Conference on Disarmament, CD

The Conference on Disarmament (CD) is the world’s only permanent multilateral disarmament treaty negotiating body. While the CD is independent of the United Nations, its secretary is appointed by the UN Secretary-General; it is required to consider recommendations from the General Assembly; and it submits reports annually or more often to the General Assembly.

The CD started out as the Eighteen Nations Disarmament Committee (ENDC) in March 1962 and then became the Conference of the Committee on Disarmament (CCD) in 1969, expanding to 30 members. The USA and the USSR jointly chaired both of these bodies. In 1983 the institution became the Conference on Disarmament and had 38 members until June 1996 when the conference expanded to a membership of 61. In 1999, the membership expanded once again to a membership of 65 countries. Since then no new members—only observer states—have been accepted.

As of November 2014, the CD consists of the following 65 member states: Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bangladesh, Belarus, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Cuba, DPR Korea, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ecuador, Egypt, Ethiopia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico, Mongolia, Morocco, Myanmar, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Peru, Poland, Republic of Korea, Romania, Russian Federation, Senegal, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States of America, Venezuela, Viet Nam, Zimbabwe

Groups and meetings

Groupings among the members include the Western Group, the Non-Aligned Movement (also known as the G21), the Group of Eastern European States and Others, the P5 (the five permanent members of the Security Council, which are the five NPT nuclear weapons states), and the P4 (the P5 minus China). China often refers to itself as the Group of One.

The CD holds three sessions each year: the first begins in the penultimate week of January and lasts for 10 weeks; the second begins in May and lasts seven weeks; the third, beginning in July, lasts seven weeks. The CD holds one public plenary each week it is in session, usually on a Thursday, although it can have more, if appropriate. While these public sessions are open to NGO representatives holding a UN badge, they are only allowed in the gallery as observers and may not address the CD.

The chair of the Conference rotates every four working weeks, following the English alphabetical list of membership. All member states take turn chairing the CD for four weeks, which means there are six different Presidents each year. Since 2006, the six Presidents have increased their cooperation and coordination in order to build upon each other’s work, instead of repeating the work done during previous sessions.

Mandate and agenda

The CD has a permanent agenda, also known as the Decalogue:

  1. Nuclear weapons in all aspects;
  2. Chemical weapons [removed from the agenda in 1993 after the CD completed the Chemical Weapons Convention on 3 September 1992]
  3. Other weapons of mass destruction;
  4. Conventional weapons;
  5. Reduction of military budgets;
  6. Reduction of armed forces;
  7. Disarmament and development;
  8. Disarmament and international security
  9. Collateral measures; confidence-building measures; effective verification methods in relation to appropriate disarmament measures, acceptable to all parties;
  10. Comprehensive program of disarmament leading to general and complete disarmament under effective international control.

Most items on the CD agenda are discussed in private ad hoc committees. The whole conference must agree by consensus to the mandate given to ad hoc committees. In 1994, four ad hoc committees met: Nuclear Test Ban; Outer Space; Negative Security Assurances; and Transparency in Armaments. In 1995 and 1996, only one ad hoc committee met: Nuclear Test Ban. In 1996, the CD completed the negotiations for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The final negotiations were difficult, and divisive issues remained at the end. Nevertheless, the CTBT was opened for signature on September 24, 1996.

No program of activity has moved forward since 1996 and this disappointing fact has put at risk the future of the consensus-based Conference on Disarmament. The CD has agreed to a fissile cut-off negotiating mandate but has been unable to establish an ad hoc committee needed to carry forward talks.

The CD holds most of its substantial debates in ad hoc committees that meet behind closed doors and are open only to government representatives. The lack of transparency in the CD and in the disarmament machinery as a whole has been criticized. NGOs have requested more inclusion in the work of the CD, but so far this has not been realized. Many state delegations have expressed support for increased civil society contribution. The issue arises every year in connection with the International Women’s Day, 8 March. Women’s organizations arrange a peace and disarmament conference in the UN every year on International Women’s Day, resulting in a statement addressed to the CD.


The CD makes all its decisions by consensus. Therefore, no decisions can be made unless all delegations in the CD agree. The principle of consensus has been widely criticized as blocking the work of the CD. It is difficult enough to reach an agreement among all 65 states, but a few states have exploited what amounts to a de facto veto, which sadly means the CD has succumbed to nearly two decades of gridlock since it concluded the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996. There have also been complaints over the fact that states blocking consensus are allowed to do so behind the scenes with no mention in the official protocol.

Alternatives would be decision making by 2/3 or by a simple majority. The problem is that even a decision to change the consensus rule must be made by consensus. And not all states agree that a majority voting system would be the best way of working.

What has the CD done?

The CD and its predecessors have negotiated such major multilateral arms limitation and disarmament agreements as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons; the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques; the seabed treaties; the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction; the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction; and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Other treaties have been successfully negotiated outside the CD framework in order to speed up the process. The International Mine Ban Treaty resulted from one such process.

What happens today?

Since 1996 the CD has faced two decades of deadlock. Following the failure of the 2005 NPT Review Conference, the pressure on the CD to get on with its work increased, to little avail.

During the 2006 and 2007 sessions, strengthened cooperation among the rotating Presidents led to more efficient use of plenary sessions. Inconclusive debates were held on a number of issues, including Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS), a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), nuclear disarmament, and negative security assurances. Special coordinators were appointed to deal with issues of particular importance.

At the end of the 2007 session, the CD was close to agreement on a program of work (i.e., how to really work on the issues that the CD is mandated to deal with). The suggestion from the six Presidents is named L.1 and recommends that four ambassadors be appointed as coordinators for:

  • substantial debate on nuclear disarmament and prevention of nuclear war;
  • negotiations without preconditions on an FMCT;
  • substantial debates on issues regarding an arms race in outer space;
  • substantial debates on how to secure non-nuclear weapon states from threat or use of nuclear weapons, so called Negative Security Assurances.

Most States seem willing to resume substantial work in the CD. They have indicated that negotiation of a treaty regarding fissile materials for nuclear weapons is the most likely place to begin, yet this has been effectively blocked by a small number of States. Since 2007, the CD has agreed on an agenda more than once, only to be prevented from engaging in actual work by this misuse of consensus.


Last update: August 24, 2015