Disarmament Insight


Thursday, 31 May 2012

Conference on Disarmament: Fissile Material

These insights are offered as an abbreviated backgrounder to the current thematic debate in the Conference on Disarmament (CD) on a core issue on the CD’s agenda, a ban on the production of fissile material (FM), a central ingredient in nuclear weapons. Participants in that debate on 31 May will have heard the CD’s president, Ambassador Kahiluotu draw on some, but not all, of the following points.
There have been many working papers on FM submitted to the CD (or its precursors) culminating in CD/1910 tabled a year ago by eight members (Bulgaria, Germany, Mexico, Netherlands, Romania, Spain, Sweden and Turkey). The first occasion on which a firm focus was provided for fissile material was in June 1964 when the US submitted a working paper to the then Eighteen Nation body (ENCD) about "the inspection of nuclear powers under a cut-off of fissionable material for use in weapons." 
Then in 1978, following a Canadian proposal to ban FM for use in weapons, the UN’s first Special Session on Disarmament (SSODI), in a consensus resolution (S-10/2), proclaimed that the achievement of nuclear disarmament would require “urgent negotiation of agreements … with adequate measures of verification … for: … (b) Cessation of the … production of fissionable material for weapons purposes”.
The Cold War and the CD’s pre-occupation with negotiating the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty dominated the scene until 24 March 1995 when Canadian Ambassador Shannon (the CD’s Special Coordinator on FM) produced a report known as the Shannon Mandate calling for an Ad Hoc Committee (AHC) within the CD to negotiate a FM treaty that would be “non-discriminatory, multilateral and internationally and effectively verifiable”.  This term was drawn from a UNGA Resolution adopted by consensus in 1993 following a proposal by US President Bill Clinton for negotiations on a treaty to ban the production of FM. It was intended to ensure that the outcome applied the same verification rules to all parties in contrast, for example, to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
The Shannon Mandate did not explicitly describe the scope of the negotiations but Shannon made it clear that the establishment of an AHC did not preclude any delegation from raising for consideration in the subsidiary body any of the issues noted in his report including the highly contentious one of whether pre-existing stocks of FM would be covered by the eventual treaty.
Uptake of the Shannon Mandate was not immediate, and discussions on forming a subsidiary body to negotiate a FM Treaty (or Fissban) stalled.  Non-aligned members of the CD (NAM) insisted that progress towards the negotiation of such an agreement should be linked to progress towards the elimination of nuclear weapons, another core issue on the CD’s agenda. The NAM called for a specific timetable for nuclear disarmament. The five NPT-recognised nuclear weapons states disagreed with this linkage but several subsequently made linkages of their own including to the negotiation of another core issue, the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space.
In 1998, in the wake of India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear tests, a breakthrough was achieved when the CD formally established an AHC to negotiate a treaty in accordance with the Shannon Mandate.  But the Committee met for only 3 weeks.  Despite many attempts to renew it, that mandate (CD/1299), remains unimplemented.
It has been blocked for various periods since 1998 by difficulties confronting just two delegations at separate times and has continued to be stymied also by linkages drawn with other core issues on the CD’s agenda including nuclear disarmament.
To sum up, the history of FM in the CD is inextricably linked in one way or another to progress on nuclear disarmament.  The challenge facing the CD is not to determine whether one issue is riper than another but to deal with both issues in tandem or, more manageably, in sequence.  To many states the obvious way forward – albeit highly controversial - is the inclusion of pre-existing FM stocks in the negotiation mandate, as Shannon sought to do, investing the process with joint non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament objectives.
This is not the same thing as inclusion of stocks in the eventual treaty. Compromise may lie, for example, in an outcome under which it would be agreed that existing stocks would not directly be dealt with in the treaty except as part of a broader framework. Such stocks could be covered by a separate protocol (as proposed by Algeria in 1998 (CD/1545), or be subject to a phased, multi-faceted approach entailing binding unilateral or plurilateral declarations or other binding commitments by the nuclear weapons-possessing states – see, for instance Brazil’s proposal in 2010 (CD/1888).
Shedding light on these or other variations and possibilities through the current formal discussions may, it is to be hoped, facilitate consensus on a FM mandate, and help the CD resolve its longstanding impasse over determining its negotiating priorities (also known as settling its Programme of Work).

This is a guest post by Tim Caughley. Tim is a Resident Senior Fellow at UNIDIR – for other comments on fissile material see also here.
The symbol is drawn from Microsoft Clip Art.