Finding the Right Home for FMCT Talks

Andrea Berger

Corrected online on January 18, 2013.

Efforts to negotiate a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), which would require states to cease production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, have been at an impasse for 17 years in the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD). Almost no substantive discussion has taken place on a treaty, which is a crucial step toward halting the manufacture of nuclear weapons worldwide.

As argued by Mari Amano, the Japanese ambassador to the CD, an FMCT would be an essential complement to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Once it enters into force, the test ban will act as a “quality cap” on global nuclear weapons programs while the FMCT would be a “quantity cap.”[1] Yet problematically for those keen on advancing an FMCT, various countries, most recently Pakistan, have blocked the CD’s work by taking advantage of the body’s requirement for consensus.

The resulting frustration has fueled a growing movement to start formal FMCT negotiations in another forum. Most recently, Canada in 2011 convinced the UN General Assembly to pass Resolution 66/44, requiring the assembly to “consider options for the negotiation of a treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices at its sixty-seventh session.” As expected, none of the draft programs of work proposed to the CD in 2012 was able to muster consensus support. The 67th session of the General Assembly thus opened in late September with the debate over parallel negotiating forums on its agenda.

The nuclear-armed countries have warned that other forums may be unable to secure the participation of the five countries that the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) recognizes as nuclear-weapon states—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—and India and Pakistan, non-NPT countries that have nuclear arsenals. A close look at the positions of these countries, as well as the options for parallel negotiating environments, suggests that they may be correct.

Myriad disagreements among these seven states over an FMCT render the initiative unripe for formal negotiations. Instead, selective and frank discussions that seek to resolve major issues, such as verification and existing stocks, are a better alternative. The ongoing “P5-plus”[2] discussions among the five recognized nuclear-weapon states and select nuclear-armed countries outside the NPT are most suited to this task and could later be widened to states that do not have nuclear weapons. With the support of FMCT advocates—those without nuclear weapons as well as those with them—it holds the most promise of getting key states to support the treaty.

The Key-State Challenge

The P5 and India voted in favor of Canadian-sponsored Resolution 66/44, which committed the General Assembly to evaluate options for negotiating an FMCT outside the CD. Yet, these six countries were wary of hastily opening formal negotiations. A parallel forum, they argue, must secure the participation of “key states” throughout discussions and increase the likelihood that they will buy in to an eventual FMCT.

For the most part, “key states” is used by the P5 and India without being explicitly defined, although their reading of the term can be surmised from CD dynamics. Russia asserts that parallel discussions would be counterproductive “unless they comprise all countries possessing military nuclear arsenals.”[3] Despite fitting this description, North Korea is largely ignored; officials from P5 countries assert that including Pyongyang in the definition would go too far toward legitimizing its nuclear weapons program.

Israel also is a unique case. Widely believed to be nuclear armed, it is not officially recognized as such. Its deliberately opaque nuclear posture means that Israeli agreement to a verifiable FMCT is implausible.

Israel has quietly vowed not to hold up the start of negotiations. Other nuclear-armed states seem comfortable with this arrangement because Israel is not a significant factor in their own nuclear calculations. Information released by WikiLeaks highlights U.S. assurance to Israel that an FMCT will not be “predicated on Israel’s joining before its entry into force.”[4] For the purposes of understanding what the key-state demand means in practice, the term should therefore be seen as consisting of the P5 plus India and Pakistan, but excluding Israel and North Korea.

Of the P5, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States already have voluntary but unverified moratoriums on fissile material production for nuclear weapons. Their military fissile material stockpiles are large,[5] with no security need to resume production in the future. Therefore, securing their participation in the opening stages of substantive discussions should be no great challenge.

Yet, verification may prove more contentious for those four nuclear-weapon states once substantive dialogue on an FMCT gets under way. Robust verification provisions that sufficiently assure other states that civilian fissile material is not being diverted to weapons use or that new military fissile material is not being clandestinely produced could risk unearthing sensitive information about a country’s nuclear weapons program.

