“I also want to thank Daryl Kimball and the Arms Control Association for allowing me to address all of you today and for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war.”

– Joseph Biden, Jr.
January 28, 2004
Fissile Material Treaty Dispute Prolongs Conference on Disarmament Deadlock

Wade Boese

In past years, Washington severely criticized the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD) for not initiating work on a treaty to stop production of the key ingredients for building nuclear weapons. But a revised U.S. position on the proposed accord is now helping stall those negotiations and other arms talks in Geneva.

Last year, the United States announced that it no longer viewed as “effectively verifiable” a proposed fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), which would prohibit the production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium for nuclear weapons purposes. (See ACT, September 2004.) The announcement ran counter to U.S. efforts at the CD since 1995 to conclude an “effectively verifiable” FMCT.

U.S. officials said the shift reflected a lengthy policy review that concluded cheaters could violate the FMCT with little fear of being caught or punished. They argued that, because the treaty would allow the retention of existing fissile material stockpiles and continued production of fissile material for civilian uses, inspectors would find it difficult to determine the purpose for which any suspicious fissile material had been made and whether it had been manufactured before or after the treaty took effect.

Washington failed last year to convince all of the other 64 members of the conference, which operates by consensus, to endorse its position, and the CD closed for the sixth year in a row without launching any formal talks. The stalemate has not only blocked action on the fissile material treaty but also helped hamper discussions on other subjects from weapons in outer space to nuclear disarmament. Little has changed since the conference reconvened Jan. 24.

Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance Paula DeSutter told Arms Control Today Feb. 7 that the United States is “not saying ‘no verification.’” She made clear, however, that the United States would not subscribe to negotiations premised on a final agreement being “effectively verifiable.”

Chris Ford, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for verification and compliance, added in the same Arms Control Today interview that “[w]e think it is a bad idea to create this situation where you create an imperfect international regime that people do not understand to be imperfect.” This outcome would create a “false sense of security” that would incorrectly lead governments to lower “their level of concern, vigilance, and due diligence,” he argued.

Several countries do not share the U.S. perspective. Speaking to the conference Feb. 15, Norwegian Ambassador Wegger Strommen said that dropping “effectively verifiable” from the FMCT negotiating mandate “is at the outset not desirable, nor does there seem to be support for it.”

The beginning of treaty negotiations would not be guaranteed even if a compromise emerged on the verification impasse.

U.S. officials have repeatedly argued that the CD focus exclusively on an FMCT. Many other CD members have said this stance is unacceptable, arguing that other issues also merit attention.

Although China in August 2003 shelved a demand that the conference negotiate on the prevention of an arms race in outer space in parallel with an FMCT, Beijing insists that less formal outer space discussions should still be held. Russia also backs this approach.

CD members belonging to the Nonaligned Movement support similar talks on nuclear disarmament and negative security assurances, which are commitments by nuclear-armed states not to use such weapons against those states without them. The Nonaligned Movement is a loose coalition of more than 100 countries from the developing world.

In his outgoing speech as the rotating president of the conference on Feb. 17, Dutch Ambassador Chris Sanders criticized the inflexibility of some countries. “I fail to see how discussions on improving security in space or how discussions on dealing with the subject of nuclear disarmament could threaten anyone’s security interests,” the ambassador said. He further argued that members need “to take each other’s proposals seriously” and warned, “you cannot simply continue saying no or making proposals which you know will stand no chance of getting any support.”

A failure by the CD to begin any negotiations or talks before ending the first part of its 2005 session on April 1 could become a point of contention at the upcoming review conference for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in May. At the last NPT Review Conference in 2000, the nearly 190 treaty states-parties called on the CD to commence “effectively verifiable” FMCT negotiations immediately, with an eye to completing them in five years, and to establish a subsidiary body to deal with nuclear disarmament.

The CD will reconvene after the review conference for two periods: May 30 to July 15 and Aug. 8 to Sept. 23.