"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
Breakthrough and Breakdown at the Conference on Disarmament: Assessing the Prospects for an FM(C)T
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Paul Meyer

The May 29 adoption of a program of work by the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva marked the first time in 11 years that the 65-member body had taken such action. That step was a cause for celebration as it appeared to open the door to the negotiation of a treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.

The White House was quick to applaud the development with a statement by President Barack Obama welcoming “today’s important agreement at the Conference on Disarmament to begin negotiations on a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, which will end production of fissile materials for use in atomic bombs.”[1] Regrettably, the applause now seems premature as events since May 29 suggest that hopes for rapid progress in the CD are unrealistic.

The negotiation of a fissile material (cutoff) treaty (FM(C)T)[2] is a long-standing goal of the international community. For a brief period in the late summer of 1998, the CD began work toward this objective but failed to renew the program in January 1999 due to a dispute over the contents of the CD’s work program. That impasse continued until this spring. In his statement to the plenary June 4, Argentine ambassador and CD President Roberto García Moritán termed the CD’s prolonged failure to adopt a work program a “tragedy for multilateralism.”

The CD’s stalemate reflected two key institutional characteristics of the forum: it makes all its decisions by consensus, and the work program requires annual renewal. In other words, the CD must reach consensus each year on the program.

This article will briefly describe how the program came to be approved, review some of the obstacles placed in the way of starting negotiations, and comment on the apparent motivations behind these obstacles. It will conclude by considering possible future moves to reactivate multilateral work on an FM(C)T.

Reaching Consensus

Two key elements facilitated the CD’s adoption of the program of work, which includes a provision for the negotiation of an FM(C)T.

First, the FM(C)T forms part of a work program that also foresees activity on three other “core” CD issues: nuclear disarmament, the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS), and negative security assurances, a term that refers to international arrangements to assure non-nuclear-weapon states that they will not be attacked with nuclear weapons or threatened with such attacks. Each of these items has figured on the agenda of the CD for many years, and each is seen as a priority by various regional groupings and subsets of the CD membership. An essential element of the CD’s success was that the agreed work program as set out in document CD/1864 had something for everyone by incorporating all four of these core issues, not to mention some attention to three, more peripheral agenda items.[3]

Second, CD/1864 utilizes language that refers to a mandate previously adopted by the CD and under which the short-lived negotiations of 1998 took place. Known as the Shannon mandate in honor of the late Ambassador Gerald Shannon of Canada, who crafted it in 1995, it was seen as an enduring decision.[4] In a 2004 reversal of long-standing U.S. policy, however, the Bush administration rejected the mandate’s requirement that the prospective treaty be “internationally and effectively verifiable.” The administration argued that the requirement was impractical and should be discarded.

This breakdown of the traditional consensus around the mandate under which an FM(C)T would be negotiated further complicated the prevailing gridlock at the CD and made the prospect of initiating work on the treaty even more remote. With the advent of the Obama administration, the United States has restored the fractured consensus on the FM(C)T mandate by once again supporting a verifiable treaty.

In addition to the two key elements described above, several smaller but still important factors contributed to the breakthrough at the CD. One of these factors was the generally improved diplomatic atmosphere created by the new Obama administration, as epitomized by the president’s April 5 Prague speech. That speech articulated a far-reaching vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and included specific commitments to an FM(C)T and ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). These commitments are top priorities for multilateral arms control, as set out in the decisions of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) 1995 and 2000 review conferences. Another positive driver at the CD was the widespread belief of NPT member states, in the wake of the failure of the 2005 NPT Review Conference, that some major new impetus to multilateral nonproliferation and disarmament efforts was needed to promote a successful result at the rapidly approaching 2010 review conference.