Securing the sustained engagement of China, which is believed to have stopped producing fissile material for use in nuclear weapons in the early 1990s but has yet to say so publicly, is essential. At present, many analysts and CD representatives suspect China of hiding its concerns behind Pakistan’s veto in the CD. It has not proactively sought to redress this suspicion. In fact, it was the only P5 state to abstain from the informal meetings held in 2011 and 2012 on the sidelines of the CD. These were coordinated by Australia, Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands and sought to address some of the technical issues associated with verification and the definition of fissile material, among other things.

Beijing may have been considering a public moratorium in 1995. At the time, U.S. President Bill Clinton believed he could secure the agreement of all recognized nuclear-weapon states to jointly declare a cessation of fissile material production. Yet in the weeks before his planned press conference on March 5, 1995—the 25th anniversary of the NPT’s entry into force—signals from China and France grew less positive.[6] The statement was scrapped. Since then, Beijing has come no closer to a public moratorium. It has shown through its relentless advocacy of a no-first-use declaration that it takes its publicly stated nuclear policy seriously. Any substantive FMCT discussion therefore must address the reasons underlying China’s present unwillingness to declare a moratorium.

Various possible explanations exist for China’s ambiguity. First, it may wish to retain flexibility to expand its arsenal if its strategic environment changes. Second, it may simply wish to wait until FMCT verification arrangements are ironed out before declaring that it has decided to stop fissile material production. Third, China may see it as necessary to get India and Pakistan firmly on board the treaty before it makes decisions of its own, in order not to appear too conciliatory. Relatedly, it may simply not see the worth of declaring a moratorium or joining an FMCT.

The key states that now openly declare their continued production of fissile material for weapons purposes, namely India and Pakistan, bear special attention. India at present largely aligns its FMCT stance with that of France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It has approximately two metric tons of highly enriched uranium and five metric tons of separated plutonium, compared to 2.75 metric tons and 0.14 metric tons in Pakistan, respectively.[7] A mutually accepted cutoff in future production would preserve the status quo. For now, India seems happy to publicly condemn its nuclear neighbor’s obstinacy and openly support an FMCT, despite the fact that the South Asian strategic environment could change to India’s detriment before a treaty is concluded. For instance, new Pakistani reactors at Khushab could enable Islamabad to further accelerate military fissile material production in the coming years, allowing it to achieve rough parity in fissile material stockpiles with India.

Pakistan is a tougher knot to untangle. For much of the time that an FMCT has been discussed in Geneva, Pakistan’s primary stated objection has been that proposals to commence substantive discussions do not explicitly mention that existing stocks of fissile material will be considered. Islamabad worries about a fissile material gap with India. An FMCT that caps future production but does not address existing stockpiles would freeze the amount of both countries’ fissile material usable for nuclear weapons. Despite Pakistan’s recently accelerated production, the gap between its stockpile and India’s remains wide. In Islamabad’s eyes, freezing this asymmetry would make for an unacceptably fragile nuclear relationship in South Asia.[8]

In 2009, the same year that the CD experienced a fleeting breakthrough and passed a program of work, Pakistan’s objections took on a new dimension. Its leaders have had time to come to an opinion on the 2008 U.S.-Indian civil nuclear agreement, which was a critical step in giving India access to the international nuclear market although New Delhi does not open all its nuclear facilities to international inspection. Pakistan has cited the lack of a similar offer from the United States and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) as confirmation of its claim that the nonproliferation regime is discriminatory.[9] Pakistan’s ambassador to the CD has stated plainly that he would acquiesce to FMCT negotiations only when Islamabad has an Indian-style NSG waiver in hand.[10] Pakistan’s fresh objection prevented the CD from implementing the only program of work it has managed to pass in more than a decade.

