No progress as CD breaks for first 2011 recess

Posted by Andreas Persbo (andreas.persbo) on Apr 08 2011
VERTIC Blog >> Arms Control and Disarmament
Mikael Shirazi, London
Fourteen years of gridlock at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) seem set to continue, as its first session of 2011 ended last week with deliberations mostly having explored familiar territory. Efforts for negotiations to begin over a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) are at the heart of the issue, with opposition from Pakistan over the terms of prospective talks blocking the start of the talks themselves. These difficulties have prompted some member states to initiate informal discussions on the FMCT outside the strict confines of the CD. What advances these efforts can produce depends very much on CD members’ reactions in the next few months.
The Conference on Disarmament was established in 1979 as the single multilateral forum for international disarmament issues. Since it successfully negotiated the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996, however, the CD has been unable to enter into formal deliberations on any issue, and has only twice reach consensus on a programme of work. This happened most recently in 2009, when subsequent momentum faltered before negotiations could begin. The fragility of efforts to move forwards is due to the principle of consensus lying at the foundations of the 65-nation CD, which requires unanimity on the terms of negotiations before they can proceed. For the last two years, Pakistan’s opposition to an FMCT has ensured that discussions remain on procedural rather than substantive issues. This stalemate has also negated the possibility of discussions on the CD’s three other areas of focus: the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS), Negative Security Assurances (NSAs), and nuclear disarmament in general.
Pakistan’s viewpoint
Key to the confrontation lies the issue of what a fissile material treaty is supposed to take into account. Pakistan has consistently maintained that current stocks of weapons grade material should be covered, instead of future production only. This is a position supported by several other CD members, primarily from the developing world—though they have not chosen, as Pakistan has, to make agreement on this issue a precondition for negotiations.
Setting out the rationale behind his government’s opposition, Pakistani ambassador to the CD Zamir Akram stated in February 2010 that an FMCT along future production lines would be ‘prejudicial to [Pakistan’s] legitimate national security interests.’ An FMCT excluding current stocks would, he claimed, ‘freeze existing asymmetries or imbalances in fissile materials stockpiles between Pakistan and its neighbour [India] which obviously had a head start’, undermining his country’s ‘minimum credible deterrence.’ The Pakistani ambassador was particularly critical of the 2008 decision by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)—the multinational body that regulates the cross-border flow of nuclear technology and materials—to lift longstanding restrictions on nuclear trade with India, fearing that this would free up its current nuclear facilities to produce fissile material solely for explosive military use. 
Reports emerged in January 2011 that US intelligence considered Pakistan to be steadily building up its weapons stockpile, estimated now at somewhere between 90 and 110 deployed warheads. However, Pakistan’s position with regard to FMCT negotiations in the CD has in fact ‘further strengthened’, according to a 25 January 2011 speech by Akram to the Conference. He again denounced the ‘discriminatory waiver’ by the NSG as a ‘paradigm shift in strategic terms’ that will ‘further accentuate the asymmetry’ in the region, and referred to a recent US call for India’s eventual admission to the NSG as an ‘irresponsible undertaking’ and a ‘blatant violation of national and international commitments.’
To CD or not to CD?
With this impasse solidifying over the past two years, several states in the CD have made references to the possibility of moving the discussions to another forum—either with a smaller grouping of participants, or one without an enshrined principal of consensus. In August 2010, the Japanese delegation to the CD called for the Conference’s consensus rule to be re-examined, whilst Canada, Ireland, and Mexico stated their support for the establishment of parallel negotiating proposals if no progress was made within the Conference. Eric Danon, France’s Ambassador to the CD, noted in September last year many delegates’ ‘growing sense of impatience and frustration’, whilst the US’s Laura Kennedy also felt ‘patience is running out for many states’, and that ‘new approaches may be called for.’ Later that month, a special ‘High Level Meeting on Revitalizing the Work of the Conference on Disarmament and Taking forward Multilateral Disarmament Negotiations’ took place in New York under the direction of the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon. Representatives from Australia, the UK, and the US called for negotiations on an FMCT to be moved to the UN General Assembly, where the treaty would only require a majority vote to be open for ratification—a tactic previously used to endorse (though not negotiate) the CTBT.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has recently added her voice to the debate by claiming that ‘there is no justification for a single nation to abuse the consensus principle and forever thwart the legitimate desire of the 64 other states to get negotiations underway.’ Referring to Pakistan as a ‘friend and partner of the United States’, she nevertheless insisted that if it is not possible to ‘summon the shared will even to begin negotiations in this body, then the United States is determined to pursue other options.’
