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I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them. -

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
P5 to Take Up Fissile Material Cutoff
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Peter Crail

As part of efforts to start negotiations on a treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons, the world’s five recognized nuclear-weapon states have agreed to hold discussions on the matter outside the deadlocked Conference on Disarmament (CD). The move follows increasing frustration with the inability of the CD to begin negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) because of Pakistan’s refusal to agree to a consensus work program. (See ACT, March 2011.)

The five nuclear-weapon states—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—also known as the P5 for their status as the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, said in a joint statement to a special meeting of the UN General Assembly on the UN disarmament bodies July 27, “[I]n order to sustain the potential of negotiations [on an FMCT] in the CD, the P5 will, prior to the next [UN General Assembly], renew their efforts with other relevant partners to promote such negotiations.” The next session of the General Assembly opens Sept. 13. The special meeting on July 27–28 was a follow-up to a high-level General Assembly meeting on disarmament held last September, where the stalled FMCT process was also addressed. (See ACT, October 2010.)

The P5 effort on an FMCT came out of a June 30–July 1 meeting in Paris on steps to implement the decisions of last year’s nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference. (See ACT, July/August 2011.)

The countries that make up the P5 are the only NPT members allowed to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. All except China pledged during the 1990s to halt such production for weapons, and China is widely believed to have stopped around the same time. India, Israel, and Pakistan, the only countries never to have joined the NPT, are the only other countries that are not legally prohibited from producing fissile material for weapons, although only India and Pakistan are believed to continue to do so.

In 2006 the Bush administration proposed a draft FMCT text that would have entered into force once all P5 countries ratified the accord. The proposed treaty did not include verification measures, which all CD members had previously agreed needed to be part of such a treaty, and it failed to win support.

Diplomats from P5 countries said last month that the reference to “relevant partners” in their July 27 statement refers to other countries that possess uranium-enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing technology, which can be used to produce fissile material. White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism Gary Samore said in an April 7 interview with Arms Control Today that such countries “have something to bring to the negotiations” and would be directly affected by any additional verification requirements for fissile material production.

The P5 members all have expressed their preference for holding FMCT negotiations in the 65-member CD, the United Nations’ multilateral negotiating forum on arms control issues. That body, which operates on a consensus basis, has been unable to begin substantive work for more than a decade. The CD briefly agreed on a work program that would have initiated FMCT negotiations in 2009, but Pakistan broke the consensus before such work could begin.

Islamabad insists on a treaty that takes into account existing stocks of fissile material, a position supported by many countries in the developing world but opposed by the P5, which prefers prohibiting only future production. Wary that its preference would not be incorporated into any eventual treaty, Pakistan has used the CD’s consensus rule to prevent negotiations from starting.

Among the P5 countries, the United States in particular has insisted on the need to consider alternative venues for negotiating an FMCT if the CD remains unable to act. Rose Gottemoeller, U.S. assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification, and compliance, told the CD Jan. 27 that if the body could not find a way to start negotiations, “then we will need to consider other options.”

A Department of State official said Aug. 17 that “the CD remains our preference” for negotiating an FMCT, “but we remain committed to a P5-led process outside the CD that, albeit not now, could open the door down the road to a negotiating process.”

Earlier this year, the United States supported an initiative by Australia and Japan to host expert-level side meetings at the CD to discuss technical issues in preparation for future negotiations. Gottemoeller told the General Assembly July 27 that the discussions “proved to be productive, substantive, and collegial,” but said, “[W]e are no closer to FMCT negotiations today than we were two years ago.” The State Department official said such side meetings could continue, but are insufficient to make progress because key countries such as China and Pakistan have not participated.

The official also noted that Beijing was particularly wary of joining any P5 initiative on the treaty. China has insisted on FMCT negotiations at the CD and called into question the utility of other negotiating forums. On July 28, Chinese Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations Wang Min told the General Assembly, “Any idea or practice of resorting to another framework is obviously not conducive to the work of the CD, nor will it produce a satisfactory FMCT.”

In addition to the P5 effort, some countries, as well as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, have suggested the possibility that the General Assembly take up the FMCT issue. In his July 27 remarks to the assembly, Ban said, “If the CD remains deadlocked, the General Assembly has a responsibility to step in.”

Similarly, in a statement on behalf of the 10-country Nonproliferation and Disarmament Initiative, Australian Permanent Representative to the United Nations Gary Quinlan said that if the CD is unable to begin FMCT negotiations during its August-September session, the group would ask the next General Assembly to address the issue and consider ways to begin negotiations. The 10 states in the group include developed and developing countries from several different regions.

Washington, however, says it sees problems with the General Assembly taking up the treaty. The State Department official said that “basic principles like consensus might be endangered” in such a venue.

The official added that the CD is the more appropriate multilateral forum, and if the CD cannot work, it is better to consider a process centered on the P5 because of its members’ fissile material production capacities.