A process or forum outside the CD therefore needs to support the unique challenge posed by an FMCT: to get the seven key states around the same table and meaningfully work through a variety of politically and technically sensitive issues. These range from core obligations and verification to existing stocks to claims of inequality in the nuclear suppliers regime. In other words, an effective FMCT requires key states to participate throughout substantive discussions, from initial dialogue to an eventual formal drafting process.

Despite the magnitude of the outstanding issues, Canada and the other members of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative—fellow non-nuclear-weapon states Australia, Chile, Germany, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Poland, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates—have continued to push for parallel FMCT forums to be evaluated by the General Assembly this fall. The three options being most seriously considered are General Assembly negotiations, a UN conference similar to the one held in July to negotiate an arms trade treaty (ATT), and an “Ottawa process,” which would consist of a series of conferences entirely outside of the UN system. All three encounter similar problems: they do not secure the participation of the key states, or they are not conducive to the sensitive discussions among military fissile material producers that an FMCT requires at this stage.

Moving to the General Assembly

The General Assembly is most commonly cited by countries without nuclear weapons as a possible new home for FMCT talks, with a plenary and an ad hoc committee as candidates for starting negotiations.

At first glance, the General Assembly checks off the key-state box. Nuclear-armed states would be involved in the process by virtue of their UN membership, but the General Assembly’s majority-vote procedure means that decisions ultimately can be made without the agreement of any or all of the key states. The notion that countries that are not producing fissile material for weapons could dictate the content of an eventual treaty is unacceptable to those states most directly affected by an FMCT.

At the same time, with more than 180 non-nuclear-weapon states in the room, the key states will be extremely hesitant and likely unwilling to openly and frankly address difficult questions about a verifiable FMCT. Debates over how to convert or decommission military facilities verifiably could involve proliferation-sensitive information, as could debates over whether past fissile material production should be mandatorily declared to verify that total stocks for nuclear weapons have not increased following a state’s ratification.

Furthermore, working through these matters and Pakistan’s broader political concerns is certain to take time and could conflate FMCT discussions with other strategic issues. With this in mind, the General Assembly’s relative transparency would make nuclear-armed states vulnerable to high-level name-calling. The slow pace of necessary dialogue could also be misused as evidence of nuclear-weapon states’ failure to make timely progress toward their commitments under the 2010 NPT Review Conference action plan. Ultimately, this combination is not a recipe for an effective treaty.

An ATT-Style Approach

Prior to setbacks at the ATT conference in July, the process for negotiating that treaty, which would regulate trade in conventional arms, was seen as a potentially successful model to be replicated for future arms control agreements. The ATT process opened with a group of governmental experts composed of official representatives selected on an equitable regional basis. It was asked to consider the feasibility of views on the scope and parameters for an ATT and report back to the General Assembly on its findings.[11]

The next step was the creation of an open-ended working group, “open” because all UN member states and accredited nongovernmental organizations were welcome to participate although not required to do so. The group was designed to consider further the major issues identified by the governmental experts, but in practice, few contentious points were resolved at this stage.

The final component of the ATT process was unlocked when the United States, until then the outlier, agreed that it could support a drafting conference if decisions were made by consensus. The negotiating conference turned out to be essentially a supercharged CD-like forum, with 150 de facto vetoes rather than 65. With most contentious issues still unresolved after the working group stage, it should come as no great surprise that the conference, although able to work through many of the issues and come close to agreement on a draft text, could not claim the prize. With residual reservations expressed by the United States and others, including Russia, the conference ended without agreement.

This experience carries important lessons for the FMCT negotiations. In 2011, Canada tried to convince the General Assembly that a group of governmental experts should be created for the FMCT talks.[12] The Non-Aligned Movement objected, arguing that creation of an expert group moved too far away from the CD. As a result, Canada reluctantly dropped the proposition. Notably, much of the fact-finding work envisioned for a group of governmental experts was done during the early 1990s by Gerald Shannon, who was then Canada’s ambassador to the CD.

