A global ban on fissile material?

Ask any diplomat what is happening at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) when a session resumes and the question usually provokes a burst of derisive laughter. The CD session which opens today in Geneva, where attempts to launch negotiations on a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) remain in the deep freeze, is no exception.
But on the sidelines of the CD, the world’s only multilateral disarmament negotiating forum, diplomats say that momentum is building. In recent weeks, the U.S., Britain and France have been consulting on prospects for taking the FMCT out of the CD into an alternative venue to overcome a blockage led by Pakistan (which fears being left at a strategic disadvantage compared to its nuclear-armed neighbor India).

The threat was voiced in a policy speech last month by the White House National Security adviser Tom Donilon. “Our preference is to negotiate the FMCT within the Conference on Disarmament, but it is becoming increasing doubtful that the Conference can achieve consensus to begin such negotiations,” he said in a speech to the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy conference on March 29. “As a consequence, we will begin consultations with our allies and partners to consider an alternative means to begin FMCT negotiations. To be successful, we will encourage all permanent members of the Security Council and other relevant parties to participate in this effort.”

So far, according to diplomats, China has not been involved in these informal consultations which are expected to continue later this month with the possible involvement of Germany and the Netherlands. However as Donilon suggested, although without mentioning any country by name, participation by China is key.

Impatience with the lack of progress on a treaty banning the production of bomb-making nuclear material has been apparent since the election of President Barack Obama gave a new push to the nuclear disarmament agenda in 2009. Several countries at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference backed consideration of an alternative to the CD. Until now though China has resisted any informal discussions outside the framework of the CD, which works by consensus. China, which reportedly stopped producing weapon-grade fissile materials in the late 1980s and early 1990s, is concerned about the weaponization of space and U.S. missile defense plans, and therefore may want to keep its options open regarding future production.

In Berlin last month, 10 foreign ministers (from Australia, Canada, Chile, Germany, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Poland, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates) issued a statement on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation in which they noted efforts on the margins of the CD focusing on technical aspects of an FMCT. Pakistan and China boycotted those proceedings. The ministers warned that if the CD session this year remains unable to find agreement on launching FMCT negotiations, they would ask the UN General Assembly to “consider ways to proceed with the aim of beginning negotiations.”

This is all to be encouraged. It is laudable to be casting around for an alternative solution after years of inaction. A ban by the P5 – U.S., U.K., France, Russia and China – would be a major step in the right direction. But serious disagreements remain over the scope of a treaty and on verification, and it is difficult to see how a global agreement can be reached without Pakistan. Because behind Pakistan, there would be India and Israel, not to mention North Korea, rendering a ban worthless. White House WMD coordinator Gary Samore acknowledged in an interview with Arms Control Today, “this is going to be a very lengthy, difficult, complicated negotiation”.  But he added: “The longer we wait to get started, the longer it will be before a treaty can actually be achieved.”


These are the personal views of the author.

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