Procedural Hurdles

In the CD, the adoption of a program of work is a necessary but, unfortunately, not a sufficient condition for success. Consensus around a work program can unravel rapidly. Events since May 29 have confirmed earlier suspicions that not all CD member states are unequivocally committed to getting FM(C)T negotiations under way. Efforts over the last two years at the CD to gain agreement on a work program had already prompted China, Iran, and Pakistan in particular to express dissent over the emerging compromise proposal for work.[5] The experience of the CD’s June session, during which García Moritán and, as of the last week of the session, Ambassador Caroline Millar of Australia, his successor as president, attempted to transform the latent accord represented by the work program into an active work schedule, suggests that these three states continue to oppose commencing work on this agenda item. García Moritán carefully constructed a list of chairmen and special coordinators for the various items of the work program and elaborated a schedule for a balanced consideration of these items in the remaining four weeks of the 2009 CD. In the face of objections from China and Pakistan, he failed to seek approval of these draft decisions at the June 26 plenary that marked the end of his presidency. Unfortunately, the CD’s rules of procedure and the stringent application of the consensus rule on all manner of decisions can allow a single member state to wreak havoc with even the most measured proposal for organizing work.

Pakistan has been probably the most vocal CD member in expressing its reservations regarding the proposed work program and the initiation of negotiations on an FM(C)T. At the CD’s June 4 plenary, in the immediate aftermath of the adoption of the work program, Ambassador Zamir Akram of Pakistan said, “We did not stand in the way of consensus on [the draft version of the work program], which has been achieved in good faith that work on all core issues would lead to the initiation of actual negotiations on legally binding instruments for universal and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament, [negative security assurances,] and PAROS. We would like to see progress in tandem on all core issues. Only this can ensure equal security for all states.”[6]

The call for equal treatment of the four core issues of the CD is one that can be expected to be raised again, to the detriment of FM(C)T negotiations. The fact that an FM(C)T is the only one of the four core issues to have been granted an explicit negotiating mandate under CD/1864 provides a basis for the proponents of negotiations on the other core issues to continue to seek equal treatment or parallel progress. That was the position that Iranian Ambassador Ali Reza Moaiyeri expressed in his June 11 statement:

The Conference should vigorously pursue its deliberations with the view to start negotiations on legally binding instruments on the four core issues. In our understanding the substantive work of the CD on all four core issues would be measured by real progress and not merely with focusing on some issues and manifestation of a talk show on the others.[7]

To the extent that states insist on equal treatment of the four issues in the working groups, progress on an FM(C)T could be held hostage to progress on the other three issues.

If reaffirming the need for equal treatment of the four core issues did not constitute a suitably high hurdle for García Moritán’s efforts to operationalize the program of work set out in CD/1864, Akram’s statement of the following week enumerated several additional procedural issues, any one of which, in the context of the CD’s consensus decision-making, could pose a significant pitfall to the president’s efforts to get the CD back to work. The selection of chairmen for the working groups entrusted with each of the issues is one area in which matters can be readily complicated. Adding to the principle of equitable geographic distribution of the chairmanships, Akram suggested that the chairmen “should not be from P-5 [the five permanent members of the UN Security Council], non-NPT states or countries in a military alliance or countries enjoying nuclear protection.”[8] The NPT criterion would exclude Akram’s own country, as well as India, Israel, and North Korea. The other elements of the formula would eliminate most members of the western and eastern European groups of states, which constitute two of the three regional groupings of the CD. The third group is the “Group of 21” Nonaligned Movement states. China, which acts as a group of its own, would be ineligible under Akram’s formula because it is a permanent member of the Security Council.

To complicate matters even more, Akram also stressed the importance of rotation for the chairmanships and suggested that the term of the chairmen be synchronized with the term of the CD presidents. In effect, this would impose on the chairmen the same cumbersome cycle of rotation that is required for the CD presidents. During the CD’s six months of actual working time each year, there are six presidencies, each of them lasting only a few weeks. In recent years, collaboration among the six CD presidents has allowed for common annual presidential platforms, which have been a marked improvement over the disjointed series of presidencies that were the norm in previous years.

