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Conference on Disarmament opens 2003 session, hears message from Secretary-General urging end to impasse

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GENEVA, 21 January (UN Information Service) - The Conference on Disarmament began its 2003 session this morning, urged by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to "redouble its efforts to overcome its current impasse" and resume substantive work.

In a message read out by Sergei Ordzhonikidze, Secretary-General of the Conference, Mr. Annan said new arms control agreements were needed "not only to enhance strategic stability in the world. They are also needed to halt and eventually reverse a disturbing increase in global military expenditures, and to re-direct such funds into much-needed development projects".

"For years", the Secretary-General's message noted, "the protracted lack of agreement on a programme of work has blocked the substantive work of the Conference on all issues on its agenda -- even those on which agreement to start negotiations existed, such as a ban on the production of fissile material for weapon purposes. It may be argued that this standstill is a reflection of broader problems in multilateral diplomacy. Yet this is precisely why the Conference must adapt itself to that environment and develop a capacity to address emerging challenges".

The Secretary-General said international peace and security continued to face profound challenges in the form of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery vehicles, rising military expenditures, and the prospect of an arms race in outer space. In addition, he said, new threats had emerged in recent years, especially in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 in the United States. He said he welcomed any proposals aimed at fostering consensus on a programme of work, such as a proposal presented during the 2002 session by a group of five former Presidents of the Conference.

Mr. Annan also expressed regret over the announcement by the Government of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea of its withdrawal from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), and strongly urged the Democratic People's Republic of Korea to reconsider its decision.

The 66 member States of the Conference work by consensus, and during 2002 were unable to reach agreement on a programme of work for a fourth consecutive year, the principal stumbling block being the issue of prevention of an arms race in outer space.

Also addressing the opening meeting was the Conference's current President, Rakesh Sood of India, who said consultations since the adjournment of the 2002 session had shown a growing consensus that the problem facing the Conference was a political problem and that attention to the Conference's procedures and methods of work -- a tactic tried in recent years -- did not appear to be an approach that was going to work. He called on member States to step back and look at the history of the Conference, which in the past had carried on negotiations on some topics while unable to reach negotiating mandates on others, and to consider what steps would be necessary for the Conference to reach its potential as an effective forum on disarmament issues.

Following an informal discussion, the Conference reconvened later in the morning to adopt its agenda for the session and to approve the requests of 28 non-member countries to participate in the 2003 session as observers.

The Conference this year will have three parts, the first running through 28 March; the second from 12 May to 27 June; and the third from 28 July to 10 September. Most meetings are in private session, although public plenaries generally are held on Thursday mornings. The next plenary will be held Thursday, 23 January, at 10 a.m.

Message of Secretary-General

SERGEI ORDZHONIKIDZE, Secretary-General of the Conference on Disarmament, read out a message from United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, which noted that 2003 marked the 25th anniversary of the first Special Session of the General Assembly devoted to disarmament and the 25th anniversary of the Conference on Disarmament; he hoped, therefore, that 2003 would mark a turning point, that it would prove to be a time of reinvigoration of the sense of purpose of the Conference.

For years, the lack of agreement on a programme of work had blocked the substantive work of the Conference on all issues of its agenda -- even those on which agreement to start negotiations existed, such as a ban on the production of fissile material for weapons purposes, the Secretary-General's message noted. It might be argued that this standstill was a reflection of broader problems in multilateral diplomacy. Yet this was precisely why the Conference must adapt itself to that environment and develop a capacity to address emerging challenges.

New threats to international peace and security had generated active and open discussions and underlined the need for additional efforts to bridge existing divergences over key issues on the disarmament agenda, the Secretary-General contended. He welcomed any proposals aimed at fostering consensus on the programme of work, such as those presented during the 2002 session, especially the unprecedented cross-group initiative of five former Presidents of the Conference. He also noted the Conference's recent efforts to engage in an informal debate on radiological weapons, a discussion that reflected heightened security concerns following the events of 11 September 2001.

Revitalizing the Conference required, first and foremost, renewed political will and determination among member States, Mr. Annan's message said. It called for imaginative concepts developed and endorsed at high political levels.

New arms control agreements were needed not only to enhance strategic stability in the world but also needed to halt and eventually reverse a disturbing increase in global military expenditures, and to re-direct such funds into much-needed development projects, Mr. Annan said. He expressed concern over recent challenges to the existing non-proliferation regime, in particular the announcement by the Government of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea of its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. He regretted that development and strongly urged the Democratic People's Republic of Korea to reconsider its decision.

Mr. Annan urged the Conference to redouble its efforts to overcome its current impasse and said its efforts had enormous potential both to promote the achievement of disarmament goals and to strengthen the rule of law by consolidating the gains already made in the disarmament field.

Statement of President of Conference

RAKESH SOOD (India), President of the Conference, said he had been active in intersessional consultations since the adjournment of last year's session; as requested by the General Assembly, all existing proposals had been discussed during these consultations.

His interactions with delegations had shown a growing consensus that the problem facing the Conference was a political problem; efforts had been made to surmount the political impasse, but had not succeeded. Special Coordinators had been appointed for several years to take a hard look at the Commission's composition, its agenda, and its methods of work, but those approaches also had not succeeded. That reinforced his impression that procedural fixes were not going to work. Meanwhile, there was growing frustration among members as the world moved on while the Conference on Disarmament remained frozen, unable to act and react to events and problems that needed a response.

In the past, while often blocked on some issues, the Conference had been able to work on some issues while negotiating mandates were not to be found on some other issues. Some negotiations which had initially appeared unpromising had grown into valuable agreements. He proposed that everyone step back and look at the history of the commission and see its potential. He counted on everyone's support in that task.