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The Conference on Disarmament

The Conference on Disarmament: history, role and methods of work

Established in 1979 as a result of the first Special Session on Disarmament of the UN General Assembly (SSOD-I), the Conference on Disarmament (CD) is the first and most important multilateral forum available to the international community for negotiations on disarmament and non-proliferation. It originates from the first multilateral body set up by the UN in this field: the Committee of the Eighteen. This Committee was created in 1962 and consisted of 18 Member Countries under the joint chairmanship of the United States and the Soviet Union. The membership was later expanded to thirty countries and the Committee was renamed “Committee of the Conference on Disarmament” (CCD) in 1969.

Today, the Conference on Disarmament is based in Geneva and consists of 65 Member States and 38 Observer States. It includes the five permanent Members of the Security Council (China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, the United States) and the most militarily advanced States. The Members of the Conference are also representatives of the major geographical groups in the United Nations: 24 States (including Italy) form the Group of Western countries (WEOG); 34 are gathered in the Group of Non-Aligned countries (NAM); and 7 are part of the Group of Eastern-European countries. China is part of a Group of One.

Traditionally, countries that make a request are invited to participate in the proceedings of the CD as observers. According to the established practice, the CD approves a single list of requests from approximately 40 countries at the beginning of each session. In recent years, this practice has occasionally been abandoned. In 2023, the Russian Federation opposed the approval of a single list, proposing that each request be considered individually. In the absence of an agreement, the 2023 session did not see the participation of any observer countries, including 12 EU member states. Most recently, in January 2024, the Russian Federation opposed the participation of all EU and NATO countries not members of the CD who had requested to participate as observers (eleven EU Member States: Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Czech Republic, Slovenia; and three candidates: Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro). Israel and the United States opposed the participation of Palestine, and Türkiye opposed the participation of Cyprus.

Although emanating from the United Nations General Assembly, the Conference on Disarmament operates as an independent body with its own rules of procedure (though funded through the UN budget). Its activities are organized into three sessions per year, with the first session lasting ten weeks and the subsequent two lasting seven weeks each. The Presidency of the Conference rotates monthly among its Member States in  alphabetical order. The Secretary-General of the Conference on Disarmament is appointed by the UN Secretary-General in the person of the Director General of the United Nations Office in Geneva. At the end of each annual session, the Secretary-General of the CD transmits a report on the Conference’s activities to the General Assembly and ensure the implementation of any recommendations.

The Conference on Disarmament’s permanent agenda, commonly known as the “Decalogue,” encompasses a broad range of issues related to disarmament and arms control. Therefore, each year, the CD adopts a more specific agenda that includes the following topics:

  1. Cessation of the nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament;
  2. Prevention of a nuclear war;
  3. Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS);
  4. Effective international arrangements to  assure non-nuclear-weapon states against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons (Negative Security Assurances – NSAs);
  5. New types and systems of weapons of mass destruction, including radiological weapons;
  6. Comprehensive Program of Disarmament;
  7. Transparency in armaments.

Historically, the Conference on Disarmament, but especially the bodies that preceded it, has been the venue for the most important negotiations leading to multilateral disarmament agreements concluded by the international community since the post-World War II era. Among these, notable agreements include the Treaty Banning Nuclear Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space, and Underwater (Partial or Limited Test Ban Treaty – PTBT or LTBT); the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (Non-Proliferation Treaty – NPT); the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction (Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention – BTWC); the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons (Chemical Weapons Convention – CWC); and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), aiming for the total ban on nuclear weapons testing.

Since 1996, the year of the adoption of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), there has not been consensus among the CD members to begin substantive work on the remaining agenda items of the Conference. Divergent views emerged in particular regarding a potential negotiating mandate on a Treaty banning the production of fissile material (Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty – FMCT), especially on the possible scope of a Treaty – whether or not including existing stocks of fissile material – and on the possible means of verification and monitoring.

The purely political deadlock of the Conference has resulted in the inability of its Members to adopt a Programme of Work (POW) for over twenty years, often explained as an effect of the basic rule of procedure “the Conference conducts its work and adopts its decisions by consensus.” During this extended deadlock, however, the Conference has continued to convene in plenary and informal sessions, allowing not only the continuation of dialogue among major players on the global political and military stage but also for the development of a technical expertise on crucial issues pertaining to disarmament and arms control.

Among the more recent attempts to facilitate the “unblocking” of the CD, it is worth noting an informal retreat held in Montreux on 22-23 June  2023, organized by UNIDIR with the joint support of the French and German Presidencies of the CD. Various possible measures were discussed on this occasion, ranging from small practical improvements to important structural reforms. At the end of the retreat, UNIDIR presented a report, which was informally discussed by the CD. The Italian position is reflected in Ambassador Bencini’s statement during the CD debate on 17 August 2023.

The Italian participation in the Conference on Disarmament

Italy has been a Member of the Conference on Disarmament since its establishment; starting in 1962, it has been part to all multilateral disarmament bodies that preceded it. The current Permanent Representative of Italy to the Conference on Disarmament is Ambassador Leonardo Bencini, a career diplomat, who took up his duties in Geneva on 19 May  2022.

Italy lat held the Presidency of the Conference on Disarmament in 2014, and will assume the CD presidency again in January 2025. Italy is already participating in the so-called 6+2 meetings: an informal format that brings together the six Presidencies of the current year, the last one from the previous year, and the first one of the following year, along with the Secretariat (UNODA). This practical consultation mechanism ensures a certain continuity and coherence in the work of the CD, which is somewhat affected by the brief duration of each Presidency. The 2024 Group 6+2 includes Hungary, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, and Italy.

 

Main Statements

2024
Amb. Leonardo Bencini

Cons. Eugenio Poti

2023
H.E. Antonio Tajani, Vice President of the Council and Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation

Amb. Leonardo Bencini

2022
Amb. Leonardo Bencini

Couns. Tancredi Francese

 

 

Documents and Resources

Resolutions and Decisions of the 10th Special Session of the UN General Assembly (1978): Creation of the Conference on Disarmament (1978)

CD Rules of Procedure

United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs: Conference on Disarmament

Reaching Critical Will

Nuclear Threat iniziative (NTI)

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