Divergent viewpoints

Print edition : August 29, 1998

THE 61-nation United Nations Conference on Disarmament, which met on August 11 at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, broke an 18-month-long impasse to reach a consensus on the formation of an ad hoc committee on fissile material. This came about after Israel, the last state to resist the formation of such a committee, capitulated under pressure from the United States. The committee will negotiate a treaty banning the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for making nuclear weapons or other explosive devices.

Some delegates described the agreement on the committee as a "historic step forward". Others, more blase, pragmatic and realistic, were cautiously optimistic, and saw in its constitution "some progress" towards a goal they consider practically unreachable in the next couple of decades - the elimination of nuclear weapons.

The committee has been directed by the Conference to negotiate, under the Shannon Mandate, "a non-discriminatory, multilateral and internationally and effectively verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosives." The Mandate is named after Canada's Ambassador Gerald Shannon who was mandated by a 1993 United Nations Resolution to seek the views of member-nations on appropriate ways of negotiating an international treaty banning the production of fissile material.

The negotiating process for what will be known as the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) is still in its embryonic stage. A chairman has to be appointed for the committee, and the agenda has to be fixed. Differences are then bound to crop up over the scope and content of the treaty as the fundamental and thorny issues have not been addressed in a substantial manner. Should the treaty deal only with the future production of fissile material? Should the present stockpiles be taken into account?

Was the formation of the ad hoc committee a momentous event after all? A delegate from one of the non-nuclear Western bloc nations told Frontline: "It depends on how you view it. We are delighted that this committee has been finally convened. For the past 18 months after the signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a kind of lethargy had set in, as if the members of the Conference on Disarmament needed time to digest the CTBT, which is a truly historic treaty. While our ultimate goal remains total nuclear disarmament, we know and realise that there is no point pushing nuclear nations. They will not move towards disarmament if they do not wish to do so. So any progress, howsoever small, must be welcomed. We have to take a piecemeal approach and in view of this I would like to say this is a historic step forward."

This view is not shared by the Group of 21 developing countries. It feels that it is not enough that the nuclear club nations agree to certain specific items on the 10-point agenda of the Conference on Disarmament. The G-21 would like to place everything in the context of the ultimate objective of total nuclear disarmament. In a statement issued immediately after the committee was announced, the G-21 emphasised that nuclear disarmament was the highest priority of the Conference. The FMCT, it remarked, should constitute a nuclear disarmament measure and not merely a nuclear non-proliferation measure. The treaty should be an integral step leading to the elimination of nuclear weapons, these nations emphasised.

A G-21 delegate told Frontline: "We have demonstrated great flexibility in accepting the proposal to establish an ad hoc committee under Item 1 of the agenda titled 'Cessation of the nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament'. Now, it is for the nuclear club nations to demonstrate their political will, to show the world that they too are interested in nuclear disarmament, and this without waiting for the negotiations on the FMCT to be over."

The next step, of course, concerns the content of the treaty. Here again there are divergent viewpoints. The G-21, along with some Western anti-nuclear countries, would like the present stockpiles to be taken into account. A highly placed diplomatic source at the Conference told Frontline: "It is imperative that existing stocks be included. Given the complexity of the issues and the divergence of views, the negotiations are bound to be protracted. It is in the interest of certain countries to have long-drawn-out talks. They feel they will thus have the chance of increasing their existing stockpiles. Japan, Canada and Australia are among the developed nations supporting the G-21 view on this issue."

On this point, India's stand is at variance with that of other developing nations and is closer to that of the nuclear club nations and Israel. It would like the FMCT to ban all future production of fissile material but is opposed to the banning of existing stocks.

One G-21 delegate said: "There are wheels within wheels. Japan and Australia, for instance, are not pressing for a precise nuclear disarmament calendar. India, like other G-21 nations, is doing so. The Japanese decry all nuclear testing but they still feel safe with the U.S. nuclear umbrella. The Australians call it pragmatism. But is it that, really?" The delegate added: "Don't you think there is a great deal of hypocrisy there? Or in the way that Israel's nuclear programme has never been questioned? After all, the Jewish state is the only state in the West Asia not to have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And, it has still not given whole-hearted support to the ad hoc committee on fissile material. So there are shifting alliances and since every decision at the Conference on Disarmament is taken by consensus, we have a long haul."

New Delhi's position on the stockpiles issue has angered some of its staunchest supporters in the Third World. Its insistence on the convening of the ad hoc committee on disarmament concurrently with the negotiations on the FMCT sets it apart from the P-5 nations. For India, the negotiations are certainly going to be difficult waters to navigate.

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