Breakthrough or deja vu?

Print edition : August 29, 1998

The Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty is being renegotiated with a feast of consent.

IN taking on the onus of negotiating a global treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear explosive purposes, the Conference on Disarmament (C.D.) in Geneva revisits well-trodden ground. The subject has come up at regular intervals during deliberations at the C.D. since 1995. It was assigned to an ad hoc committee for intensive negotiations in March that year amid great hopes, but lapsed into neglect on account the C.D.'s preoccupations with often violently opposing priorities.

Although in a hypothetical sense all the 61 member-nations of the C.D. will be involved, eight nations will constitute the core of the process of deliberations towards a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT): the five nuclear weapon states recognised by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the three holdouts, namely India, Pakistan and Israel. All other states, in being signatories to the NPT, are in preemptive compliance with any possible restraint that the FMCT could impose.

In conformity with Article III(1) of the NPT, these states have accepted international safeguards on "fissionable material whether it is being produced, processed or used in any principal nuclear facility or is outside any such facility." In other words, all facilities that exist in these countries and that can produce fissile material are already under a comprehensive system of audit and safeguards by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). All stocks of such material that existed when the NPT came into force in 1970 were also placed under the supervision of the international body. In a pronounced asymmetry that India has never ceased to decry, no such restraints were applied to the five nuclear weapon states.

Yosef Lamden, the Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations, listens to Robert Grey (right), the Ambassador of the United States, at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on August 11.-DONALD STAMPFLI/AP

The FMCT was put on the global agenda in 1995 as a direct consequence of energetic advocacy by the United States. The idea was broached by U.S. President Bill Clinton in September 1993 in an address to the United Nations General Assembly. Following this, the General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for the negotiation of a "non-discriminatory, multilateral and internationally and effectively verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices."

The U.S. had declared a unilateral moratorium on the production of plutonium for explosive purposes in 1992. Since it had suspended the production of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) in 1964 itself, its claim to a leadership role by example seemed secured. In 1994, the U.S. obtained an important endorsement of the goal of a fissile material cut-off from the Russian Republic - first verbally and then in more practical terms. Russian President Boris Yeltsin joined Clinton in a statement in January 1994 urging the "most rapid conclusion" of a cut-off treaty, and followed it up with the formal announcement of a suspension of plutonium production for explosive purposes. Since the Soviet Union had suspended HEU production in 1989, it was assumed that all successor states to the socialist republic would honour the moratorium.

China came on board the global campaign for an FMCT the same year, although seemingly without a strong sense of conviction. In October 1994, the Chinese Foreign Minister issued a statement jointly with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, favouring the "earliest possible achievement" of a fissile material cut-off. In April 1995, the United Kingdom announced at the NPT Review and Extension Conference that it had ceased the production of fissile material. France was the last to join the developing consensus among the nuclear weapon states, with the announcement by President Jacques Chirac in February 1996 that production of fissile material by his country was effectively at an end.

This feast of consent among the weapon states failed to enthuse the global community since it was unaccompanied by any commitment to disarmament. Such a commitment would have required, at the minimum, a willingness to put under safeguards not merely existing facilities but also inventories of fissile material, including the explosive charges carried by deployed warheads. In the absence of such intent, the offer to undo one element of asymmetry inherent in the NPT and to put fissile material output under comprehensive safeguards seemed to lack conviction. In the quarter-century and more that the NPT had been operative, a far greater asymmetry in powers of coercion had developed, which countries not in possession of nuclear weapons had reason to resent.

INDIA decided to join the FMCT process in 1994. But when a logjam swiftly ensued over the negotiating mandate of the C.D., India seemed to lose its way and shift its focus away from global disarmament issues. The five nuclear powers remained adamant that fissile stockpiles would remain outside the ambit of the FMCT mandate. Distracted momentarily by the strategic advantage that its undoubtedly larger inventory of plutonium offered it in neighbourhood hostilities with Pakistan, India went along with this rather dubious position.

As India defaulted on its disarmament commitment, Pakistan took the moral high ground, insisting that a treaty that failed to audit fissile stockpiles would lack credibility. It found powerful allies among the Arab states, whose concerns and apprehensions focussed on the clandestine stocks of fissile material that Israel had built up over the years with the connivance of the U.S.

