The UN General Assembly has seen renewed efforts by Western countries aimed at breaking the deadlock in the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD) on negotiations for a treaty banning bomb-making fissile material. Since 2009 this stalemate has prompted the US and its Western allies to undertake a number of diplomatic maneuvers. These have included mounting pressure on Pakistan, which has held up negotiations on the grounds that the proposed treaty that only bans future production and does not seek to reduce existing stockpiles of fissile material, will be a discriminatory instrument and upset the strategic equilibrium in South Asia. Some Western nations also threatened to take talks outside the CD, the world’s sole multilateral disarmament negotiating forum.
In this year’s General Assembly (GA) session, Canada introduced a resolution in the First Committee similar to those it sponsored since 1993. The First Committee deals with disarmament and global threats to peace and security. The Canadian resolution called for the immediate commencement of negotiations in Geneva on a Fissile Material Cut off Treaty (FMCT). This time the resolution also called for the setting up a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE). This marked the first serious effort to shift the FMCT process outside the CD. The new language calls for a two-stage process. It first urges the UN Secretary-General “to seek the views of member states” on an FMCT.
The only way to deal with the impasse in the CD is by ensuring that the proposed treaty is evolved to meet the security interests of all member states. As currently envisaged the Fissile Material Cut off Treaty (FMCT) fails to address the key issue of unequal stockpiles of bomb material, which would freeze the imbalance between Pakistan and India. WhilePakistan’s deterrent capacity would be curbed, India has been provided the means to escape this by the nuclear exceptionalism conferred on it by the US and the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
The operative paragraph of the resolution “further requests the Secretary-General to establish a Group of Governmental Experts in 2014 with a membership of 25 states” to make recommendations for an FMCT. This report is to be transmitted to the GA in its 2015 session. The resolution also states that if in the intervening period the CD is able to start negotiations, the experts group will conclude its work and submit that to the CD. This resolution was adopted by the General Assembly on 5 November, 2012. Notwithstanding the potential importance of this move, two aspects of the vote raise questions about its feasibility. In the vote on the overall resolution, 20 countries abstained (mostly from the Arab group), Pakistan voted no, and 148 nations voted yes. More important than the number of abstentions, however, is the political weight of the abstaining states, which notably includes China. This indicates that the path ahead will not be as smooth as its sponsors envisage.
This is more evident from the separate vote on the operative paragraph that recommends an Experts Group. China, Russia andIsrael abstained. This reflected their objection to taking FMCT discussions out of the CD. With two of the P-5 countries not on board and Pakistan and Israel not assenting, how will the Group of Experts make progress? Unlike some other arms control treaties, the FMCT, to be effective, needs all countries producing fissile material to join the convention. If any nuclear weapon state stays outside the treaty, it weakens if not renders the instrument meaningless.
With the Canadian resolution approved by the General Assembly, Western nations are now likely to step up their campaign to accelerate the FMCT negotiating process. The move to establish an Experts Group may have a two-fold purpose: i) intensify pressure on CD member states principally Pakistan to unblock negotiations and ii) use the group as a vehicle to elaborate “aspects” for an eventual treaty. Once this is done these could be transmitted to the UN in New York for endorsement. This would mimic the process that was followed to adopt the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996, when India blocked it at the CD.
In fact, the only way to deal with the impasse in the CD is by ensuring that the proposed treaty is evolved to meet the security interests of all member states. As currently envisaged the FMCT fails to address the key issue of unequal stockpiles of bomb material, which would freeze the imbalance between Pakistan and India. While Pakistan’s deterrent capacity would be curbed,India has been provided the means to escape this by the nuclear exceptionalism conferred on it by the US and the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
India’s fuel agreements with several countries will assure supply and enable it to process reactor-grade material. It would, if it wanted, be able to convert this to weapons-grade material and thereby enhance its strategic reserves. The only way to revive negotiations in Geneva is to address the issues that lie at the heart of the impasse. Efforts to circumvent the established multilateral disarmament machinery are unlikely to go far.
(Dr. Maleeha Lodhi served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US and the United Kingdom)