To have the working group chairmen rotate out of their posts after a mere four to six weeks would pose major problems of continuity and sustained purpose in these activities. If all the criteria laid out for the chairmanships in Akram’s statement (neutrality, equitable geographic representation, frequent rotation, ambassadorial rank) were adopted, it would be very challenging to identify chairmen for the four working groups, let alone sustain substantive negotiation and discussions during the course of a year.

The Pakistani and Iranian ambassadors also flagged the importance of time allocation in the schedule for work. The working groups on the four core issues should have a “balanced allocation of time,” Akram said.[9] Moaiyeri went even further in stating that “the planning for implementation of the programme of work should carefully consider balanced allotment of time for the working groups and special coordinators.”[10] Devising a schedule of activity that is able to manage such a precise “balance” will be a difficult task. Unfortunately, the history of multilateral conferences on nonproliferation and disarmament is full of examples of protracted squabbles over proposed time allocations.

China has been less prominent in CD interventions on the issue of the program of work, but in its June 26 statement, it quite clearly opposed the president’s operational proposal to get down to work. Drawing on ancient Chinese proverbs (a favorite technique of China’s multilateral diplomats), China’s ambassador, Wang Qun, argued that “this melon is not ripe yet” and that the CD members “need to still exercise a bit of patience.”[11] Enumerating his objections to the president’s proposal, Wang suggested that the mandates of the chairmen and special coordinators, as well as their rotation, had not been discussed and that the length of their tenure was not clear. Furthermore, he took issue with the president’s submittal of two draft decisions (CD/1866, with its list of chairmen and special coordinators, and CD/1867, with the proposed work schedule for the remainder of the CD session) instead of a combined document. He contended that the relationship between these two drafts would require study. Finally, he argued that the duration of the arrangement was not clear even though CD/1867’s purpose was to implement CD/1864, which in turn established the work program for the 2009 session (as clearly stated in its title). Despite the behind-the-scenes consultations undertaken by the president prior to tabling his proposal, Wang argued that delegations required more time to study the draft decisions and to receive instructions from capitals.

In the face of these objections, García Moritán declined to put his proposals to the CD for decision. The gavel came down on his presidency and likely on the prospects for getting the CD back to work this year. There was little that his successor, Millar, could accomplish to advance matters in the one week left prior to the CD’s one-month summer recess. The interventions by Iran and Pakistan at the final July 2 plenary, while affirming optimism and support, only contributed additional complicating factors for the president to take into consideration.

Millar tried to pick up the pieces when the CD resumed August 3 with the introduction of a new combined draft decision (CD/1870 Rev 1) that accommodated the Chinese desire to work with a single document. This simply prolonged the ordeal as Pakistan came up with new objections (ostensibly relating to unspecified problems with the introductory language of the decision) when Millar put the draft decision to the CD plenary on August 10. Ambassador Akio Suda of Japan, picking up on the imagery used by the Chinese Ambassador prior to the summer recess, remarked that the “melon” the CD bought was now beyond ripe and was “rotten”. Millar held a further plenary August 17 where she was forced to state that no consensus existed to adopt the decision, and the Chinese and Iranian representatives made a point of intervening to praise her efforts and urged her to pursue her consultations. This she gamely did until August 20, the last plenary of her presidency, when she was obliged to advise the CD that a consensus on implementing the agreed program of work was still not possible. As she observed in her closing statement: “To those unfamiliar with the arcane workings of this chamber, this is neither understandable nor acceptable. To those within it, it is all too familiar and dispiriting.”[12]

The sentiment expressed by Ambassador Millar was widely shared in the council chamber. As U.S. Ambassador Garold Larson stated:

We, the members of the Conference on Disarmament, agreed to take up that task on May 29, and the global community gave a sigh of relief that the CD was, at long last, back to work. It is, then profoundly disappointing that nearly three months later, we have yet to accomplish the simple, straightforward, procedural task of agreeing on a schedule of work.[13]