Last year, Austria, Mexico, and Norway tried to model their approach to advancing the FMCT negotiations on the second stage of the ATT process. They suggested two open-ended working groups: the first addressing “nuclear disarmament,” including an FMCT, and the second addressing the prevention of an arms race in outer space, presumably included at the insistence of China, which has consistently and ardently supported its inclusion in a CD program of work to ensure that the issue is not left behind in favor of an FMCT.

The nonaligned countries expressed the same reservations as they did toward the group of experts focusing on an FMCT. Some NATO countries said that participating in a process explicitly linking an FMCT with a push to comprehensive nuclear disarmament would create friction with their pledge to remain a nuclear alliance as long as other states possess nuclear weapons.[13] Furthermore, the problems that the General Assembly would face in promoting the frank but selective and secure discussion that the FMCT negotiations need also would plague an open-ended working group.

The fact that the earlier stages of a process modeled on the ATT negotiations already have been proposed and rejected shows that such processes are not only poorly suited to the challenge of bridging divides over an FMCT, but also unappetizing to major constituencies.

An Ottawa Process for an FMCT

An alternative approach, more ad hoc and entirely removed from the UN system, is that taken by the Ottawa process on anti-personnel landmines. This is the approach seemingly favored by Canada, which highlights its historical role in leading the process toward what it sees as a successful landmine ban. Canada, together with Austria and Norway, spearheaded that process beginning in 1996. Two main meetings were used to discuss a possible treaty, and Austria assumed responsibility for drafting a text. A final treaty was negotiated and approved by majority vote in a three-week conference in Oslo in September 1997.

One of the lessons of the Ottawa process was that, with devoted leadership and without the rigidity of the UN framework, a treaty can be negotiated in a remarkably short time. Canada and other members of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative have shown that they are willing to push the FMCT process down a road that leads away from Geneva. It is there, however, that useful comparison between the two cases ends.

The Ottawa Convention was largely a normative humanitarian initiative, without a significant emphasis on verification. In contrast, an FMCT is an arms control exercise in which robust verification will play an indispensable role. The complex issues in which an FMCT is entangled cannot be unwound with the dramatic speed of a ban on landmines.

Moreover, the Ottawa process does not address the key-state concern. The treaty itself failed to attract many landmine-producing countries. In the same way, hesitant nuclear-armed states would have little incentive to join the early stages of an ad hoc FMCT process. In addition, as in the General Assembly, majority voting in the final conference carries the risk that a treaty could be decided without the agreement of all military fissile material producers. An ad hoc approach also fails to provide the sustained diplomatic engagement and closed environment needed to resolve the sensitive political and technical challenges of an FMCT.

Turning to the P5-Plus

To guard against the prospect that UN member states will select one of these three alternative forums this fall, some of the nuclear-armed states have taken the initiative to advance the FMCT talks among themselves; the P5 committed to discuss an FMCT with “other relevant partners.”[14] The ongoing P5-plus FMCT dialogue presently includes India and may soon attract Pakistan.

The unique characteristics of a P5-plus forum offer the best hope of drawing in Pakistan. First, as implied by the P5’s refusal to invite North Korea for fear of legitimizing its nuclear program, Pakistan may feel that its involvement in the P5-plus club legitimizes its own program. Secondly, non-nuclear-weapon states that have consistently vilified Pakistan for blocking progress in the CD are not given a voice in or an insight into discussions in the P5-plus forum. This is significant both for Pakistan and other nuclear-armed states, which, as noted above, are reluctant to articulate their positions fully in settings where honesty might be wielded as evidence of stalling or uncooperative spirit. Together, this mix of factors might be enough to compel Pakistan to the table.

The same qualities make this forum far better suited to preserving key-state participation throughout discussions than General Assembly negotiations, an approach modeled on the ATT, or the Ottawa process. Key states may be compelled to stay engaged if they feel that their concerns are being addressed or at least genuinely considered.

