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U.S. Ambassador Bruce Turner’s Remarks to the Conference on Disarmament
On Transparency in Armaments
May 17, 2023

U.S. Ambassador Bruce Turner’s Remarks to the Conference on Disarmament on Transparency in Armaments

Thank you Madame President,

Yesterday I took the floor to talk about the essential value of transparency and risk reduction in rebuilding trust and enabling nuclear disarmament and arms control.

Today I would like to speak to the concern articulated by a large number of countries that anything short of a legally binding treaty limiting or constraining arms is of little value. This is a view often expressed with respect not only to nuclear disarmament, but also space, cyber, and artificial intelligence (AI).

Yet history is replete with examples of political arrangements on transparency and risk reduction that have proven valuable. In some cases, those political arrangements stand on their own; in other cases, they may complement a legally binding treaty; and often they may provide the basis for proceeding to a subsequent treaty.

The reality is that political arrangements that provide for transparency and confidence building are proven ways to approach arms control. Not only can they provide benefits in their own right, but in some cases, they may even have certain advantages over their legally binding counterparts.

Legally binding agreements limiting arms generally take much longer to negotiate than political arrangements, partly because they often include verification measures. They are designed to define precisely what the treaty mandates and how it operates, and they tend to be very comprehensive. Such treaties are a bedrock of the long history of arms control, and we will continue to pursue them wherever appropriate and possible.

But such treaties are, on their own, insufficient, and have their disadvantages in certain contexts. For example, once in place, they can be quite difficult to change when circumstances warrant.

Political commitments can complement treaties, filling in gaps. They tend to be more flexible and more adaptable to changing circumstances because it is easier to make adjustments to their provisions. Where there are differences of interpretation or practice, the issue can often be solved through political dialogue, without having to formally amend treaty text that must be accepted by all signatories.

Madame President,

Some of these features explain why the United States often sees a political arrangement as the right next step, rather than a legally binding one. Whether to create an initial understanding about a complicated issue, in which the presence of significant uncertainties would impede treaty negotiation, or to tackle an issue for which effective verification may not be a viable option, political commitments can help offer clarity and a direction. Taking this kind of positive step quickly, can supplement a longer-term effort towards a more comprehensive arrangement or a legally binding agreement.

Such considerations help explain why we are currently focused on principles and norms of responsible behavior in outer space; on a commitment to refrain from destructive, direct-ascent anti-satellite missile testing; on the development of principles of the use of artificial intelligence in military applications; and on the issue of states’ responsible use of cyber tools. In these areas of rapid technological advances, it makes sense to focus on transparency and rules of the road, which we think are better tackled through political commitments than by attempting to negotiate legal obligations in a treaty.

Political arrangements have proven particularly effective in the conventional arms field, the topic of our session today. We see many examples from around the world:

  • In Europe, a series of confidence-building measures were adopted through work conducted at the OSCE, such as the Vienna Document, the OSCE document on Small Arms and Light Weapons, and the OSCE document on Stockpiles of Conventional Ammunition;
  • In Africa, there is the ECOWAS Moratorium on the Importation, Exportation and Manufacture of Light Weapons in West Africa;
  • In Asia, the ASEAN Regional Forum has promoted and pursued national, regional, and sub-regional transparency and confidence-building measures;
  • In Latin America, the OAS has been similarly active in promoting and pursuing national, regional, and sub-regional transparency and confidence-building measures;
  • Globally, there is the UN Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons (PoA).

All these measures have made concrete contributions to international security and composed a key element of the arms control structure. There are also cases in which political arrangements pave the way for legally binding arrangements or agreements. The UN Register of Conventional Arms was created as part of the Transparency in Armaments initiative, and it provided the framework for subsequent legal agreements, both at the regional level – such as the Inter-American Convention on Transparency in Conventional Weapons Acquisitions – and at the global level, such as the Arms Trade Treaty.

These different mechanisms and instruments are all in operation today, serving different functions, and they complement and reinforce each other. The Outer Space Treaty was preceded by several political declarations and non-binding resolutions on space exploration. The United States and the Soviet Union, and subsequently Russia, in some cases even made unilateral political commitments on the reduction of nuclear weapons, in advance of or in addition to treaties.

Madame President,

From the United States’ perspective, it would be a mistake to approach arms control or disarmament of conventional weapons exclusively through the lens of treaties. Arms control makes use of any number of tools, from political commitments on transparency and risk reduction, to codes of conduct and principles of responsible behavior, to treaties limiting or otherwise constraining arms. Where a treaty is the right answer, we should pursue it. Where political understandings or commitments better match the problem or the context, we should take that path.

These elements can supplement and reinforce each other, with their respective strengths and weaknesses. The important thing is – whatever form an arms control measure takes – it should contribute to the overall goal of increasing transparency and predictability, reducing misunderstandings and misperceptions, and reinforcing global stability.

I thank you Madame President.