Fine Print: U.N. Hopes to Ban New Fissionable Material, Space-Based Weapons

Members of the U.N. Conference on Disarmament approved a working group to try to negotiate a decrease in the global nuclear threat.
Members of the U.N. Conference on Disarmament approved a working group to try to negotiate a decrease in the global nuclear threat. (By Salvatore Di Nolfi -- Associated Press)
By Walter Pincus
Tuesday, June 2, 2009

It was a small step.

But after almost a decade of deadlock, the United Nations Conference on Disarmament last week approved a working group to negotiate a treaty banning the production of fissionable material for nuclear weapons and another to discuss preventing an arms race in outer space.

The U.N. group, which met in Geneva, had been unable to agree on a work agenda for the past 10 years. That was partly because of the U.S. refusal to give in to demands by the Chinese and Russians for the conference to study prevention of arms in space. In turn, those countries and others blocked negotiations sought by the United States to ban production of new fissile material for weapons without verification provisions.

Ambassador Idriss Jazairy of Algeria, the outgoing president of the Conference on Disarmament, thanked his country's president for helping break the stalemate.

However, don't expect quick action. The last international pact this 65-nation group successfully negotiated was the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which has yet to come into force, partly because the U.S. Senate has not voted for its ratification.

It was in 1993 that the U.N. General Assembly first passed a resolution calling for negotiations on a fissile-material treaty. Then two years elapsed before the underlying mandate for an "effectively verifiable" one was approved by the conference.

President Obama has made a fissile-material treaty part of his arms-control agenda. But there are signs a fissile pact faces problems, in part because the conference approves only by consensus, meaning everyone must agree.

Pakistan's U.N. ambassador, Zamir Akram, made clear that verification of nuclear material manufacturing and stocks is "vital" to a fissile-material treaty "because of the nuclear cooperation arrangement in our neighborhood." That was a not-so-subtle reference to the U.S.-India nuclear agreement that made American nuclear technology available to the Indians while allowing New Delhi's military reactors to keep operating without international safeguards.

Indian Ambassador Nirupama Rao made clear that her country would participate in the fissile negotiations but would "not accept obligations" that hinder India's "strategic program" or research and development, or those that "place an undue burden on our military non-proscribed activities."

She added that India considers nuclear weapons to be "an integral part of our national security and will remain so pending the global elimination of all nuclear weapons on a universal, nondiscriminatory basis."

It was 1984 when the U.N. General Assembly first resolved that the conference should take up prevention of an arms race in outer space. In the 1980s and 1990s, when the United States opposed taking up a treaty to ban weapons in space, its representatives insisted the American ballistic missile defense systems being contemplated did not involve putting interceptors in space.

Two years ago, after China shot down one of its own dying satellites, the U.S. position at the conference was that the weapon used was ground-based. Although the United States insisted that it had the right to protect its satellites by whatever means it could, "the United States continued to believe that there was no arms race in space and, therefore, no problem for arms control to solve," said its representative, Ambassador Christina Rocca. She added that negotiating any new treaty against weaponizing space was "unnecessary and counterproductive."

By that time, however, the Russians had joined the Chinese in seeking a space treaty. Moscow's representative, Ambassador Valery Loshchinin, noted that then-President Vladmir Putin had said the militarization of outer space could have "unpredictable consequences for the international community and provoke nothing less than the beginning of a nuclear era."

Last week's agreement called for establishment of a working group that would "discuss substantively, without limitation, all issues related to the prevention of an arms race in space" and report to the conference at the end of the session on its progress.

Speaking for the Obama administration, U.S. delegate Garold N. Larson noted that a verifiable fissile material cutoff treaty is "the top U.S. priority at the Conference on Disarmament." He emphasized "verifiable" as marking "a significant gesture" because the Bush administration had subverted attempts at negotiating such a treaty by proposing it be done without any verification provisions.

His talk did not mention the space weapons working group, referring only to beginning "serious discussions on the range of other disarmament matters that reflect the ongoing concerns of Conference on Disarmament members."

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