The international community should take advantage of the P5-plus design to build agreement among the seven key states on an FMCT that bans future production of fissile material for nuclear weapons and other nuclear explosive devices as its core obligation. Israel should be the notable exception to consensus-building efforts in the P5-plus forum. Although its involvement would be welcome, Israel is unlikely to jeopardize its nuclear opacity. Its nuclear program does not seem to constitute any meaningful obstacle to FMCT ratification by other key states. As a result, P5-plus stakeholders should give high priority to establishing the conditions necessary for seven rather than eight of the military fissile material producers to see a benefit in ratifying an FMCT.

Finding appropriate verification provisions to which the seven can agree is a job for which the P5-plus is most suited. The members of that group will need to balance the security concerns of nuclear-armed states with their shared desire to have confidence that others could not cheat the treaty without detection. Zia Mian of the International Panel on Fissile Materials argues that there is a “window of opportunity for cooperative nuclear archaeology projects”[15] to retroactively document fissile material production, contributing to verification of an FMCT. Whether this is a useful starting point could be evaluated in a P5-plus environment. If the key states would agree on verification mechanisms, each state could gain confidence that the military stockpiles of others had been capped.

Should they manage to get Pakistan on board, these closed discussions could address some of Islamabad’s objections to an FMCT. If Islamabad’s complaint about discrimination in the nuclear supply regime is taken at face value, then the road to an FMCT that includes Pakistan may have to run through the NSG. An NSG waiver for Pakistan currently is not palatable to most Western countries, which remember the proliferation activities of the Abdul Qadeer Khan network. Yet, the selective and closed P5-plus environment can still be useful in exploring Islamabad’s position and encouraging it to demonstrate that it can act as a responsible nuclear user.

The rest of the P5 should undoubtedly take advantage of China’s presence to glean its full position on verification, as well as on the fissile material stockpiles of its South Asian neighbors. Ideally and in contrast to other forums, a P5-plus setting is too selective for China to continue hiding its disagreements behind Pakistan, as it is suspected of doing in the CD. Other states around the table will certainly expect Beijing to participate actively and will pressure it to do so.

The opacity of P5-plus discussions should leave Beijing with fewer qualms about honestly communicating its viewpoint. It would be useful to explore, for instance, whether China and India would mutually accept an FMCT that freezes the military fissile material stockpiles of the other at current levels or whether Indian developments in ballistic missile defense and nuclear submarines affect China’s perceptions of its own future fissile material requirements. Understanding the reasons that China has yet to declare a voluntary moratorium on fissile material production for nuclear weapons is important to boosting its support for advancing FMCT dialogue beyond initial stages.

Although an FMCT that includes any one of China, India, or Pakistan would hypothetically add value to the nonproliferation regime, in practice, none of those countries is likely to ratify a treaty without the others. Engaging them together, rather than in a bilateral environment with the United States, is therefore crucial. The P5-plus should use this opportunity to promote the understanding of national positions and verification collaboration that eventually could unlock agreement on an FMCT among key states.

Once key states reach a point at which they see a benefit in jointly supporting an FMCT, the process may be widened to include states that do not have nuclear weapons. Many have argued that an FMCT should be exclusively for nuclear-armed states.[16] An FMCT would not add to the obligations that non-nuclear-weapon states have under the NPT because those states are not producing fissile material for nuclear weapons purposes. Yet, a universal FMCT could create notable regulatory harmony in the international verification regime if it required non-nuclear-weapon states to sign an additional protocol to their IAEA safeguards agreement or adopt a similar verification framework.


Paul Meyer, a former Canadian ambassador to the CD, argued that when it comes to an FMCT, the international community, particularly the United States, should prioritize “functionality over forum.”[17] However, as a look at alternate negotiating environments illuminates, the two are effectively inseparable. A forum’s design will affect whether and how an FMCT is advanced. The ongoing P5-plus process is the best suited to addressing the unique challenges faced by the treaty. Selective and closed discussions are more likely to secure the participation of key states and address the host of significant political and highly technical issues related to a verifiable FMCT.

