussion and some progress in bilateral USSR/ U.S. talks. With careful drafting, consensus language is possible.

HERE ARE ALSO SOME POSITIVE developments as regards attendance at the session by top level world leaders. A number of heads of state and government (but not yet Canada's) have indicated their intention to participate in the session. Their number could equal or surpass the fifty or so who came to the First and Second Special Sessions. The leaders of the Six Nation Initiative, who launched their peace initiative a few years ago (representing Argentina, Greece, India, Mexico, Sweden, and Tanzania) will be coming to present the proposals they agreed at their summit meeting in Stockholm in January, the chief item being the creation of a multilateral monitoring and verification capability by the U.N. to assist in peacekeeping, crisis management, and the verification of disarmament agreements. Whether Gorbachev comes in person or not, it is expected that the USSR will also have some new proposals to present. There are not yet any hints regarding Western proposals.

PLANS ARE ALSO UNDER WAY TO HAVE A large input by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the public. The number of international NGOs and research institutes should also equal the who addressed the Special Session in 1982. While the planned public rally on June 11 may not reach the amazing number of 750,000 that rallied in Central Park in June 1982, with another 250,000 in the streets, well over one quarter-million are expected to participate. Disarmament Times intends to publish two issues each week during the special session.

The crucial question that could determine the success or failure of UNSSOD III is whether the U.S. or its allies will try to depart from the 1978 Final Document of UNSSOD I or to weaken the principles, priorities, or program of action agreed therein. If there is such an attempt, it seems almost certain that the session will end without any agreed consensus and hence will be a failure. But if all U.N. members try to build on the provisions of the 1978 Final Document, rather than to modify it, there can be a positive result.

Attempts are now underway in the U.N. to persuade leaders of the nonaligned and neutral countries and also of the U.S. and its allies not to insist or take too rigid a stance on their respective positions but to show some willingness to compromise and to accommodate the others' strongly held views. If these efforts succeed, then the prospects are that UNSSOD III can be at least a modest success.

BECAUSE OF THE UNCERTAINTIES IN THE Western position, there is a great opportunity for Canada to exercise some leadership. Canada has always supported disarmament measures and the multilateral approach through the U.N. Canadians interested in promoting the cause of disarmament should pressure Ottawa to take some important unilateral actions and to present some concrete proposals, such as the following:

  1. Mulroney should be called on to attend in person and to (a) announce the abandonment of the acquisition of nuclear-powered subs, while calling on all non-nuclear weapon states to renounce their acquisition; (b) fix a date for ending the testing of cruise missiles in Canada. Cruise missiles are already complicating the bilateral START talks.
  2. Announce that Canada will support the immediate start of negotiations in the Geneva Conference on Disarmament for a Comprehensive Test Ban and, failing that, that it will support the holding of a conference to amend the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty to convert it into a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
  3. Call for the immediate cessation of the use of chemical weapons in the Iraq/Iran war and call on the Security Council to meet and declare publicly that it will take sanctions against any party that initiates their use again.
  4. Call on the two superpowers to begin immediate negotiations for reducing conventional weapons and forces parallel to the negotiations for reduction of strategic forces.
  5. Call for strict implementation of the ABM Treaty - a step which Canada has already announced that it supports.
  6. Call for an end to the testing or development of anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons.
  7. Call for the conclusion of a treaty this year for a total ban on chemical weapons.
  8. Since the efforts by Canada and others for achieving intrusive verification of disarmament treaties seems to be bearing fruit, call for the speeding up of all disarmament negotiations in the Geneva Conference of Disarmament, which has not agreed on any arms control treaty since the Environmental Modification Convention in 1977.

Now is the time for Canada to translate its oft-repeated words into concrete proposals for action, as was done at both UNSSOD I and II. Even if the above proposals are not accepted (as was the case with Trudeau's strategy of suffocation of the nuclear arms race) they can generate and promote strong currents of ideas that will be important during the remainder of this century.

William Epstein is a Senior Special Fellow at the U.N. Institute for Training and Research. He was for many years in charge of disarmament in the UN. Secretariat and represented the Secretary General at the negotiations leading to the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty and the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. He was also a member of the Canadian delegation to UNSSOD I and II.

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1988

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1988, page 14. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by William Epstein here

Peace Magazine homepage