However, despite these various expressions of irritation and exasperation, for the moment it seems unlikely that the shared will is to be summoned for spurning the CD altogether. At his address to the Conference on 26 January, the UN Secretary General warned that ‘we must not risk pushing States to alternative arrangements’ in the pursuit of substantive discussions. In March, US Ambassador Kennedy stressed her government’s ‘commitment to pursuing FMCT negotiations in the CD.' The UK’s John Duncan insisted that ‘the CD remains the best and only option for negotiating an FMCT with all the key nuclear players’, while China’s Wang Qun thought that ‘while it is presumably not difficult at all for FMCT negotiations to be moved out of CD, it would be difficult for any new or alternative mechanism to […] have the same effect as the CD. India, Iran, and Israel also made statements of a similar spirit.
Thinking outside of the CD
On 14-16 February, the Australian and Japanese delegations co-hosted a three-day ‘Experts Side Event on FMCT Definitions’ as a compromise measure designed to satisfy the desire of many to initiate substantive (though informal) discussions whilst remaining within the broader framework of the CD. Exchanges at these meetings focused primarily on two issues which are of critical importance from a verification perspective.
Firstly, a practical definition of current stocks was discussed, with one delegate suggesting that negotiations be based on a consideration of three possible alternatives: fully assembled weapons components (pits), weapons-ready fissile mixtures stored in bulk form, and pre-weapon powders stored in bulk form in less sensitive facilities. Responses varied between those who preferred the broadest definition of stocks, which would act as a stronger driver of disarmament, and those who stressed the technical and logistical complexities of verifying the several tens of thousands of pits currently in storage.
Secondly, attendees also debated about what should count as fissile material production requiring regulation and verification. Four possible options were set out representing a sliding scale of isotopic quality. The first option restricted definition to uranium above 90% enrichment and plutonium consisting of more than 90% Pu-239 – i.e. weapons grade fissile material only. The second and third options widened the scope to include non-weapons grade uranium and plutonium of varying enrichment levels and purities, whilst the fourth option included uranium enriched just above natural levels as well as plutonium, uranium-233 and neptunium produced through irradiation. The scale of any future monitors’ task will naturally increase with each successive option.
The side event prompted an interesting reaction from the CD at its next plenary meeting on 3 March, as the craving for substantive talks spilled over into the formal discussions. The American, Japanese, German, Canadian and Italian delegations proposed moving ahead with IAEA definitions of fissile material, whilst the Pakistani ambassador called for the inclusion of isotopes of Americium, Neptunium and Thorium Also noted was the issue of verification mechanisms and the important role that the IAEA may play in a future FMCT regime. US Ambassador Kennedy set out her government’s preference for a system which ‘aims at keeping implementation costs low’, focusing on fissile material production facilities and complementing the work done by the IAEA. Ambassador Giovanni Manfredi of Italy stressed the importance of ‘keeping [FMCT implementation] compatible with current IAEA verification procedures’, and German Ambassador Hellmut Hoffmann warned against adopting fissile material definitions which were so dissimilar from those of the agency that they would do ‘damage to the IAEA safeguards system itself.’ Hoffmann also spoke of the value of these exchanges and asked ‘are we not currently engaging in negotiations?’
Nevertheless, reactions to the side event were mixed. Many states welcomed the initiative and indicated their willingness to take part in any similar future events. For example, Marius Grinius of Canada said that it was a ‘very useful opportunity to […] exchange views and articulate our own position’, and Ambassador Hoffmann approved of the ‘marked informality’ of the event which allowed for a ‘more open, frank and thus more fruitful debate.’ Other delegates, such as those from India, Algeria, and Iran put forward supportive statements tempered by an emphasis on the fact that the initiative was non-binding and constituted neither a negotiation nor a pre-negotiation. China, on the other hand, said that it did not take part in the event as it lacked the extensive participation of the relevant parties. Pakistan was also critical, denouncing the event as the pursuit of ‘efforts that can only undermine the CD’ involving ‘tactics that do not impress us at all.’
It seems, therefore that the divisions preventing an agreement on FMCT negotiations and on a programme of work for the CD exist along much the same lines as they have done for the past two years. Neither the indications from many nations that a separate venue for negotiations may be found, nor the Australian-Japanese side event have softened stances. Indeed in some cases, the opposite may be true. More side events are planned shortly, however. They may form a precursor to negotiations within the Conference—or without.

Last changed: May 04 2011 at 6:57 PM




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