A chance to make progress on FM(C)T?

The UN Conference on Disarmament (CD) begins its second session of the year this week, convening from May 13th until June 28th. Attempts in the CD to open negotiations on a treaty banning fissile materials for nuclear weapons use have been sitting in stalemate for, quite literally, decades.  States remain deeply divided over the scope and definitions of such a treaty – so much so, in fact, that actual negotiations are yet to get off the ground.

In December last year, the Canadian delegation led an attempt to unlock the negotiating process, introducing a resolution in the CD calling for the UN Secretary General to set up a “Group of Governmental Experts” (GGE) tasked with exploring aspects of – but, critically, not negotiating – a potential treaty on fissile materials.  The group will be made up of “25 states chosen on the basis of equitable geographical representation”.  The hope is that by stepping away from the political posturing of the CD and focusing on technical discussions, it may be possible to identify areas of common interest and build momentum behind the process.

The Canadian-introduced resolution called for the UN Secretary-General to “seek the views of Member States” on a potential treaty banning fissile materials for nuclear weapons use, before establishing the GGE.  The Secretary-General issued the call for those reports in early 2013, and this Wednesday, May 15th, marks the deadline for submission.

While the reports are not explicitly linked to the selection criteria for the 25-member GGE, they will be a critical avenue for states to demonstrate their interest in the issue of a treaty on fissile materials – which in turn will help to inform the Secretary-General’s decision-making on the composition of the group.  The process of deciding membership of and establishing the GGE will then continue through 2013 – after which the group will meet four times, in two week blocks, across 2014 and 2015.

Whether the GGE will have the teeth to be able to deliver any breakthrough on an FM(C)T remains to be seen.   A huge number of variables will affect its impact, such as the composition of the group (which may affect its legitimacy in the eyes of different states or state groupings); its level of expertise; shifts in the broader geo-political context; and the effectiveness of the Chair.  And, of course, there is a risk that the group may simply replicate the political dynamics of the CD, resulting in a stalemate of its own.

Pakistan has been the most vocal critic of a fissile material cut-off treaty within the CD – so their dynamic with respect to the GGE will be critical.  They were the only country to actively oppose the Canadian resolution, consistent with their position in the CD not to engage in the negotiation of a treaty that they believe would cement, rather than reverse, perceived power imbalances that exist as a result of current fissile material stockpiles – particularly between India and Pakistan.  We don’t yet know whether Pakistan will be a member of the GGE.  But it seems hard to imagine that the group would be able to make meaningful progress in moving discussion forward without the Pakistani perspective being represented in some way.

It is too early to tell what the GGE will achieve or how it might succeed in shifting the dynamic.  However, with no sign of movement within the CD itself, it is an initiative worth engaging with and supporting, to ensure it has the best impact it can.

In March 2013, in cooperation with Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and Harvard’s Belfer Center, BASIC organized a roundtable in Ottawa with a group of academics and experts to discuss the GGE and the opportunities and challenges it faces going forward – the findings are reported in our events page.

-These are the views of the author.

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