Wednesday October 27, 2021

CTBT: the unfinished agenda

June 30, 2016

On June 13, 2016, the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) organised a ministerial meeting to mark the 20th anniversary of the opening for signature of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

The meeting aimed to shed some light on the long pending issue of banning nuclear testing. Pending its entry into force, the treaty has established a comprehensive verification regime aimed to ensure that no nuclear explosion on the earth’s surface, in the atmosphere, underwater or underground goes undetected. For this purpose, it has established an International Monitoring System which will consist of 337 facilities worldwide upon completion.

For the treat to be enforced ratification by 44 states is required. These are the so-called Annex 2 states that participated in treaty negotiations and possess nuclear power or research reactors. The process faced a major setback when the US Senate failed to ratify the treaty in 1999. This failure deflated the momentum on a nuclear test ban. There are seven other Annex 2 states which have also delayed the ratification (China, Egypt, India, Iran, South Korea, and Pakistan). Notwithstanding the present stalemate, the CTBT remains a critical element of the global non-proliferation regime that, according to experts, has become a ‘victim of its own success’.

Among the remaining Annex 2 states, ratification by the US is crucial and may initiate the desired push for its entry into force. The US Senate rejected ratification primarily on the issue of verification and the question of ensuring the reliability of the nuclear arsenal through the Stockpile Stewardship Programme. It was the first time that the US Senate had rejected a security related treaty since the rejection of the Treaty of Versailles in 1918.

The US failure to ratify the CTBT served a serious blow to the probable ratification by other states. Although the verification concern has been addressed with the installation of the IMS, the US Senate is still far from settled on this issue and it has been left to the new administration after the presidential election in November. If Democrats achieve a majority, there is a chance that the long-delayed ratification is achieved, which would have a significant impact in motivating ratification by the remaining Annex 2 states.

Israel, Egypt and Iran appear to be relatively lower hanging fruit among the remaining Annex II states, particularly following the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Israel has indicated its probable ratification as a “matter of when rather than if.” China’s position, as announced by its government, is contingent upon US ratification.

India and Pakistan were under immense pressure to sign the CTBT following their 1998 tests, but the pressure staved off following US failure to ratify. At present both countries maintain unilateral moratoria on nuclear testing. Following the Indian test in 1974, Pakistan had been advocating a nuclear-free South Asia and developed a series of proposals to this effect that included simultaneous signing of the NPT and the establishment of a nuclear weapon free zone in the south Asia. Pakistan’s current position is contingent upon India adhering to the CTBT. Pakistan maintains that it will be not the first one to resume testing.

Historically, India had been advocating nuclear disarmament and was credited with proposing the Standstill Agreement in 1954 that paved the way for Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT). India took part in the CTBT negotiations, but later voted against it at the Conference of Disarmament and stated that it would “never sign this unequal treaty, not now, not ever”. India strongly resists any legal commitment in this regard. In view of its reportedly failed thermonuclear test in 1998, it is not unlikely that India may consider another series of tests before ratifying the CTBT.

In order to create the desired national response from the remaining Annex 2 states, the CTBT is in dire need of global support. That, while evident in political statements, is largely absent in substance. It is ironic that the CTBTs 20th anniversary coincided with meetings of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to consider India’s membership application without demanding any concrete commitment to strengthen global non-proliferation. Although the NSG participating governments ultimately failed to reach a consensus for India’s membership, such moves put into question the very nature of the global non-proliferation regime and weaken the much needed support for the CTBT.

The CTBT is touted as a non-discriminatory treaty; however, it impacts all states differently. While it can curtail further horizontal proliferation through banning further nuclear tests, it does not address the vertical proliferation and qualitative improvement by technologically advanced states that goes on unabated.

The US and Russia, after having conducted hundreds of tests, have accumulated sufficient data to rely on computer simulation for the safety and reliability of their arsenals. Since 1997, the US has conducted 28 subcritical, sub-zero tests as part of its Stockpile Stewardship Programme. It is only after this assurance that the US Senate would vote for CTBT ratification.

While it is important to legalise the global norm against nuclear explosive testing, it is far more essential to strengthen the global non-proliferation regime through equitable and non-discriminatory policies.

The writer is a research fellow at the Vienna Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation. The opinions expressed above do not necessarily reflect the views of the organisation she is affiliated with.