UN high-level fissile material cut-off treaty expert preparatory group report: little prospect for progress

Paul Meyer

The United Nations has released the report of the 25-country high-level fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT) expert preparatory group. The group was tasked with making recommendations on substantial elements of a treaty to ban the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons, a long-standing, if equally long neglected goal of the international community.

The group was established in 2016 (pursuant to UN General Assembly resolution 71/259) and met over the 2017-2018 timeframe under the chairmanship of Ambassador Heidi Hulan of Canada. The report was agreed unanimously by the group at its final meeting on June 8, 2018.

The group had members, most of whom were diplomats, representing Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, China, Colombia, Egypt, Estonia, France, Germany, India, Indonesia Japan, Mexico, Morocco, Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Senegal, South Africa, South Korea, Senegal, Sweden, and the United States of America.

The preparatory group was a sort of sequel to an earlier UN Group of Governmental Experts that examined the same issues relevant to an eventual FMCT and which had issued a consensus report in 2015. Despite the explicit intention to build-on, but not duplicate the 2015 report, the underlying differences amongst states and the closed-door discussions of the group (that offered no incentive to compromise on preferred positions), yielded a similar "menu" of possible treaty elements without narrowing the range of these options.

The report noted as one possibility that "the structure of the treaty could be established so as to enable the entry into force of an initial framework or umbrella treaty, with two or more protocols to be negotiated subsequently, including according to a specific timeframe."

It concluded that given the various possibilities for the scope and structure of an FMCT, "further work is needed to elaborate the various verification regime models to determine how they might work in practice. Similarly, additional work could usefully be done to assess the resource implications of the possible verification and institutional models."

The group's recommendation that "The negotiation of a treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons ...begin without delay in the Conference on Disarmament," seemed at best an exercise in wishful thinking given the moribund state of this diplomatic forum.

To make progress, concerned states will need to engage in some creative diplomacy that would actually result in the initiation of negotiations of an FMCT in a multilateral forum not subject to veto by any one state.

Options for how this might best be achieved include a United Nations General Assembly resolution setting up talks, as happened with the recent Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Alternatively, Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States, who are the five nuclear weapon states recognized in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or a larger group of states possessing fissile material stocks or fissile material production facilities could launch ad hoc negotiations on a treaty.

(This post is based on the column in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)