It has been over 15 years since the Conference on Disarmament has played a significant role in developing multilateral arms control treaties and disarmament agreements. Even the Conference’s most recent success, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, was not adopted before being sent to the United Nations General Assembly. Other efforts to negotiate a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty or a Space Preservation Treaty have stalled in the recent past.
Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller has acknowledged that the continuing reliance on consensus at the Conference on Disarmament has proven ineffective – a single party of the 65-member body can prevent the entire Conference from moving forward on issues critical to international peace and security. Nevertheless, she highlighted the United States’ commitment to securing the ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty as well as the negotiation of a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty as essential steps toward global nuclear disarmament.
It is time for alternative venues for negotiation on these issues to be seriously considered. The Australian-Japanese International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament has indicated that the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty may be brought before the General Assembly, but this would likely stall under Chinese pressure.
One precedent that could be followed is that of the Ottawa Treaty, which resulted in the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction. Frustrated by the lack of progress in Geneva, the Canadian Foreign Minister invited like-minded nations to sign a treaty banning anti-personnel land mines. This kind of creative approach could be emulated in the creation of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty.
Deciding on a new forum and restarting negotiations could help to build momentum toward creating a viable treaty. Australia, Japan, Canada, and/or others should take the lead and begin to examine how a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty could be negotiated before the end of the decade.
Such an outpouring of international support, as has been enjoyed by the Ottawa Treaty, must convince Congress and the Obama administration of the importance of negotiating a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty and convincing allies and partners of the merits of international cooperation on the issue. The Conference on Disarmament has been riding on the coat-tails of the previous successes of the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Preventing the further production of weapons-usable fissile material should become a top priority of the international community – someone just needs to step up and lead the way.