Don’t take your guns to town

September 24 seems to have become a significant date in multilateral arms negotiations. It was on this day in 1996 that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which banned nuclear testing, was opened for signing at the United Nations. On September 24, 2010 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.

By Dr Maleeha Lodhi

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Published: Thu 23 Sep 2010, 9:32 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:33 AM

There are other parallels between 1996 and 2010. In 1996 the NPT-recognized 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.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s call for a meeting at UN headquarters this week represents an effort to bypass the CD in an echo of what happened on the CTBT. His proposed meeting is designed 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 characterized 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. The high-level meeting that the UN chief is calling now is at the start point of FMCT discussions with substantive negotiations yet to begin.

While it is Pakistan 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 UN chief’s letter to member states inviting their representatives to the New York meeting says that the focus will be on the CD’s work. 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 ongoing General Assembly session. Such a resolution is expected to call for FMCT negotiations to begin immediately.

While the September 24 meeting has been welcomed as a timely move to inject impetus to the disarmament process, its main emphasis has been questioned. The Group of 21 – which comprises more than half the membership of the CD – in a 7 September statement regarding the SG’s meeting reaffirmed that nuclear disarmament remained its highest priority.

G-21 members have also been reiterating that the CD’s work should not become hostage to one issue (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.

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 in the non- aligned group of nations at the UN in New York. It will urge the SG to put the focus on the entire disarmament agenda. 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 National Command Authority (NCA) in January 2010 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.

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 Supplier Group’s waiver that has allowed Delhi to conclude agreements with eight countries for the supply of nuclear fuel enables 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 misleading and unhelpful to build 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 principle of equal security for all.

Maleeha Lodhi served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom. For comments, write to

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