Can Plan B work? - Dr Maleeha Lodhi - Tuesday, May 03, 2011

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The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.

Faced with a stalemate in negotiations for a treaty banning the production of bomb making nuclear material, Western nations led by the United States are now contemplating taking these talks outside the Conference on Disarmament (CD). This would be a risky course to take and with little guarantee of success.

The United Nation’s CD in Geneva is the world’s sole multilateral negotiating body on disarmament and it is in this 65-nation forum where discussions on major treaties including the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty were successfully concluded.

The latest indication of such a move has come from a well-informed New York Times editorial titled ‘Time for Plan B’. The 21 April editorial lamented that the effort to negotiate a Fissile Material Control Treaty (FMCT) in the CD was getting nowhere due to Pakistan’s opposition and urged the need for ‘a new approach’. It pointed to discussions the Obama Administration had started with Britain, France and others on negotiating a ban outside the CD. Citing the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions and the 1997 Landmine Treaty as precedents to take talks out of the conference, it endorsed following a similar course for a fissile material ban.

This is not the first signpost to consideration of such plans. In her speech to the CD in late February, US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton warned that if the deadlock continued “then the US is determined to pursue other options”. This was followed by the UN Secretary General’s statement that any negotiations outside the UN would undermine the CD and its objectives. But that doesn’t rule out such actions in the future.

Modest efforts to test the ground in this regard have been taken by Ban ki Moon himself. Last year he convened a high level meeting on the FMCT in New York to mobilise a consensus outside the CD. This did not make much headway.

Then in February this year Australia and Japan convened an ‘Experts Side Event on FMCT Definitions’ in Geneva to initiate informal discussions on aspects of the treaty. China and several other countries stayed away on the grounds that the event lacked wider, more relevant participation. Pakistan did not participate and criticised the event as an initiative to “undermine the CD”, while other countries including India and Iran made it clear they regarded the proceedings as non-binding and as neither a negotiation nor a pre-negotiation.

The outcome of these decidedly more modest efforts says something about the viability of a Plan B on the FMCT. Whether the thinly veiled threats to take negotiations ‘elsewhere’ is a way to intensify pressure on Pakistan and try to isolate it or an alternative path that is being explored, it represents a deeply flawed approach that will be counter-functional to Washington’s own objectives.

This is so for many reasons. First, the so-called precedent of negotiations on Cluster Munitions, Landmines or an Arms Trade Treaty – concluded outside the UN – is misleading, even spurious. These negotiations entailed groups of like-minded nations coming together to curb the kind of armaments that most countries can easily manufacture. So assembling the largest number of countries made sense even if the US, Russia and China are still not a party to these agreements.

The aim of the FMCT is to end fissile material production by the nuclear weapon states. The treaty would be meaningful only if all eight nuclear weapon powers (P5 plus the three non-NPT countries) are a part of it. Nations that have signed on to the NPT are already committed to the FMCT in practical terms. But if Pakistan or any of the other non-NPT nuclear states stay out of negotiations the very objective of an FMCT is defeated. This is also because the US, France, Britain and Russia have already suspended fissile material production while China has an undeclared moratorium.

Without Pakistan, India and Israel may also stay away from any parallel process. This will increase the likelihood of China and Russia also keeping out and if Iran and North Korea don’t join either, the negotiations will turn out to be worthless.

Shifting negotiations to another venue would also set a precedent for taking other CD core agenda items outside the UN. Apart from the FMCT, the CD’s present agenda includes a Nuclear Disarmament Convention, Negative Security Assurances for non-nuclear states and Prevention of an Arm Race in Outer Space. The US and its allies are blocking serious talks on all three issues in the CD. Threats to bypass the CD on the FMCT can also lead to efforts by other nations to take any of these core agenda items to parallel forums.

Moreover any attempt to transfer the FMCT negotiations to another forum would leave the UN’s disarmament machinery permanently damaged, quite apart from denuding that effort of the legitimacy and credibility that only a UN process confers.

Behind the rhetoric of pursuing ‘other options’ lurk many uncertainties. The US and its allies cannot be sure they will be able to control the proceedings in a parallel process that will not have the consensus rule to protect their interests. Open-ended discussions in an alternative venue might become difficult to manage. Nor is there, as yet, any clarity or agreement on what mechanism would be a viable alternative to the CD. For these reasons, efforts to find ‘other options’ have fizzled out before.

The answer to the present impasse in the CD is not to circumvent the established and legitimate multilateral disarmament process but insure that the FMCT negotiations take into account the security concerns of all states and not just the priorities of the powerful few. The problem does not lie in the CD’s rule of consensus that is being singled out for criticism by some Western nations. It lies squarely in the ongoing effort to push through a proposed treaty that undermines the security of a member state – Pakistan.

Whether negotiations proceed inside the CD or outside, in its present form the FMCT is unacceptable to Pakistan, which will continue to press its objections against what it sees as a discriminatory instrument. Since talks on the FMCT resumed in 2009, Pakistan’s envoy to the UN in Geneva, Zamir Akram, has vigorously articulated the country’s reservations about a treaty that aims only at prohibiting future fissile material production.

Without the treaty taking into account the asymmetry in existing fissile material stocks the imbalance between Pakistan and India would be frozen, leaving Pakistan at a permanent strategic disadvantage. As currently envisaged the FMCT obliges Pakistan to accept a limit on its deterrent capability, which does not apply to India because of the preferential treatment it has received.

As a series of meetings of Pakistan’s National Command Authority have signalled, the West’s nuclear exceptionalism for India and the special treatment it has been accorded by the Nuclear Supplies Group will further accentuate the asymmetry in fissile material stockpiles to the detriment of Pakistan’s security interests.

With India having been provided the means to escape the ban on additions to fissile material stocks – by the assured supply of civilian nuclear fuel that frees up its domestic production to be diverted for weapons use – the treaty as currently configured would place Pakistan at an enduring strategic disadvantage.

Unless Pakistan’s legitimate security concerns are addressed and a level nuclear playing field created any expectation that Islamabad will yield to pressure or efforts at diplomatic isolation will not materialise. Countries sign up to international agreements when their fundamental interests are accommodated and treaties accord non-discriminatory treatment to its signatories. This is the ineluctable principle that forms the basis of all arms control or disarmament instruments and that guides the negotiating behaviour of states, big or small, strong or vulnerable.

Pakistan is likely to agree only to a treaty predicated on the principle of equal and undiminished security of all states.

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