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.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Conference on Disarmament: a lifeline?

The Conference on Disarmament (CD) has temporarily set aside pursuit of a programme of work and is operating, without dissent, on the basis of a “Schedule of Activities” [CD/WP.571/Rev.1 of 21 May 2012]. The Schedule amounts to a timetable of plenary meetings in accordance with the rules of procedure. In ordinary circumstances, such a schedule would be one and the same thing as a “programme of work”. Indeed the relevant rule (no. 28) explicitly says that such a programme would encompass a “schedule of its activities”.
But some member states insist on differentiating these two terms.  Why? 
Because they want the programme of work to include specific work mandates. Why? Is there anything in the rules that requires such inclusion? No.
Is it typical past practice to include negotiating mandates in the programme of work? No. So why, insist on it?
As noted in an earlier article, it has been speculated that it suits major powers that the CD is tied up in knots. Subtle shifts in the dialogue and dynamics are, however, afoot. Members are aware that with the annual session already at the halfway point, attention will increasingly turn to the meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York in October. The inability of the CD to make any progress, for instance, on its very first agenda item covering nuclear disarmament and a ban on fissile material production, inevitably gives rise to consideration amongst UN member states as to alternative venues for advancing those pressing issues. 
And, as witnessed last month in Vienna at the first meeting of the new NPT review cycle, the unanimous expression by the 2010 NPT Review Conference of deep concern at the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences” of any use of nuclear weapons is developing a momentum of its own among states and civil society. The extent to which this development will divert attention from dealing with a fissile material ban and nuclear disarmament in the CD remains to be seen, but the ball is very much in the Conference’s court.
In this regard, it is significant that the most recent president of the CD, Ambassador Getahun (Ethiopia), in his closing remarks hinted that a “comprehensive” programme of work – i.e., one that is inclusive of mandates – may need re-thinking.  He raised the possibility of “de-linking” some of the agenda items. Individual mandates, he implied, could – if they stood on their own – be invested with greater clarity as to their objectives. These are significant points, even if, in the scheme of things, they do not amount to game-breakers.  But the high quality leadership of all three presidents of the CD to date this year (they also include Ambassador Gallegos of Ecuador and Ambassador Badr of Egypt), and the willingness of members to acquiesce in greater use of the presidential prerogative – e.g., witness the adoption of the Schedule of Activities – provide the makings of a lifeline for the Conference as it enters the second half of its annual session.  More, maybe much more, will be needed to impress delegates to this year’s forthcoming UN General Assembly.  But it's a beginning. Ideas on possible ways ahead are invited from readers, and will in any event be the subject of a further article on this website.

This is a guest post by Tim Caughley. Tim is a Resident Senior Fellow at UNIDIR – for other comments on the CD see also here.      [Lifesaver image courtesy of Lifesaver clip art by OCAL shared by Clker.com]