Bush Shifts Fissile Material Ban Policy

September 2004

By Wade Boese

Following an internal policy review lasting well over a year, the Bush administration has reaffirmed past U.S. policy to negotiate a treaty ending the production of two key materials for nuclear arms. But it has added a new twist: it does not believe the agreement can be crafted to protect against cheating. The change in tack puts Washington at odds with some of its closest allies and raises questions about whether the new U.S. approach will jump-start or further bog down the long-stalled treaty talks.

Speaking July 29 to the 65-member Conference on Disarmament (CD), Ambassador Jackie W. Sanders announced the United States would pursue negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), which would outlaw production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium for weapons purposes. A nuclear weapon cannot be made without one or the other.

Sanders said the administration’s recently concluded FMCT policy review “raised serious concerns that realistic, effective verification of an FMCT is not achievable.” Since 1995 the United States and others had been urging the CD to begin negotiations on an FMCT that would be “effectively verifiable”—this phrase was part of a broader negotiating mandate for the treaty brokered by Ambassador Gerald Shannon, who served as the Canadian representative to the conference at that time.

A verifiable treaty is typically understood to have mechanisms and procedures, such as on-site inspections, to detect violations.

At a January 1999 conference in Washington, D.C., Michael Guhin, a U.S. arms control official, outlined the then-U.S. government position on verifying an FMCT. “We think that a strong regime of routine monitoring of all [fissile] production facilities and all newly produced material and a regime for nonroutine or so-called challenge inspections would give us enough building blocks to build an effective verification regime,” he said. Guhin is now the Department of State’s point man on fissile material issues.

An administration official interviewed Aug. 13 by Arms Control Today said the United States “does not have a draft treaty in its pocket” and is not ruling out verification provisions as a possibility. The U.S. position, the official explained, is that, regardless of the verification measures agreed to, an FMCT is not able to be “effectively verifiable.” Hence, the United States wants to remove that language from the 1995 Shannon mandate.

The official declined to comment on what would constitute “effectively verifiable” or why the U.S. government assessment about the proposed pact’s verifiability has changed.

Another administration official interviewed Aug. 20 emphasized that the U.S. approach is motivated by wanting to establish a prohibition against the production of fissile material for weapons sooner rather than later. The concern is that negotiating a verification regime would prolong the talks by years, allowing countries currently producing fissile material without any restraints to continue to do so until a final agreement is reached.

India and Pakistan are believed still to be churning out fissile material for arms, while the status of Israel’s production activities is unclear. France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States have all declared that they no longer produce fissile material for weapons purposes. China has reportedly ceased as well. In her speech, Sanders encouraged all states to pledge publicly not to make any more fissile material for bombs.

A July 29 statement released by the Bush administration also shed some light on the thinking behind the policy shift. “Effective verification of an FMCT would require an inspection regime so extensive that it could compromise key signatories’ core national security interests and so costly that many countries will be hesitant to accept it,” the statement noted.

For instance, the United States and other countries are opposed to providing access to facilities involved in providing nuclear fuel for their naval propulsion reactors.

Israel, which shrouds its nuclear activities in secrecy, made well known its concerns about an FMCT in 1998 when it decided not to block the conference from initiating negotiations on the accord. The talks disbanded after a few weeks without any progress. (See ACT, August/September 1998.)

Intrusive or expensive verification measures also are understood to be of concern to China, France, and Pakistan, although all have previously endorsed the goal of a verifiable FMCT.

This is not the first time the Bush administration has shied away from verification provisions. It elected not to seek a verification regime for its May 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty with Russia and sank international efforts to add one to the Biological Weapons Convention the year before.

Some conference members, including key U.S. allies, swiftly made clear they do not share the U.S. perspective. Canada and Japan reiterated their long-standing support for the Shannon mandate and Australian Ambassador Michael Smith argued Aug. 12 that, “to be credible and effective, the FMCT should include appropriate verification arrangements.” British officials also have indicated that they favor verification measures.

