A 14-year effort to negotiate an international treaty banning the production of nuclear weapons fuel is getting nowhere. Under the terms of the United Nations’ Conference on Disarmament, all 65 participants must agree. Pakistan, which is racing to develop the world’s fifth largest arsenal, is refusing to let the talks move forward.
It is clearly time for a new approach. So we are encouraged that the Obama administration has begun discussing with Britain and France and others the possibility of negotiating a ban outside the conference, much like the 2008 convention on cluster munitions and the 1997 land-mine treaty. While the United States, Russia and China still are not signatories — they should be — many others are, and the two agreements are credited with greatly diminishing, although not eliminating, the use of both weapons.
Russia and China, which must be part of any fissile material ban, are resisting the idea of ad hoc negotiations. They should tell Pakistan to let the conference do its job, or they should accept the alternative. China has particular influence as Pakistan’s longtime supplier of nuclear technology, including a fourth reactor for producing even more nuclear fuel.
Islamabad dug in its heels after the George W. Bush administration persuaded the international community to lift a ban on civilian nuclear trade with India. The ban remains in place for Pakistan.
India, unlike Pakistan, isn’t a serious proliferation risk. Still, the deal was deeply flawed. It did not require India — estimated to have at least 100 nuclear warheads — to halt fissile material production. And now that New Delhi can buy foreign uranium for its power reactors it can husband its domestic uranium for weapons.
Islamabad argues that the fissile material ban would further lock in a military advantage for India. Pakistan already has 95 or more deployed nuclear weapons, up from the mid- to high-70s two years ago. It should be less fixated on India and more focused on using scarce resources to educate its children and battle home-grown extremists. Along with the test ban treaty (which the Senate still must ratify), getting countries to stop producing fissile material is essential for curbing the world’s most lethal weapons. A ban would give the United States and others more leverage to pressure North Korea and Iran to abandon their nuclear efforts. Serious negotiations need to start now.
The New York Times