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CD continues to fail to make progress

Beatrice Fihn | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF
26 June 2012

On Tuesday morning, the Conference on Disarmament (CD) met for a final plenary meeting of the second part of the 2012 session, which was devoted to the issue of fissile material for weapons production. Incoming CD President, Ambassador Simon-Michel of France, and the delegations of Egypt, Cuba, Germany, Netherlands, Poland, Japan, Australia, Pakistan, Canada, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Algeria, Iran, and the United States delivered statements.

Discussions on fissile material

During this second thematic debate on a treaty banning fissile material for weapons purposes, delegations discussed less detailed positions. Instead, they seemed to be divided into two “camps”: those that want a potential treaty to make a direct and concrete contribution to nuclear disarmament and those that want a fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT) to be one step in that direction.

Mr. El-Atawy of Egypt reminded the CD of the 13 steps of the 2000 NPT Review Conference, which called for negotiations of a treaty banning the production of fissile material “taking into consideration both nuclear disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation objectives.” Mr. El-Atawy argued that a treaty on fissile material could not be considered in separation from the overall objective of nuclear disarmament.

Several other delegations shared similar views. Egypt, Cuba, Iran, Pakistan, Algeria, and South Africa all called for stockpiles to be included in a future treaty. Mr. El-Atawy of Egypt argued that the scope of a treaty must be “directed towards dealing with all fissile material” and that the issue of stockpiles is essential to include as the treaty should ban “past and future production”. Ambassador Minty of South Africa noted that stocks must be addressed in order for the treaty to be a credible instrument and stated that a “simple” cut-off treaty that only freezes the current status quo would not be able to meet the expectations of the majority of the international community as contributing to achieving nuclear disarmament. He also noted that such a freeze would mean that “the vast numbers of new nuclear weapons could continue to be developed, thereby undermining the basic rationale” for the conclusion of such instrument in the first place.

On the other hand, Ambassador Adamson of the United Kingdom stated, “let’s not put the cart before the horse,” arguing that capping production would be the first step. She also warned that putting conditions in a negotiating mandate for fissile material would “limit our negotiations, not broaden them.”

Ambassador Amano of Japan voiced his support for the Shannon mandate and argued that reopening of the text to include stocks would not be productive, while Ambassador Hoffmann of Germany asked CD members to consider which conditions “really need to be fulfilled in a mandate to allow the CD to start negotiating”. He argued, “one should refrain from unnecessarily trying to prejudge questions in the mandate which clearly will be matters of contention in the negotiations proper.”

Delegations also disagreed on the relationship between an eventual nuclear weapons convention and a fissile material treaty. Mr Daryaei of Iran argued that negotiations should be started on a nuclear weapons convention, since it would comprehensively tackle the issue of fissile materials. Ambassador Amano of Japan, on the other hand, believed that in the light of current international circumstances, negotiation of a nuclear weapons convention was “neither realistic nor feasible”. Instead he argued that a “steady accumulation" of practical and effective measures, such as an immediate start of negotiations on a FMCT, was the way forward. He stated that any proposals linking a FMCT to a nuclear weapons convention were not helpful. 

Technical side event

The delegations of Germany and the Netherlands discussed the recent meeting of scientific experts that the two countries organized in Geneva on 29 and 30 May and presented a report from that meeting. In his statement, Ambassador Hoffmann of Germany summarized the content of meeting and argued that even without entering into a negotiating process, experts could provide technical expertise as a useful basis for diplomats when negotiations eventually start. Ambassador Van der IJssel of the Netherlands stated that he intended to organize a second round of these meetings on 28 and 29 August, which would focus on how to detect secret/undeclared prohibited activities, managed access, and the scope of possible FMCT safeguards to ensure the non-diversion of civil material or material declared as excess or material stored by nuclear weapon states for future use.

Future of the CD

As in every plenary meeting, several delegations touched upon the deadlock and the difficulties facing the CD. Ambassador Adamson of the UK reminded delegations of the UN Secretary-General’s “warning” earlier this year that the General Assembly might be ready to consider other options soon and argued, “we now face an uncertain future for the Conference and disarmament as a whole. This is not in any States’ interest.” Mr. Khelif of Algeria noted that some delegations seemed to believe in all or nothing—negotiate the FMCT or think about other options that may be dealt with outside of the CD. He argued that delegations should not be too hasty because of disappointment with the stagnation and that it is necessary to avoid advocating compromising solutions. 

Notes from the gallery

As the second part of the 2012 session closes, delegations are no closer to starting negotiations on a treaty banning the production of fissile materials, or any other issue on the agenda. The thematic debates have so far not managed to produce any deeper understanding of crucial issues, but rather continue to consist of reiteration of national positions that highlight the differences between delegations. While an FM(C)T has traditionally been seen to be part of the architecture of a nuclear weapon free world, without including existing stockpiles it seems to be of limited relevance to nuclear disarmament or non-proliferation. It is a quite indirect and slow way of attempting to address nuclear proliferation and it does nothing to prevent any of the 20,000 existing nuclear warhead to potentially cause catastrophic humanitarian consequences. As the Egyptian delegation noted today, the statement by 16 states at the NPT Preparatory Committee in Vienna earlier this year “testifies to a growing concern regarding the lack of progress towards the achievement of nuclear disarmament.” It is apparent that the CD is not able to respond to these concerns and recent statements suggest that more and more delegations are reaching similar conclusions. Last week, the Indonesian Ambassador stated in his farewell speech, “If there is no result in the near future in the CD, then we should admit defeat and find other places, events or mechanism to pursue our dream of having a world that is free of nuclear weapon.” After 15 years without progress, it is clear to civil society that no results will be achieved in the near future and it is high time to identify another place for progress.

Next plenary meeting

Today was the last public plenary of the second part of the 2012 session of the Conference.  The next meeting will be held on Tuesday, 31 July 2012.