UN First Committee Seeks FMCT Progress

Marcus Taylor

Following the failure of the Conference on Disarmament (CD) to agree on a program of work necessary to make substantive progress toward a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) and other issues, the UN General Assembly First Committee passed three resolutions that try to break the gridlock in the CD through the creation of other, complementary bodies.

The statements and resolutions tabled by several UN member states made clear their wavering confidence in the CD and its ability to fulfill its mandate.

The CD concluded its third and final session of the year in September without reaching consensus on a program of work. As it has in the past, Pakistan blocked the start of negotiations on an FMCT, citing the need to address existing fissile stockpiles as well as new production.

In his report to the First Committee, CD Secretary-General Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan said that nothing can “mask the stagnation in what should serve the international community as its single standing multilateral disarmament negotiating forum.”

Group of Governmental Experts

In response, the First Committee approved a resolution (A/C.1/67/L.41/Rev/1) put forward by Canada on an FMCT. The resolution, which was approved by a vote of 148-1 with 20 abstentions, requests that the UN secretary-general produce a report in 2013 on how to move forward on FMCT negotiations based on input from member states. It also calls on the secretary-general to establish a group of governmental experts, comprising 25 member states, to discuss how to advance negotiations on an FMCT.

These meetings would occur for two weeks each in 2014 and 2015 and would end immediately in the event that the CD is able to pass a comprehensive program of work. The experts group is to submit a final report with a list of recommendations on how to advance FMCT negotiations and what technical aspects to include in the treaty.

Some member states, including China and Iran, expressed concern that the experts group would tarnish the legitimacy of the CD as the only recognized international forum for disarmament negotiations. Pakistan, the only state to vote against the resolution, said in its Nov. 5 explanation of its vote that the group “adds no value to the substance of the envisaged treaty” and would “undermine the CD, the sole multilateral negotiating forum.”

Several of the 20 countries that abstained voiced the same concern. Some states also expressed concern about moving the discussions from the 65-member CD to a forum of only 25 states.

Open-Ended Working Group

By a vote of 134-4 with 34 abstentions, the First Committee approved another resolution (A/C.1/67/L.46) that would attempt to foster progress on an FMCT by drafting a report with proposals on how the CD can break its deadlock. That resolution calls for the creation of an open-ended working group to convene in Geneva in 2013. According to a Nov. 1 statement by Mexico, one of the resolution’s three sponsors, the group will “develop proposals” on how to move disarmament negotiations forward.

The resolution’s sponsors emphasized that the group is not a negotiating forum itself. It is designed to collect ideas from member states on how to make progress in the CD, without actually negotiating any specific aspects of a treaty.

Open-ended working groups are open to all member states. Groups of governmental experts have a limited number of member state participants that are selected by the UN secretary-general. Both kinds of groups are tasked with submitting a final report to their committee of origin.

Proponents of the open-ended group on an FMCT maintain that it represents a way to move forward on disarmament issues in light of the obstructionist tactics that some states currently are using in the CD. Austria, another of the resolution’s co-sponsors, cited “the strong presence of vested interests and misuses of procedural rules” in the CD as an impediment to progress in the body.

Four of the five countries that the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) recognizes as nuclear-weapon states—France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—opposed the resolution; China abstained. France, the United Kingdom, and the United States released a joint statement saying that forming an open-ended group is unwise because of the potential damage to the legitimacy of the CD and because of the cost of convening additional meetings at a time when most UN member states are facing budgetary crises.

The joint statement also argued that organizing a new process “may jeopardize” the consensus achieved at the 2010 NPT Review Conference and “the momentum” for the next review conference, which is in 2015. They said the 64-point action plan that was part of the 2010 conference’s final document “offers the best way of taking forward multilateral disarmament negotiations along with related issues.”

The five recognized nuclear-weapon states have met with other nuclear-armed states in so-called P5-plus talks to discuss how to break the stalemate in the CD, but they have consistently expressed their intent to negotiate an FMCT in the CD. (See ACT, October 2011.)

High-Level Meeting

In a third attempt to sidestep the impasse in the CD, the First Committee approved a resolution (A/C.1/67/L.19) that would convene a one-day event to be held Sept. 26, 2013. The meeting would bring together high-level representatives of UN member states during the General Assembly session to discuss ways to make progress on nuclear disarmament.

The resolution was adopted by a vote of 165-0, with France, Israel, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States abstaining. The United Kingdom and the United States said Nov. 9 that they did not support the resolution because the conference will not address disarmament and nonproliferation equally.

Key UN Nuclear Disarmament Resolutions

The UN General Assembly First Committee adopted several resolutions on nuclear disarmament beyond those dealing with the impasse at the Conference on Disarmament. Below is a selective list of those resolutions.

Urges all Middle Eastern states to take the “practical and urgent steps” necessary to begin negotiations on a nuclear-weapon-free zone and calls for states in the region to place their nuclear facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. Adopted without a vote.

Emphasizes the importance of the Treaty of Semipalatinsk to regional security and global nonproliferation norms and calls on nuclear-weapon states to complete negotiations with the treaty’s signatories, sign the treaty, and ratify it. Adopted by a vote of 131-3 with five abstentions. France, the United Kingdom, and the United States opposed the resolution.

States that high alert levels in nuclear forces threaten international security and increase the risk of unintentional use of nuclear weapons and therefore calls on nuclear-weapon states to reduce alert levels, with the goal of eventually removing all nuclear weapons from high-alert status. Adopted by a vote of 145-4 with five abstentions. France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States opposed the resolution.

Urges states to sign and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty “without delay” and to maintain the current nuclear testing moratoriums until the entry into force of the treaty. Also notes the progress that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization has made on its verification network and encourages the completion of the network. Adopted by a vote of 166-1 with three abstentions. North Korea opposed the resolution.

Notes the entry into force of the four treaties establishing nuclear-weapon-free zones located in the Southern Hemisphere and “adjacent areas” (a reference to international waters), calls on nuclear-weapon states to sign the treaties, and calls for a Southern Hemisphere completely free of nuclear weapons. Adopted by a vote of 165-4 with two abstentions. France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States opposed the resolution.

Calls on the nuclear-weapon states to negotiate and sign a legally binding convention renouncing the use of nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear-weapon state and calls for the continuation of negotiations on such a treaty in the Conference on Disarmament. Adopted by a vote of 133-0 with 57 abstentions.—MARCUS TAYLOR