18 May 2006

Bush unveils a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty

At the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on May 18, the U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation, Stephen Rademaker, sprung a surprise on the delegates. After blasting Iran for its nuclear programme and attacking unnamed countries (eg. China and Russia) for holding the CD "hostage" to their demand for forward movement in all areas of disarmament (such as space weapons) and not just one (i.e. fissile material), he presented a draft Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) and said
"[W]e propose that an ad hoc committee, or even this plenary itself, begin immediate debate on our text, with the objective of approving a text for signature by the end of this year’s CD session".

At face value, the latest U.S. proposal seems unobjectionable, and even welcome. But the reality is otherwise.

The four-page draft text is up at the Stimson Center website -- but Rademaker's words best sum up what it says:
"Mr. President, our draft clearly defines fissile material and related production methods in a manner consistent with established practices and past thinking on that subject. For example, the production of fissile material for non-explosive purposes, such as naval propulsion, would not be prohibited by an FMCT. Existing stocks of fissile material also would be unaffected. Our draft also spells out the mechanisms needed for a treaty. Entry into force, dispute resolution, implementation, signature, accession -- it’s all here.

Consistent with our conclusions regarding the verifiability of an FMCT, which Ambassador Sanders announced to the Conference in July 2004, our text includes no provisions designed to provide verification. This does not mean that compliance with the treaty would be unverified, but rather that the primary responsibility for verification would rest with the parties using their own national means and methods – or, said another way, through the exercise of the sovereign responsibilities of the states parties to monitor compliance".

While I will write on this issue in more detail over the weekend, these are some useful points for everyone to bear in mind as they digest this news:

1. Since everyone in the world except the five nuclear weapon states (i.e. U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France) and the four non-parties to the NPT (i.e. India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea) are legally barred from producing fissile material, the proposed FMCT is really about these 9 countries alone. And since the five NWSs are already observing a moratorium (but no one is really sure about China), the purpose of the treaty is to make sure China, India, Pakistan and North Korea end fissile material production.

2. The rest of the world wants verification, Bush's draft says Nyet. Countries can use "national means", which means the U.S., which has the most advanced surveillance technologies, can verify everyone else's adherence but the rest of the world can't be sure Uncle Sam is sticking to the treaty.

3. The verification question throws up an interesting problem for India. Under the terms of the July 18, 2005 India-U.S. agreement, India said it would work with the U.S. for the early entry into force of an FMCT. But India wants verification to be part of the FMCT, a point reiterated by Ambassador Jayant Prasad in his speech to the CD on May 17.

4. Existing stockpiles are unaffected. But since the four nuclear weapon states have already stopped producing fissile material, this treaty presents no new obligations for them that the rest of the world can feel happy about. Even if stockpiles aren't thrown into the FMCT, there has to be some proper move towards disarmament.

5. I am not sure how much of an arms control measure the FMCT will be. The nuclear weapon states have already accumulated enough fissile material to blow us up many times over. A more pressing arms control issue is PAROS -- the prevention of an arms race in outer space. I have long believed that space-related issues are more urgent and pressing than an FMCT because the major era of stockpiling is over but we are on the cusp of a new and more dangerous arms race if the lid on space is not put on quickly. This is what the fight in the CD has been all about these past few years. China, Russia, and a number of other countries have been insisting on the urgency for putting space-related disarmament issues on the CD's agenda. But the U.S., which has an active programme for the militarisation of space, would have none of it. There is also the issue of security assurances for non-nuclear weapon states that the U.S. is not keen for the CD to take up. So should the Bush administration be allowed to cherry pick the arms control measure it wants?

Michael Krepon of the Stimson Center is quick off the bat with a short, sharp comment on the U.S. draft text. Krepon sees the timing as smart, and reckons this will "improve chances that the Congress will approve the Bush administration’s proposed nuclear deal with India". But he is bothered by the absence of verifiability and by the administration's refusal to discuss arms control measures related to space security.

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