Even if by some diplomatic miracle all the elements for operationalizing CD/1864 could have been put into place at the CD this session, there would still be the objection that such arrangements are only valid for a given year and that the whole schema, including the underlying work program, would be up for fresh consideration at the start of the CD’s new year in January. It does not take a diplomatic Machiavelli to see the potential for disruption and delay that the CD procedural rules afford any member state that may be unenthusiastic about the prospect of actually negotiating a binding agreement on fissile material or any other of the CD’s core issues. It is all too easy for CD delegations to let the clock run out on another effort to resume work while engaging in further “study,” “consultations,” and the eternal wait for instructions from capitals. This is a diplomatic version of Waiting for Godot.

Substantive Objections

The pitfalls outlined above represent only the procedural problems that may impede negotiation of an FM(C)T. Major substantive issues also divide the CD members; those issues presumably inform the stalling tactics witnessed at the CD. In particular, the question of whether the treaty should deal with existing stocks of fissile material or prohibit only future production continues to elicit diametrically opposing positions on the part of key CD member states.

By way of illustration, two non-NPT CD members possessing fissile material and nuclear weapons are India and Pakistan. Because both are currently engaged in production of fissile material for nuclear-weapon purposes, the start of negotiations of an FM(C)T raises major security issues for them. In a statement to the CD’s May 29 plenary, Ambassador Hamid Rao of India, while reiterating his country’s support for the goal of an FM(C)T negotiated under the Shannon mandate, specified, “The scope of such a treaty would focus on the future production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”[14] He further warned that “[w]e will not accept obligations not in keeping with or prejudicial to our national security interests or which hinder our strategic programme, our R&D as well as three-stage nuclear programme.”[15]

In contrast, Akram set out a very different stance on stocks and included an indirect critique of the U.S.-Indian nuclear deal and the subsequent lifting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) ban on nuclear trade with India:

As regards the Fissile Material Treaty [FMT], the CD membership is fully cognizant that [the issue of] existing and future stocks has assumed greater significance for Pakistan in the light of the nuclear cooperation arrangements in our neighbourhood. These upset the strategic balance in the region. Unless the equilibrium is re-established, the fashioning of an appropriate FMT appears to be a difficult challenge. A treaty which would merely legalize national moratoria of nuclear-weapons-states and freeze the asymmetries will undermine the international community’s vision of a nuclear weapons free world as well as Pakistan’s national security.[16]

The differing strategic assessments that underlie the opposing positions expressed on the issue of whether stocks should be included in an FM(C)T are not limited to India and Pakistan. Some states say a ban on future production would be valuable in itself. Others say that, to have real value, it would have to encompass existing stocks, thus making it a nuclear disarmament as well as a nonproliferation measure. Although some of this debate is more theological than practical in nature, the inclusion of stocks is viewed as curtailing the manufacture of new nuclear weapons or the renewal of existing weapons. A mere production ban would bar new entrants while allowing existing members of the nuclear weapons club to draw on their existing stockpiles of fissile material to fashion additional arms.

Iran is one state calling for the inclusion of stocks. It argues that the FM(C)T “should be a clear and meaningful step for nuclear disarmament and non proliferation in all its aspects…. Past production and existing stocks as well as the future production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices must be covered under the scope of the Treaty.”[17]

Verification is also a significant aspect that would need to be addressed in FM(C)T negotiations. The change of administration in the United States, as noted earlier, has permitted the reaffirmation of the Shannon mandate’s formula of an “internationally and effectively verifiable treaty.” At the same time, the practical meaning of the phrase remains an open issue. Several CD states have made good use of the conference’s fallow years by developing working papers and hosting seminars dedicated to verification. Yet, no single arrangement has emerged as a clear favorite of the CD. It may not prove efficient for negotiators to devote too much time to elaborating verification schemes until the parameters of an FM(C)T are clearer because provisions for verification are closely associated with the scope of the treaty.