P5-plus opacity may not provide the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative with the immediate satisfaction of having formal, high-profile negotiations in the General Assembly, at a UN conference, or in something like the Ottawa process. Sustained P5 attention to this issue, however, can gradually untangle disagreements and get the FMCT process closer to a point at which it could move to a more formal negotiating setting and be opened up to other states. Such an approach could, in the longer term, yield an effective and ratifiable FMCT that other environments simply cannot.



Andrea Berger is a research fellow for nuclear analysis at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies and deputy director for the UK Project on Nuclear Issues. She wishes to express her appreciation to the government officials and nongovernmental experts who provided assistance for this article.




1. Mari Amano, Statement to the Conference on Disarmament, Geneva, May 31, 2012,

2. The five nuclear-weapon states sometimes are known as the P5 because they also are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

3. Alexey Borodavkin, Statement to the Conference on Disarmament, Geneva, January 31, 2012.

4. Embassy of the United States—Tel Aviv, “U/S Tauscher’s December 1-2 Visit to Israel,” December 22, 2009,

5. International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM), “Global Fissile Material Report 2011: Nuclear Weapon and Fissile Material Stockpiles and Production,” January 2012, pp. 9, 17,

6. “U.S., Allies at Odds Over Nuclear Material,” United Paramount Network, February 16, 1995.

7. Approximately 4.44 metric tons of India’s plutonium is reactor grade. However, India has retained virtually all of it as “strategic” material, meaning that it is potentially available for use in nuclear weapons and not subject to International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. See IPFM, “Global Fissile Material Report 2011,” pp. 9, 17.

8. Zia Mian and A.H. Nayyar, “Playing the Nuclear Game: Pakistan and the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty,” Arms Control Today, April 2010.

9. Conference on Disarmament, “Letter Dated 19 January 2010 From the Permanent Representative of Pakistan Addressed to the President of the Conference on Disarmament Transmitting the Text of the Press Statement Issued by Pakistan’s National Command Authority Dated 13 January 2010,” CD/1883, January 22, 2010.

10. “The South Asian Nuclear Balance: An Interview With Pakistani Ambassador to the CD Zamir Akram,” Arms Control Today, December 2011.

11. UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, “Arms Trade Treaty,” 2012,

12. UN General Assembly, “Canada: Draft Resolution; Treaty Banning the Production of Fissile Material for Nuclear Weapons and Other Nuclear Explosive Devices,” A/C.1/66/L.40, October 14, 2011.

13. North Atlantic Treaty Organization, “Strategic Concept for the Defence and Security of the Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization,” November 2010, p. 5,

14. Permanent Mission of the United Kingdom to the United Nations in Geneva, “First P5 Follow-Up Meeting to the NPT Review Conference, Paris,” July 1, 2011,

15. Zia Mian, “The Fissile Material Challenge and the Conference on Disarmament,” Presentation to the UN secretary-general’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters, New York, February 25, 2011,

16. Christopher A. Ford, “Five Plus Three: How to Have a Meaningful and Helpful Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty,” Arms Control Today, March 2009.

17. Paul Meyer, “Free the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty: Functionality Over Forum,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September 19, 2011,



Correction: The original version of this article gave an incorrect figure for France’s stockpile of military fissile material and incorrectly said the French stockpile was the smallest among the four countries that have declared moratoriums on production of such material. France has a military stockpile of 32 metric tons, which makes it the second smallest among the four countries’ stockpiles, behind the United Kingdom’s. The United Kingdom has a stockpile of 27.4 metric tons (19.3 metric tons if the navy’s 8.1 metric tons of irradiated highly enriched uranium is not included).