The writer is a former envoy to the US and the UK, and a former editor of The News.
Sept 24 seems to have become a significant date in multilateral arms negotiations. It was on that day in 1996 that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which banned nuclear testing, was opened for signing at the UN in New York. On Friday, Sept 24, a high-level meeting proposed by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon is to convene in New York with the ostensible aim of promoting multilateral disarmament.
There are other parallels between 1996 and 2010. In 1996 the NPT-recognised nuclear states, or the Permanent Five, along with their supporters, faced a deadlock in the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva when India blocked the adoption of the test-ban treaty in the world's sole multilateral negotiating body. To overcome this impasse, as the CD operates by consensus, the negotiated treaty was "transmitted" to the UN in New York, where it was submitted as a draft resolution in a special session of the General Assembly. This was adopted (with India voting against and Pakistan for), and then opened for signature. The treaty has yet to enter into force, as a key provision requires 44 specified "nuclear-capable countries" to ratify it before it can take legal effect. The US has signed but not ratified, Russia and China have also not ratified, and none of the non-NPT nuclear powers (India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea) have signed.
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's call for a meeting at UN Headquarters later this week represents an effort to bypass the CD in an echo of what happened on the CTBT. His proposed meeting is less about the broader disarmament agenda than to break the stalemate in the CD's discussions on the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), or Fissban, as it is sometimes called. Negotiations for this treaty, which seeks to ban future production of fissile material, have stalled over the insistence by Pakistan and other non-aligned nations in the G-21 that the agreement take account of stockpiles -- i.e., previous production of bomb-making material.
The FMCT negotiations mirror the CTBT discussions in another way: in disagreement over the treaty's aims and purposes between countries that give priority to the non-proliferation aspect and those from the developing world who feel they should also be negotiated as disarmament measures (to reduce weapons and stockpiles). Debate about the balance between non-proliferation and disarmament objectives has long characterised arms negotiations.
On the FMCT, for example, the official nuclear powers are only prepared to support a ban on future production, while Pakistan has led the G-21 countries to argue that the treaty should also promote disarmament by including prior stocks.
The parallels, however, end there. When the CTBT was transferred from Geneva to New York to circumvent India's obstruction it had been fully negotiated in three years of intense talks. The high-level meeting that the UN secretary general is calling now is at the start point of FMCT discussions, with substantive negotiations still to begin. The CD has yet to start on a programme of work that was adopted in May 2009.
While it is Pakistan's and other G-21 nations' demand to include stockpiles in the negotiating mandate that is the reason for the current deadlock for eight years, it was the US that had blocked talks in the CD by its refusal to consider an international verification mechanism in the proposed treaty. Only after there was a change of administration in America that Washington agreed to verification and talks were able to resume in Geneva.
The secretary general's letter to member states inviting their representatives to the New York meeting says that the focus will be on the CD's work. This move comes after the decision reflected in the final document adopted by the review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in May calling on him to convene a high-level meeting "in support of the work of the CD." Indications are that the outcome of this meeting -- if consensus is evolved -- could furnish the basis for a resolution in the UN's First Committee (which deals with disarmament and international security) during the upcoming General Assembly session. Such a resolution is expected to call for FMCT negotiations to begin immediately.
While the Sept 24 meeting has been welcomed as a timely move to inject impetus to the disarmament process, its main emphasis has already been questioned. The Group of 21, which comprises 35 members -- more than half the membership of the 65-nation CD-reaffirmed in a Sept 7 statement regarding the secretary general's meeting that nuclear disarmament remained its highest priority, and that an ad hoc committee should be established as soon as possible to start negotiating a treaty.
G-21 members have also been reiterating that the CD's work should not become hostage to one issue (the FMCT) and should proceed on disarmament matters, so that its work is predicated on equal and balanced treatment of all issues, not just those of concern to the recognised nuclear powers. Moreover, and most importantly, negotiations must take into account the security concerns of all states, not only the priorities of the powerful few.
A G-21 statement incorporating these principles has been adopted, which will be sent to the secretary general prior to the meeting. A similar position is also expected to crystallise among the non-aligned group of nations at the UN in New York. It will urge the secretary general to put the focus on the entire disarmament agenda, including nuclear disarmament, negative security assurances (for nuclear weapons not to be used against non-nuclear-weapons states). It will also suggest that the basis for reinvigorating the CD should be a special session of the General Assembly, not the high-level meeting he has called.
Behind these procedural manoeuvres is the mounting pressure being mobilised by P-5 countries (minus China) to isolate Pakistan -- and countries hiding behind it that include Israel and India -- on the FMCT issue. Islamabad's position was mandated by a meeting of the National Command Authority (NCA) in January and rests on the contention that negotiations on a treaty that only bans future production of fissile material will jeopardise Pakistan's security. This would undermine stable deterrence in the region by freezing the asymmetries in stockpiles with India, putting Pakistan at a permanent strategic disadvantage. As Pakistan's permanent representative in Geneva, Zamir Akram, stated in the CD last month, "the discriminatory nuclear cooperation arrangements in our region concluded in the recent past will further widen these asymmetries and accentuate our security concerns."
Pakistan believes that the treaty, as currently envisaged, will upset the strategic equilibrium in the subcontinent by limiting its deterrent capability, at a time when India has been provided the means to escape a similar cap on its nuclear arsenal. The Indo-US civilian nuclear deal, and the consequent Nuclear Suppliers Group's waiver that has allowed Delhi to conclude agreements with eight countries for the supply of nuclear fuel, enable it to increase its fissile material stocks qualitatively and quantitatively -- and if it wants, to divert most of its indigenous stocks to its weapons programme.
Pakistan's position is not the first, or only, example of a country insisting in multilateral arms negotiations that its security interests be accommodated in the crafting of a binding treaty. Arms-control efforts over the decades have had to reconcile the security concerns of states with evolving global legal norms. Therefore, the effort by some to depict Pakistan's stance as deviant is not only misleading but unhelpful for the process of building consensus.
Accommodating Pakistan's strategic concerns and those of other developing nations in the CD provides the best-and only-way forward if disarmament is to be pursued on the basis of the principle of equal security for all. Where hard calculations of security are involved nations have to be engaged to forge agreements, not circumvented or coerced.