Canada and the elusive fissile material ban: Old wine in new bottles?

Last week, a Canadian-led resolution on a treaty banning the production of the essential ingredient for making nuclear weapons was adopted at the UNGA by a wide margin. But as Paul Meyer writes, it remains to be seen whether the initiative will yield real progress on what has been a very stagnant file.

By: /
November 1, 2016
No Nukes
A man holds a fan as he prays for the atomic bomb victims in front of the cenotaph for the victims of the 1945 atomic bombing, at Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, western Japan, August 5, 2015, on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the world's first atomic bombing of the city. Japan will mark on Thursday the 70th anniversary of the attack on Hiroshima, where the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on August 6, 1945, killing about 140,000 by the end of the year in a city of 350,000 residents. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Fissile material is the essential ingredient for making nuclear weapons and as such has been a focus of attention for the international community in its halting progress towards the goal of “a world without nuclear weapons.” Since the 1950s the United Nations has agreed on the necessity of negotiating a treaty banning the production of fissile material (highly enriched uranium and plutonium) for nuclear weapon purposes. This treaty is known as the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) or simply “the fissban.”

Despite the widespread support expressed for the fissban, the negotiation of this treaty has not moved off square one of the diplomatic game board. In fact, it hasn’t even managed to get to square one, as no commencement of negotiation of the fissban has ever been authorized. 

Part of the explanation is that this task has been assigned to the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva, ostensibly the UN’s forum for negotiating multilateral arms control and disarmament agreements. The CD, however, functions according to an extreme version of the consensus principle, under which no decision, procedural or substantive, can be taken unless every one of its 65 members is in agreement. As the poster child for institutional dysfunction, the CD has been unable to undertake any activity pursuant to an agreed work plan for two decades straight. The only thing more shocking than this diplomatic debacle is the willingness of UN member states to tolerate it as long as they have. 

Within the UN, Canada has traditionally been the lead on the annual resolution at the General Assembly concerning the fissban. There are, however, only so many times one can reaffirm the desirability of such a treaty in the absence of any tangible progress being made towards that goal. 

In 2012 Canada tried a new tack by establishing, via its resolution, a UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) that would meet in the 2014-2015 timeframe and consider aspects of a fissban without actually constituting a negotiation of same. This was something of a clever maneuver as GGEs normally are created to study a newly emerging issue that the UN has not had to deal with before. The fissban, on the other hand, had been around for several decades and positions regarding it were generally known. 

The move did allow for the fissban issue to be in the diplomatic spotlight for a couple of years while the GGE met. It also provided a forum for a thorough airing of the views of states on key issues of contention. As GGEs require consensus agreement on their outcome, the concluding report had to be drafted in a manner that enabled the differing views of the national experts to be recorded. As such, the report was a compilation of differing positions on key issues without any reconciliation of these positions. The report of the GGE, duly tabled in the summer of 2015, was welcomed as a contribution to the neglected file of the fissban, but also raised expectations: what do you do for an encore? 

At this October session of the UN General Assembly’s First Committee – the one devoted to disarmament and international security issues – Canada put forward a resolution proposing a variant of the GGE. The resolution (L65) was adopted with an impressive vote of 177 in favour, one state (Pakistan) opposed and 10 abstentions (including China, Russia, Iran, Egypt and Israel). The question remains: will the process authorized by the resolution actually advance the effort to negotiate the elusive fissban, or are we left with essentially the same wine in new bottles?

The Canadian resolution establishes a “high-level preparatory group” comprised of 25 states that will try to identify substantial elements of a fissban, over the next two years and render a report to the fall 2018 session of the General Assembly. 

Significantly, this group will still operate under the consensus procedure that permits any national representative to block an outcome that is not aligned with his or her national position. Since positions regarding the nature of a fissban differ enormously (for example, on the basic issue of the treaty’s scope: should it be limited to the production of fissile material or also cover existing stocks?), there will be nothing to compel the experts to transcend the preferred options of their capitals. As the preparatory group will be comprised of a similar mix of nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states, why will its efforts represent added value to the results of the 2015 GGE report as Canadian officials claim? Another compendium of contradictory positions delivered at the end of 2018 will not represent real progress on the fissban file. Changing the title without a change in the underlying dynamic of the diplomatic process will be unlikely to yield a productive result. 

Canada may be eager to point to this new process on a fissban in order to deflect criticism of its “no” vote on a resolution authorizing the initiation in 2017 of negotiations on a nuclear weapon prohibition treaty that was adopted at the same session. An open-ended negotiation cannot be compared with a consensus-bound small group exercise. They will not have equivalent impact on the nuclear disarmament enterprise.

It is only within the context of an actual negotiation that there will be any prospect of devising compromises between the various opposing views required to produce a treaty text. A UN General Assembly authorized negotiation would permit any interested UN member state to participate (instead of only a small subset). It would also be carried out in a transparent manner that would generate pressure on those states which have long paid lip service to a fissban to make the compromises necessary to achieve an acceptable treaty. 

So it is time for Canada and true friends of the fissban to continue exercising leadership on the file in a more meaningful manner, and call for a negotiation under the authority of the UNGA that is not subject to the veto of any one state. No doubt there would be some states that would oppose or not participate in such a negotiation, but a critical mass would and it would serve the further purpose of restoring some credibility to the international community’s repeated designation of a fissban as the next logical multilateral nuclear agreement to be negotiated.