Assessing Motivations

As suggested above, the actual significance of the CD’s adoption of a work program for the initiation of negotiations of an FM(C)T remains to be seen. The strategic perceptions that underlie the apparent delaying tactics being employed by China, Iran, and Pakistan to impede the start of talks on an FM(C)T can only be surmised. For Pakistan, it seems that a perception of inferiority with respect to India in terms of fissile material for nuclear weapons purposes motivates the desire to avoid any constraints on production until Pakistan has “caught up.” The reality of this pursuit is debatable, given India’s own capacities and additional potential for displacement from the civilian to the military sectors of its nuclear program under the new NSG-sanctioned external supply arrangements. Once on the nuclear arms race treadmill, it is difficult to get off. An alternative strategy open to Pakistan would be to cap India’s arsenal as well as its own via a verifiable FM(C)T, especially one that would address present stocks as well as future production, as advocated by Pakistan. Notably, India, while as adamant as Pakistan in proclaiming the need for any eventual FM(C)T to be compatible with its national security interests, has not joined Pakistan in efforts to delay the initiation of negotiations. This approach may be based more on a desire to conform with commitments made to the United States in the context of their bilateral nuclear deal than on any deep Indian attachment to the goal of an FM(C)T.

For China, the motivation in letting the FM(C)T melon linger on the vine likely reflects a strategic calculation that Beijing may require a resumption of fissile material production for reinforcing its nuclear deterrent forces in light of possible future moves by the United States (expansion of ballistic missile defenses) or India (increase in its longer-range ballistic missile forces). This perceived need for a strategic “hedge” may explain why China, alone among the recognized nuclear-weapon states, has declined to commit officially to a cessation of fissile material production for nuclear weapons purposes. In this regard, it is noteworthy that China reportedly opposed the inclusion of a reaffirmation by nuclear-weapon states of the existing moratorium on fissile material production in draft recommendations compiled by the chairman at this year’s Preparatory Committee meeting for the 2010 NPT Review Conference.[18]

For Iran, the strategic calculus underlying its CD diplomacy is even more obscure. It may be a function of the priority that Tehran gives to nuclear disarmament among the CD’s four core issues and its concern that an FM(C)T not serve only as a nonproliferation instrument. Iran’s ongoing dispute with the international community over the nature of its nuclear program may be another factor, although an FM(C)T that involved some constraints on military fissile material production and stocks would seem to be in Iran’s regional security interests if applied as well to Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and other states in the region.

Options for Action

For the vast majority of CD members and other non-nuclear-weapon states that would welcome immediate resumption of work on an FM(C)T, the aftermath of the May 29 adoption of a work program does not augur well for the future. As noted above, some states have raised procedural obstacles that have effectively stymied the efforts of CD presidents to operationalize the agreed program for this year. Even if a program is adopted next January, similar steps could be taken to block efforts to get it up and running. Clever follow-up arrangements and strong leadership on the part of future CD presidents may be able to navigate around some of the procedural shoals identified above, but CD rules of procedure and the extreme application of the consensus principle practiced in that body tend to impede if not negate progress.

If this treaty project is to advance in this diplomatic forum in the near term, the friends of an FM(C)T will have to sustain public attention and political pressure on the CD’s participants. Targeted diplomatic démarches on the holdout capitals would be crucial to any strategy to overcome the blockage at the CD. These might entail a mix of incentives to cooperate (e.g., more forthcoming attitudes on the nuclear disarmament and PAROS priorities of the obstructing states) as well as warnings of intensified public criticism of (and private penalty for) their blocking tactics, if continued.

It may also be time to challenge CD member states’ apparently infinite capacity to tolerate stalemate at the conference. If governments are serious about initiating negotiations on an FM(C)T, they must move beyond lamenting the gridlock at the CD and devise alternative diplomatic strategies for achieving this aim. In an earlier article, I suggested a number of alternative options for commencing work on an FM(C)T.[19] All of them remain possibilities for dedicated FM(C)T proponents if the CD continues to come up empty-handed and make a mockery of its mandate.

