What's new after more than a decade of stalemate in the Geneva-based disarmament negotiating forum is that nothing has actually changed - except that now diplomats are tantalizingly close to a breakthrough regarding the CD's program of work. In fact, they might just manage to get it approved before the end of April.

While they have been flirting with success, they couldn't quite bring themselves to make the final advance by the end of the formal meetings of the CD's first session of 2007 (on Friday March 30) - that advance being an agreement to finally begin substantive work (agreement on the matters of substance themselves being quite another matter). Many hesitations remained, but in the absence of any fundamental refusals to cooperate they did manage to agree to a special session in April in the hopes (even the expectation) of approving a way forward on four key issues on the CD's agenda.[i]

The core of the work that is finally to begin is the start of negotiations on a treaty to ban the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons (FMCT). Twice already the international community, through the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conferences, has unanimously agreed that an FMCT is a top global priority.

In 1995 NPT signatories, which obviously includes all the NPT-acknowledged nuclear weapon states (NWS), agreed to negotiations, as well as their "early conclusion," on "a non-discriminatory and universally applicable convention banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear devices."[ii] Then in 2000, again with the concurrence of the NWS, states again resolved that the CD should "agree on a programme of work which includes the immediate commencement of negotiations on such a treaty with a view to their conclusion within five years."[iii]

The United States, Russia, Britain and France have all announced a moratorium on the production of fissile materials for weapons purposes and China has given informal assurances that "it has not been producing these materials for weapons since approximately 1991."[iv]

The three non-signatories to the NPT, India, Israel, and Pakistan, all of which are members of the CD, were clearly not part of the NPT consensus, but all three have given grudging support for FMCT negotiations[v] - which does not mean that they will join the moratorium on fissile material production (indeed it could mean accelerated production while negotiations drag on), nor does it guarantee that they will not later in April resist the formula before the CD. North Korea , also a CD member, is clearly not in a position to block consensus. Iran is also reluctant and has raised procedural questions. It could raise objections based on its earlier concerns about the absence of a specific reference to verification, but that would not be compelling objection given that the inclusion of the phrase "without any preconditions" in the CD formula means that verification would not be excluded, as the US has proposed.

Verification has been made a contentious issue by US opposition to it. In response, Canada has submitted a working paper in support of effective verification and arguing that an FMCT verification regime should be built on, though not necessarily confined to, the IAEA-based NPT safeguards regime.[vi]

If negotiations on an FMCT are finally agreed in the April special session, it will be in the context of agreed discussions, optimistically characterized as "substantive discussions," on three linked issues:[vii]

-nuclear disarmament and the prevention of nuclear war,

-the prevention of an arms race in outer space ( PAROS ), and

-appropriate international arrangements to assure non-nuclear-weapon States against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons against them (negative security assurances or NSAs).

The start of actual negotiations on an FMCT would be a genuine breakthrough. It certainly wouldn't end the disagreements and suspicions among the States party to the NPT, but it would help to brighten the mood on the eve of the first preparatory committee session (to run from April 30 through May11 Vienna) for the 2010 NPT Review Conference.

More important, work on the FMCT could help to put some pressure on India to join the official NWS in a moratorium on fissile material production for weapons purposes. It would in particular strengthen the case for linking any move toward the resumption of civilian nuclear trade with India to such a moratorium. If India were given leave to import uranium for its non-military nuclear facilities without such a moratorium it would allow India to devote all its domestic uranium to military production and thus expand its weapons arsenal at an accelerated pace (more on this shortly).

[i] See the Reaching Critical Will website for excellent and ongoing documentation of the CD debates (http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/political/cd/speeches07/reports.html).

[ii]Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. 1995. NPT Review Conference Package of Decisions. http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/legal/npt/1995dec.html#2.

[iii] Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. 2000. Final Document. 24 May.

http://f40.iaea.org/worldatom/Press/Events/Npt/NPT_Conferences/npt2000_final_doc.pdf.

[iv]Hui Zhan and Frank von Hippel, " Building confidence in a fissile materials production moratorium using commercial satellite imagery," Disarmament Forum, No. 3, 2000 (UNIDIR), p. 72

[v] Shai Feldman, "Israel and the Cut-Off Treaty," Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies, University of Tel Aviv University, Strategic Assessment, Vol. 1, No. 4, January 1999; Rajesh Kumar Mishra, "India and the draft US FMCT text," IDSA Strategic Comments, Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, June 15, 2006.

[vi] Amb. Paul Meyer, "Introduction of Canadian FMCT working paper," CD Plenary, March 20, 2007.

[vii] Presidential Draft Decision, Conference on Disarmament (document CD/2007/L.1), March 23, 2007.

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