"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Author, "African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement"
July 1, 2020
CD Convenes Committee to Work on Fissile Cutoff
Share this

THE UN CONFERENCE on Disarmament (CD) agreed on August 11 to start talks on banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons purposes. Israel, the last holdout among the 61 member-states, made clear that although it did not object to beginning negotiations, it did have "fundamental problems" with a cutoff treaty. Other members, led by Pakistan and Egypt, called for inclusion of fissile stockpiles under the treaty, a view not shared by the five nuclear-weapon states, India and Israel.

Conference members agreed to base the talks on the March 1995 "Shannon" mandate and its accompanying report, which permitted states to raise the issue of past fissile material production. Despite reaching consensus on the Shannon mandate in 1995, the CD had proved unable to start cutoff talks because members of the non-aligned movement, led by India, linked work on a cutoff treaty to negotiations on a timebound framework for nuclear disarmament, a condition unacceptable to the nuclear-weapon states. India dropped the linkage in May following its nuclear tests and Pakistan, another principal obstacle, signed on to the talks in July. Israel was not a conference member in 1995 and thus had not consented to the Shannon mandate.

In remarks to the Israeli cabinet on August 11, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said President Clinton had asked Israel not to block establishment of the ad hoc committee. Netanyahu told the cabinet that convening the committee does not "indicate that we [Israel] are taking a position on the treaty and its contents" and that Jerusalem would voice its concerns to Washington. Israel is concerned that a cutoff treaty with an intrusive inspection regime of its Dimona reactor could remove the ambiguity surrounding the Israeli nuclear program.

India, voicing a view shared by the nuclear-weapon states, emphasized on August 11 that the purpose of the treaty is to ban future production. Washington, for its part, envisions a treaty limited to banning future production, verification measures focusing on newly produced fissile material and uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing facilities, routine inspections and some type of challenge or non-routine inspections.

However, Pakistani CD Ambassador Munir Akram, speaking on August 11, said a "vast majority" of conference members want a treaty that also addresses stockpiles. Akram said that Pakistan could not "agree to freeze inequality" vis-a-vis India by endorsing a treaty that only halted future production. New Delhi is estimated to possess enough fissile material to make two to three times as many nuclear weapons as Pakistan.

Syria claimed that a treaty not accounting for past production would be "discriminatory," while Iran expressed concern that leaving out stockpiles would legitimize their possession. In general, most non-aligned states agree with Egypt that a treaty would only be effective if it included stockpiles. Otherwise, they claim, the treaty would merely be another non-proliferation mechanism that has no "real disarmament value" since the five declared nuclear-weapon states have already reportedly stopped production of fissile material for weapons purposes.

Members could not agree on a chairman for the committee until August 20, thereby limiting the committee to two meetings before the negotiating mandate expired on September 9, the close of the 1998 negotiating session. In order to reopen negotiations next year, the conference will need to reach consensus again on forming the committee and appointing a chairman.


Other CD Business

Despite earlier promising signs, Australian Ambassador John Campbell, the special coordinator on anti-personnel landmines (APLs), reported to the CD on August 27 that the non-aligned states could not reach consensus to negotiate an APL transfer ban. He recommended a special rapporteur be appointed next year to win the necessary consensus to start talks.

Ambassador Li Changhe of China pressed the conference on August 13 to establish an ad hoc committee for the prevention of an arms race in outer space. Calling it an "urgent issue," he charged that the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty has been "seriously weakened through…re-interpretation" and cited U.S. programs, including theater missile defense systems and the Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser (MIRACL), as evidence that weapon systems could appear in space in the near future. The United States does not support establishing an ad hoc committee, claiming that there is no arms race in outer space.

At the last plenary meeting of the 1998 session on September 8, the application of Ireland, Malaysia, Kazakhstan, Tunisia and Ecuador for CD membership was blocked. According to Rebecca Johnson of the Acronym Institute, Iran vetoed the admission of these states in order to punish Ireland for its criticisms of Iranian human rights policies. Members expect the conference to revisit the issue of new members at the start of next year's session, which will be divided into three parts: January 18–March 26; May 10–June 25 and July 26–September 8.