As the coordinator for the treaty, Gerald Shannon, the Canadian Ambassador to the C.D., found a viable negotiating mandate a virtual impossibility. In March 1995 he proposed that these divergent perceptions could be harmonised through intensive debates once an ad hoc committee was constituted. He did add the caveat that the scope of a cut-off treaty could conceivably be vitiated by broadening its focus to cover disarmament issues. Shannon's suggestions were, in the perception of most participants, no more than an elaborate exercise at begging the question. The committee constituted in 1995 did not get off the ground. A number of C.D. participant-states, including Pakistan, insisted that fissile cut-off could be discussed in an ad hoc committee, provided a parallel dialogue was initiated on disarmament. And as the negotiations on a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty entered a decisive phase, the FMCT dialogue was consigned to oblivion.

With the CTBT successfully negotiated, Clinton in 1996 made a renewed call to the U.N. to move on to the FMCT. Carried forward on the momentum of its principled opposition to the CTBT, India seemed then to rediscover the value of disarmament as an abiding commitment. Arundhati Ghose, India's Ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva during those crucial years, recollects: "India had for a while taken this weird position that stockpiles should not be touched. How were we supporting nuclear disarmament then? So fortunately, we changed that somewhere along the route. We introduced a question - why only plutonium and highly enriched uranium? Why not tritium? And why not include the fissile material that is in warheads today?"

Concurrently, India placed on record its opinion that the rather fuzzy Shannon Mandate needed to be renegotiated. This was swiftly forgotten. Today the Shannon Mandate remains the basis for FMCT negotiations. India and Pakistan, which exerted a decisive influence on the early fortunes of the talks, have been coopted, though on the basis of widely divergent considerations. For its part, India has suffered a relapse to the Pakistan-centred view, even though the issues under discussion have global implications. With by far a larger inventory of fissile material and a claimed capability to produce thermonuclear weapons using tritium fuel, the advantage in nuclear explosive capacity clearly lies in India's favour. What could be the strategic advantage, if any, that accrues from this dubious skew in destructive ability is a matter of debate. But India's willingness to go along with the FMCT negotiations is clearly premised upon the belief that this is an optimal moment to freeze the western neighbour into a permanent state of strategic inferiority.

Since this agenda is fairly transparent, Pakistan's acquiescence is only comprehensible in terms of the U.S.' rather unsubtle persuasion - pressures that the country is uniquely vulnerable to, on account of its parlous economic situation. Yet Pakistan is clearly holding something in reserve. Munir Akram, its Ambassador to the C.D., was categorical in a statement on July 30: "Pakistan will join the United States and other C.D. members in promoting a decision for the establishment... of an ad hoc committee... to negotiate (a fissile material cut-off) treaty on the basis of the report and mandate contained in document C.D./1299 dated 24 March, 1995 (The Shannon Report). ... In the course of the negotiations in the ad hoc committee, Pakistan will, as envisaged in the Shannon report, raise its concerns about and seek a solution to the problem of unequal stockpiles... We believe that a wide disparity in fissile material stockpiles of India and Pakistan could erode the stability of nuclear deterrence."

It is conceivable that Pakistan will be persuaded to shed these reservations owing to its economic frailties and its dependence on Western aid institutions, although the new phase of sponsorship of Islamic radicalism it has embarked upon makes this far from axiomatic. And while India and Pakistan remain divided by primeval animosities, the global nuclear imperium remains much the same in terms of its balance of forces and its selective morality.

American nuclear weapons doctrine - as enshrined in Clinton's most recent guidance directive - legitimises the use of nuclear weapons to deter or to respond to the use of chemical and biological weapons. Expressions of concern from disarmament lobbies have been met with the avowal that this only formalises an arrangement that has been in place since 1991, that is, since the Gulf war.

The Clinton directive is notable for only one reason - it permits a reduction in force levels from the monstrous levels reached during the Reagan administration. It is not clear, though, that this can be counted as a gain, since the underlying objectives remain unchanged. The idea, as in Ronald Reagan's time, is to survive a first strike and retain sufficient retaliatory force to destroy an adversary's arsenal, disable its civilian infrastructure and decimate its leadership - a combination of objectives that in their summation, amounts to little less than the destruction of civilisation.

Robert Bell, a top adviser to the Clinton administration on national security, put it bluntly when he said that nuclear weapons would remain the cornerstone of U.S. national security "for the indefinite future". In consonance with the new reading of global geostrategic realities, the Clinton administration, Bell said, had increased the number of targets in China and brought into its sights countries considered to have "prospective access" to nuclear weapons.

Clearly, the U.S.' advocacy of counter-proliferation measures is not accompanied by any reciprocal obligations. The FMCT will be, as the NPT and the CTBT remains to be, one more element in the architecture of power in the U.S. nuclear imperium. In taking leave of its principled stand in global disarmament forums, the unstated sub-text of India's new posture seems to be a wider strategic engagement with the U.S., an effort to gain regional pre-eminence that could well come a cropper, because it is underwritten by rather dubious rules of engagement.

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