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Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
Proposal Aims to End CD Gridlock
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Wade Boese

At the close of March, the 65-member Conference on Disarmament (CD) was weighing a proposal to end a negotiating dry spell that has stretched for more than eight years. The plan would launch treaty negotiations on halting the production of key nuclear weapons materials and initiate less-formal discussions on averting a space arms race, pursuing nuclear disarmament, and guaranteeing states without nuclear weapons that they will not be attacked by such arms.

Sri Lankan Ambassador Sarala Fernando presented the work package March 23 to the CD, which operates by consensus. The package had won the support of most CD members when the first of three work periods that make up the conference's annual session ended March 30. But China , India , and Pakistan had still not endorsed the package. Members agreed to try and hold a special plenary meeting sometime in April to take a decision on the plan before they officially reconvene May 14 for the second work period, which concludes June 29.

The proposed negotiations would be devoted to a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), which would forbid production of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium for weapons purposes. A rudimentary nuclear bomb requires at least one of these two fissile materials, while more modern weapon designs employ both.

France , Russia , the United Kingdom , and the United States already have voluntarily suspended such production, albeit after accumulating significant stockpiles of weapons and weapons-usable material. Still, the four countries want to codify their separate moratoria into a legal instrument and extend its obligations to all other nuclear weapons possessors: China, India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan. Beijing is generally recognized as having ceased fissile material production for arms, although it has made no formal statement to this effect.

Washington and its allies have been pressing the conference to make an FMCT its top priority since the 1996 completion of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty outlawing nuclear explosions. Many countries, however, protested that an FMCT should not be the CD's exclusive focus. China and Russia called for equal treatment of preventing an arms race in outer space, and nonaligned countries pushed nuclear disarmament as their favored negotiating topic.

Until late March, the United States resisted taking up these other issues in any manner. A Department of State official told Arms Control Today March 28 that the United States “was willing to set aside [its] misgivings [on other issues] in order to breathe new life into the CD.” The official pointed out that the mandates for the trio of other subjects are not to “negotiate or search for ways to negotiate.” The mandates merely call for “substantive discussions.”

Washington submitted a draft FMCT to the conference last May. (See ACT, June 2006. ) The U.S. proposal did not contain verification measures. The Bush administration contends negotiating such measures would be difficult, time consuming, and ultimately futile because determined violators will find a way to cheat. The draft also exempted existing HEU and plutonium stockpiles from control.

Most CD members support verification measures of some kind. For instance, Canada submitted a March 20 paper on a future FMCT, noting that “an effective verification mechanism is an important element of any non-proliferation, arms control and disarmament agreement.” Other countries, such as Brazil , Egypt , Pakistan , and South Africa , have argued that an agreement also should address existing material.

The March 23 work proposal states that FMCT negotiations will be conducted “without any preconditions,” suggesting all issues are open for debate. Italian Ambassador Carlo Trezza would serve as the negotiations coordinator.

If agreed to in April, there is no guarantee that the negotiations will result in a treaty or even continue past the third and final work period of the 2007 session, which will run from July 30 to Sept. 14. The last time CD members initiated FMCT negotiations in 1998 (see ACT, August/September 1998), they failed to restart the talks the next year.