Washington expects other capitals to try and persuade it that the agreement can be verified. A team of U.S. experts is traveling to the conference Sept. 1-2 to present the opposite case.

Although Sanders also spoke of the U.S. desire to ban exports of landmines lacking self-destruct and self-deactivation mechanisms (see below), the near-term priority is getting the CD to focus on an FMCT, according to U.S. officials.

The U.S. position runs counter to CD efforts extending back to last year to formulate a compromise package of issues, including an FMCT, the prevention of an arms race in outer space, and nuclear disarmament, to all be dealt with at the same time. China and Russia submitted Aug. 26 two informal working papers on the outer space issue and made clear that they opposed the conference working solely on an FMCT. Russia described the outer space issue as its “clear priority,” while China called for adopting a “comprehensive program of work.”

However, time is short for any CD negotiations to begin this year. The conference concludes its current session Sept. 10 and will not reconvene until January 2005. CD rules hold that talks started one year do not automatically carry over to the next.

This practice, coupled with the requirement that no work can begin if a single CD member objects, has helped deadlock the conference since 1996 when it wrapped up the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In May 2000, the then-187 states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) called upon the CD to complete an FMCT within five years. The NPT states-parties are gathering again this coming May, and the lack of progress on an FMCT is likely to be cited by many non-nuclear-weapon states as evidence that nuclear-armed countries are not living up to their NPT commitment to work toward disarmament.

U.S. Pushes Landmine Initiatives

Wade Boese

A U.S. landmine initiative announced July 29 received a cool reception from other countries. The proposal, put forward by U.S. Ambassador Jackie W. Sanders at the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD), calls for an international ban on the sale or transfer of all landmines without self-destruct and self-deactivation devices.

Canada and some of the other 142 states-parties to the Ottawa Convention, which bans anti-personnel landmines (APLs), including those with self-destruct and self-deactivation devices, rejected the initiative out of hand. Canadian Ambassador Paul Meyer explained, “Clearly and simply put, [Ottawa Convention] states will not be in a position to enter negotiations on a lesser ban aimed at arresting trade in one category of [APLs] alone but implying the acceptability of trade in other categories of these weapons.” Because the CD requires consensus for starting negotiations and 42 of the conference’s 65 members are Ottawa Convention states-parties, the U.S. proposal’s prospects are bleak.

The United States announced in February that it would cease using any type of landmine lacking self-destruct and self-deactivation measures. Washington also declared it would not join the Ottawa Convention, an option it suggested in 1998. (See ACT, March 2004.)

The United States is having better luck with another international landmine initiative. Support is growing for a U.S. proposal to restrict the use of anti-vehicle mines, which are not prohibited by the Ottawa Convention.

At a July 5-16 meeting in Geneva, states-parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) inched closer toward adopting an anti-vehicle mines measure, which has been debated for years. A U.S. government official said Washington is aiming to complete the negotiation early next year so that it does not drag on indefinitely.

Now endorsed by 29 other countries, the proposal would require that any anti-vehicle mines deployed in the future be detectable. In addition, it would obligate countries to equip anti-vehicle mines delivered by aircraft or artillery systems with self-destruct and self-deactivation devices. The CCW already mandates that APLs have such mechanisms.

The 30 co-sponsors are now weighing whether to amend their proposal to demand that any anti-vehicle mines lacking features to neutralize themselves after a short period be restricted to deployment in marked areas.

A CCW measure can only be approved by consensus, and China, Russia, and Pakistan currently oppose adopting the proposal. Their objections vary from assertions that nondetectable mines are needed for border protection to the costs of altering mines to comply with the proposal.

Proponents say they are making headway, however, in arguing that the proposal will not be as costly as some fear because it will apply only to mines deployed in the future, not to those already in the ground or that remain stockpiled. The U.S. official voiced confidence that it is only a matter of time until the proposal prevails.