Disarmament Consensus Eludes UN

Tom Z. Collina

As they complete their annual debate on disarmament and international security, the member states of the United Nations continue to struggle to agree on where to focus their efforts. The next logical step for many, a global ban on the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons, has been effectively blocked by Pakistan.

Meanwhile, international support is growing to move directly to the elimination of nuclear weapons, which the declared nuclear powers oppose.

The “ongoing stalemate” of the UN’s disarmament work “remains deeply troubling,” EU representative Andras Kos said in an Oct. 22 statement at the UN. The Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva has not negotiated a disarmament agreement for 16 years, leading CD Secretary-General Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan to say in 2012 that nothing could “mask the stagnation in what should serve the international community as its single standing multilateral disarmament negotiating forum.”

The five recognized nuclear-weapon states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and their allies continue to support a step-by-step process to nuclear disarmament, with negotiation of a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) next in line. Others, however, such as members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), have lost confidence in the step-by-step approach and seek instead to jump-start negotiations on nuclear weapons elimination.

In an effort to break the CD gridlock, the UN General Assembly First Committee in 2012 approved a resolution by Canada to establish a group of governmental experts to discuss how to advance negotiations on an FMCT. The group is scheduled to meet for two-week sessions in 2014 and 2015. After that, the group is to submit to the General Assembly in the fall of 2015 a final report with a list of recommendations on how to advance FMCT negotiations and what technical aspects to include in the treaty. Pakistan, the only state to vote against the resolution, said that the experts group “adds no value to the substance of the envisaged treaty” and would “undermine the CD, the sole multilateral negotiating forum.” (See ACT, December 2012.)

The five 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.)

In 1995, Russia, the United States, and many Western states supported opening negotiations on an FMCT, but Pakistan and other NAM members objected. Pakistan expressed concern that a ban on future fissile material production for weapons would lock in an advantage for India, its strategic rival. Pakistan’s position was only hardened by the 2005 U.S.-Indian nuclear deal, which gave New Delhi, but not Islamabad, access to Western nuclear power technology. Neither India nor Pakistan is a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Frustrated by the lack of progress on an FMCT, other states are seeking to build consensus around the elimination of nuclear weapons. As part of this effort, on Sept. 26 the General Assembly held a high-level meeting on nuclear disarmament, intended to promote “collective efforts to move away from the nuclear abyss [that] have remained too modest in ambition and brought only limited success,” as Austrian President Heinz Fischer put it at the meeting. “Nuclear weapons should be stigmatized, banned, and eliminated before they abolish us,” he said.

As a follow-up, on Oct. 14 the NAM member states proposed a resolution calling for negotiations in the CD to eliminate nuclear weapons, another high-level meeting by 2018, and designation of Sept. 26 as the “international day for the total elimination of nuclear weapons.”

Austria led efforts last fall to create an open-ended working group in Geneva to discuss nuclear disarmament alongside the CD, but with more states involved and without the CD’s requirement for consensus. The group met this spring and summer, producing a report to the UN General Assembly. In response, the CD established its own alternative forum, known as the informal working group, in August. (See ACT, September 2013.)

In addition, outside the UN process there will be a second international meeting on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use in February in Nayarit, Mexico. The first such conference was in Oslo in March. The nuclear-weapon states did not attend the first session and issued a Sept. 26 joint statement regretting that “energy is being directed toward” initiatives such as the high-level meeting and humanitarian consequences campaign instead of the FMCT.