No clear path forward for Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty

On 24 March 1995, Ambassador Shannon of Canada submitted his report, CD/1299, to the Conference on Disarmament (CD). The report contained agreed language of the mandate to negotiate a "non-discriminatory, multilateral and internationally and effectively verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices," commonly referred to as a Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty or FMCT. Yet, 25 years later, the Conference on Disarmament failed to achieve progress toward opening of negotiations.

The most recent notable development was the discussion held in 2018 at one of the five subsidiary bodies established by the CD that year. In 2019, however, the CD failed to reach an agreement on subsidiary bodies, so no substantial focused discussion was held.

The work of the CD 25-country Group of Governmental Experts in 2014-2015 and of the High-Level Expert Preparatory Group in 2017-2018 appears to have exhausted for now the opportunities for informal consultations on FMCT. It appears unlikely that further progress could be made outside of the formal CD process.

Some expert-level discussions might be held as part of the P5 process, a set of closed door consultations among the five permanent members of the US Security Council. According to the UK report, the US, UK, Russia, France and China planned to hold discussions on an FMCT.

During the 8 August 2019 session of the CD, several states made statements regarding FMCT. The United States stated that it completed a review of the issue in 2018 and "continues to support the commencement of negotiations on an FMCT, provided that the negotiations are governed by consensus and that all key States participate." China insisted more directly that "negotiations on an FMCT can and must be conducted only in the Conference on Disarmament."

The CD remains deadlocked on FMCT, formally because of Pakistan's position on the issue. Pakistan's delegate took the position in August 2019 that "we do not support ending our national production of fissile material at this stage" and "obviously we do not support a moratorium."

The disagreements over the treaty appear to be growing as the United States is now accusing China and Pakistan of actively seeking to block the negotiations. The United States delegate cited "actions in formally blocking negotiations by China and Pakistan, either together or individually, in 1999, 2007 and 2009." China's ambassador denied the accusation.

China continues to resist formally joining the moratorium on fissile material production maintained by the US, UK, Russia and France. Its ambassador argued that "a moratorium on production is not the fundamental path to completely and effectively resolving the FMCT issue. Especially in this day and age, what some countries affirm today they may deny tomorrow, and a current administration can arbitrarily repudiate all the policies and commitments made by a previous one, leaving the international community at an even greater loss as to what course to take."