A nuclear agreement in need of Canadian leadership

Canada plays a key role in efforts to realize a treaty to ban the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons‎.
By: /
July 13, 2015
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Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul March 27, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Lee

In the world of multilateral diplomacy one can judge a lot from just the title of a document.

If these at times seem convoluted or awkward it is usually because the underlying politics share these characteristics. Such is the case with a recently released UN report, the title of which — brace yourself — is “Group of Governmental Experts to make recommendations on possible aspects that could contribute to but not negotiate a treaty banning production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”

It doesn’t take a veteran diplomat to discern that there is some sensitivity around the issue of such a treaty.

That sensitivity to a large extent explains why a treaty to ban the production of the essential material from which nuclear weapons are manufactured, despite having been an agreed objective of the international community for decades has never been concluded. (For a look at global inventories of nuclear weapons and fissile material stockpiles, see this report presented earlier this year).

To be more precise, negotiations for such a treaty have never even started.

Canada has long been associated with this endeavour and a landmark mandate for its negotiations was achieved 20 years ago on the basis of work by the late Canadian Ambassador Gerald Shannon. That mandate was adopted by the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva (the UN’s designated body for the negotiation of arms control and disarmament agreements), but never fully operationalized. Disputes over priorities by the CD’s members had stymied work on this or any of the other core issues on the CD’s agenda.

The strict consensus rules practiced in the CD had also meant than even one member state could block any decision by this body and in recent years Pakistan has utilized its effective veto power to ensure that a treaty to ban fissile material production (often referred to by the acronym FMCT) receives no official consideration by the CD. Citing its nuclear-armed rivalry with India and what it perceives as destabilizing nuclear cooperation being undertaken with India by several Western states, Pakistan declares that an FMCT is not in its national security interests.

Canadian diplomats have for some years been concerned with the FMCT impasse and its detrimental implications for the authority of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the state parties of which have for years been calling for the immediate commencement of negotiations of an FMCT. As the traditional lead on an FMCT resolution at the UN General Assembly’s First (Disarmament) Committee, the Canadian delegation has struggled with how to advance the goal of an FMCT in some practical manner while retaining maximum support for declaratory policy in favour of a treaty as represented by the resolution.

The strategy that finally emerged was to propose the establishment of a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE), to meet for a total of eight weeks over two years in 2014-2015 and with an expanded membership of 25 country representatives versus the usual 15. Ideally this would allow for enough time and geo-political diversity to produce an accurate reading of current attitudes towards an FMCT. A resolution (67/53) authorizing such a GGE was duly adopted by the General Assembly in November 2012 with wide support and only one opposing vote (Pakistan).

In order to get that positive result, the Canadian delegation made some compromises the effects of which are evident in that awkward title. The GGE work was delayed for a year (starting in 2014 versus the original 2013 date) and it was explicitly not to take on the character of a negotiation. Even the terms applied to its efforts were to be diluted – e.g. “aspects” was substituted for the original “elements” as somehow the latter was perceived as more substantial and thus had to be suppressed.

Clumsy title aside, the real achievement of the GGE, under the skilled leadership of Canadian Ambassador Elissa Golberg, was to produce a substantive report on the issues surrounding an FMCT that could be unanimously agreed to by its 25 members. UN GGEs normally operate under a consensus rule and this has lead to many ‘nil’ reports emerging from groups unable to bridge differences amongst their members. Anticipating this problem, Ambassador Golberg wisely sought the group’s endorsement of a report that would reflect the diversity of views in the group without identifying any particular country with any specific opinion. This crucial modus operandi was spelled out in a footnote that appeared early on in the report (a deft move as it both down-played the significance of this procedure while at the same time affirming that it did not “prejudice the consensus mandate that the Assembly conferred on the Group’s work,” a mandate that gives its report heightened status).

Liberated by this approach, the report was able to address the substance of the key issues concerning the FMCT that any eventual negotiation would have to contend with. These are challenging issues, ranging from the scope of the treaty, notably whether it should be limited to future production or address in some manner past production; to questions of verification, with ‘focused’ versus ‘comprehensive’ verification systems generating major implications for cost and effectiveness. In addition to these core issues there are also outstanding definitional questions and various options for providing institutional support for an eventual FMCT.

Although there were few agreed stances in the report, the detailed discussion and development of positions engaged in by the GGE and recorded in the report was in itself a major achievement.

After years of bombastic rhetoric and cynical procedural wrangling, having the actual substance of an FMCT discussed was a refreshingly productive use of time and expertise on the part of the states involved. As the UN Secretary General says in his forward, the GGE report “will be a useful resource for future negotiators” and the GGE experts themselves affirm that “their reflections can serve as useful “sign posts” for future negotiators of a treaty, without prejudice to national positions.”

It is of course those national positions that will ultimately determine whether anyone will get to read those “sign posts” or travel down the road of actual negotiations.

To date that road has been a “dead end” or more accurately a “dead start” as negotiations have never commenced. The issue of a negotiating forum for the FMCT must have been the elephant in the room throughout the GGE deliberations.

Although the nuclear weapon states and the Non-Aligned Movement countries continue to reiterate that FMCT negotiations should immediately commence in the Conference on Disarmament, this posture is increasingly perceived as farcical or cynical or both given the almost two decade long impasse in the CD.

The GGE report artfully managed to skirt around this question by reaffirming that “document CD/1299 and the mandate contained therein continues to provide the most suitable basis on which future negotiations can commence without further delay in the Conference on Disarmament…” which on the surface appears to endorse the orthodoxy of FMCT negotiations in the CD under the existing Shannon mandate, but actually allows for other variants. While the Shannon mandate provides the most suitable basis for a negotiation in the CD, the GGE language doesn’t exclude that other mandates and other forums could also be suitable vehicles for initiating FMCT negotiations.

Canada, for one, has already voiced its willingness to consider alternatives to the CD for beginning FMCT negotiations. At this May’s NPT Review Conference, the Canadian delegation stated: “Canada continue to believe that the CD is the best venue in which to negotiate a treaty; it is not the only one in which to do so. The time has perhaps come for NPT states parties to decide if support for negotiations exclusively in the CD is worth the price of an indefinite delay in starting those negotiations.” The 12-nation Non-proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI) group of states, in which Canada belongs alongside influential non-nuclear weapon states such as Germany, Japan, Mexico and Australia, also has signalled flexibility on the negotiating venue question. In their group working paper, submitted to the NPT Review Conference, the NPDI states called for FMCT negotiations “preferably in the CD” a formula that keeps the door open for other options.

Practically this would likely mean authorizing a negotiation through a resolution of the UN General Assembly that is adopted by majority vote and not open to veto action by any state.

The GGE report will be duly taken up by the General Assembly’s First Committee when it meets again this October. While its substantial treatment of key issues regarding an FMCT merits praise during this fall’s debate; it should be handled as more than a mere “valuable reference” to be deposited amongst the cobwebs on the CD’s official shelving.

Rather, the GGE report should act as a catalyst for true friends of the FMCT to take action at this year’s General Assembly to ensure that negotiations on this vital missing part of the global nuclear order actually get underway. Canada should sustain the leadership role it has demonstrated to date on the FMCT file and help bring it to an operational conclusion.