P5 Struggles to Unblock FMCT Talks

Tom Z. Collina

Fulfilling a commitment made at the United Nations in July, the world’s five recognized nuclear-weapon states met in Geneva on Aug. 30 to discuss ways to break the logjam at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) on a proposed treaty to ban the production of fissile materials for weapons. However, the states, known as the P5 because they also are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, did not agree to pursue negotiations outside the CD, where Pakistan remains opposed to treaty talks.

The P5 position to keep the fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) talks in the CD means that because of the forum’s consensus rule for decision-making, Pakistan’s concerns eventually will have to be addressed if the CD is going to make progress. Negotiations on an FMCT have been held up for years by Islamabad, which is blocking the needed consensus. (See ACT, September 2011.) As one CD representative put it in a recent interview, “Pakistan needs more time to produce more material, and they are happy to wait.”

Zamir Akram, the Pakistani ambassador to the CD, said in an Aug. 30 interview that Islamabad has a “growing window of vulnerability” in relation to India on fissile material stockpiles and that the window “needs to be closed.” According to Akram, the 2008 U.S.-Indian nuclear deal changed the strategic dynamics in South Asia by allowing New Delhi to divert its domestic fissile material production to weapons. (See ACT, July/August 2011.)

Akram said that Pakistan is open to dialogue and wants a “level playing field.” One way to achieve that, he said, is by giving Pakistan a Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) waiver like the one India received in 2008, exempting it from the group’s general policy of requiring that recipients of member states’ nuclear exports place all their nuclear facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. (See ACT, October 2008.)

Another approach, Akram said, is to address New Delhi’s fissile material stockpiles in FMCT negotiations. The P5 members are opposed to reducing existing stocks through FMCT talks, however, saying they support the so-called Shannon mandate, which would leave that issue to be resolved during the negotiations.

Pakistan wants clarity and cannot accept “ambiguity” in the talks, Akram said. He has said that Pakistan is “ready to stand in splendid isolation” at the CD.

It is not clear how much support exists in the NSG for a Pakistani waiver. Pakistan also is reportedly seeking a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama to Islamabad later this year. An earlier trip had been planned, but U.S.-Pakistani relations took a dive after al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was killed in a covert raid by the U.S. military in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2.

Among the five nuclear-weapon states, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States all have publicly renounced fissile material production for weapons. China is believed to have stopped such production.

India, Israel, and Pakistan, the three countries that never have joined the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), are the only states other than the P5 not legally prohibited from producing fissile materials (plutonium and highly enriched uranium) for nuclear weapons. Only India and Pakistan are believed to be currently producing such materials.

After their meeting, the P5 issued a joint statement supporting the negotiation of an FMCT “at the earliest possible date in the CD” and declaring that it would meet again “with other relevant parties” during the UN General Assembly First Committee’s session in October.

In recent interviews, representatives in Geneva said the statement’s phrase “in the CD” was a concession by the United States, which wants to pursue treaty negotiations outside the 65-nation body to avoid Pakistan’s veto. The Obama administration has said repeatedly over the last year that if the CD could not start negotiations, then “other options” would need to be considered. China and Russia, on the other hand, want the talks to stay in the CD and do not support other venues, in which the consensus rule might not apply.

The P5 did agree to discuss strategy for moving the talks forward in the CD. Such discussions may also include “other relevant parties” such as India, Israel, and Pakistan, which could be asked to join, according to officials.

Other countries, such as Canada and Mexico, are seeking to start FMCT negotiations in the UN General Assembly, according to the Geneva representatives. These delegations say that the rule of consensus in the CD is outdated and needs to be changed. If there is no consensus, they say, the issue should be brought to the UN where nations can take a vote. Canada, along with others, said in a Sept. 21 statement that it would introduce a resolution along these lines at the UN General Assembly in October.