The suggestion of launching a negotiation under NPT auspices may be particularly appealing with the convening of the review conference next May and in light of the absence from that forum of some of the states that are more problematic from an FM(C)T perspective. The history of arms control suggests that codifying a widely held norm can have a major influence on the behavior of even those states that initially stand aside from the enterprise. The NPT itself is a good example of this effect, not to mention the more recent multilateral accords on anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions.

A key missing ingredient in the FM(C)T file over the last years has been leadership by influential states possessing fissile material. Although the return of the United States to the Shannon mandate, the bold speeches by British leaders at the CD on the imperative of resuming progress on nuclear disarmament, and the French government’s organization of visits by CD delegations to its closed-down military fissile material facilities are all commendable, it would be more useful if one of these nuclear-weapon states had convened a diplomatic conference dedicated to an FM(C)T and considering how best to bring one about. Perhaps it is not too late for Obama to make this a central focus of his UN Security Council summit September 24 or the planned nuclear security conference next March. If for some reason the nuclear-weapon states cannot muster the energy to initiate such action, it surely is not beyond the means of major non-nuclear-weapon states to fill this leadership void. It will be a sad commentary on the efficacy of multilateral diplomacy if this fall witnesses the adoption of another consensus UN General Assembly resolution in favor of an FM(C)T and the utter failure of the same member states to give it any practical effect.

Paul Meyer served as Canada’s ambassador and permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament from 2003 to 2007. He is currently director general of the Security and Intelligence Bureau at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in Ottawa. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the department.


1. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Statement by the President on Beginning of Negotiations on Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty,” May 29, 2009.

2. I have adopted the abbreviation FM(C)T for this treaty as utilized by the International Panel on Fissile Materials, which in its commendable draft treaty text of March 16, 2009, explains that this name makes explicit the unresolved issue of the treaty’s scope. See www.fissilematerials.org.

3. In addition to setting up Working Groups on the four “core” issues, CD/1864 provided for the appointment of Special Coordinators on the following items: “New types of weapons of mass destruction and new systems of such weapons; radiological weapons,” “Comprehensive programme of Disarmament,” and “Transparency in armaments.” These items are generally seen as less “ripe” for negotiation and hence carry a lower priority than the four “core” issues for which Working Groups are to be established.

4. The Shannon mandate is contained in CD/1299 of March 24, 1995. For official CD documents and national statements made at plenary meetings and submitted to the Secretariat, see www.unog.ch/disarmament.

5. For a discussion of this period at the CD and its implications for an FM(C)T see Paul Meyer, “Is There Any Fizz Left in the Fissban?” Arms Control Today, December 2007, http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2007_12/Meyer.

6. Zamir Akram, statement to the CD, Geneva, June 4, 2009 (hereinafter Akram June 4 statement).

7. Ali Reza Moaiyeri, statement to the CD, Geneva, June 11, 2009 (hereinafter Moaiyeri statement).

8. Zamir Akram, statement to the CD, Geneva, June 11, 2009.

9. Ibid.

10. Moaiyeri statement.

11. Wang Qun, statement to the CD, Geneva, June 26, 2009, available at www.reachingcriticalwill.org.

12. Caroline Millar, statement to the CD, Geneva, August 20, 2009, available at www.reachingcriticalwill.org.

13. Garold Larson, statement to the CD, Geneva, August 20, 2009, available at www.reachingcriticalwill.org.

14. Hamid Rao, statement to the CD, Geneva, May 29, 2009.

15. Ibid.

16. Akram June 4 statement.

17. Moaiyeri statement.

18. See Rebecca Johnson, “Enhanced Prospects for 2010: An Analysis of the Third PrepCom and the Outlook for the 2010 NPT Review Conference,” Arms Control Today, June 2009, http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2009_6/Johnson.

19. See Meyer, “Is There Any Fizz Left in the Fissban?”