Wednesday April 24, 2024

Another push for the CTBT

By Rizwan Asghar
September 16, 2017

Over the past two decades, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) has emerged as one of the top-tier international organisations with an impressive record of achievements. The International Monitoring System and on-site inspection capabilities have made it impossible for any state to conduct nuclear tests without being caught.

The world has been waiting for a complete ban on nuclear testing for almost five decades. However, despite having worldwide support and state-of-the-art detection capabilities, the CTBT languishes in a state of limbo created by an unwillingness on the part of certain countries to ratify the treaty. The lack of concrete progress on the nuclear test accord has led to frustration among many non-nuclear weapon states. Yet, holdout states are not ready to reconsider their positions due to unfounded fears and domestic political concerns. Such behaviour on the part of P-5 states is a clear violation of Article VI of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

The failure of the US to ratify the test ban treaty in 1999 struck a major blow to the existing global nonproliferation disorder. After 2008, the Obama administration expressed a commitment to move forward on the nuclear disarmament agenda. But the CTBT remains unfinished business. The Obama administration’s efforts to start negotiations were hamstrung by partisan differences and a strained relationship between the White House and Congress.

Under the Trump administration, the likely prospects of US Senate holding another vote on CTBT’s ratification are not too bright because the ratification of the treaty requires a significant investment of political capital from the White House. Influential Republicans in the Senate are also opposed to the idea of taking another look at the nuclear test ban treaty. While opponents of the CTBT frequently mention the possible vulnerability of America’s nuclear arsenal, domestic politics will shape any future outcome of the treaty.

However, the history of nuclear arms control shows that neither of these challenges are insurmountable. The coming into force of the CTBT is important to pursue the long-term goal of global disarmament and the American public needs to realise that. A de facto test ban is already in force. Once the CTBT enters into force, it will go a long way in strengthening global security by substantially reducing the risk of future nuclear proliferation.

Some experts argue that the political circumstances for the ratification of the CTBT might not be ripe today. Notwithstanding the plausibility of this view, pitching nuclear testing ban as an issue of national security in the US can help prevent it from once again becoming a victim of partisan politics.

One of the reasons why the CTBT was rejected by the US Senate in 1999 was the lack of knowledge about its security benefits in the days leading up to the vote. Opposition to the treaty was based on a misguided notion that it would make the US lose confidence in its nuclear deterrent. However, that concern has now been resolved since, under the Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP), the US can assess and sustain the reliability of its nuclear arsenal without having to resort to underground nuclear tests. Similarly, many other reasons for which the CTBT was rejected in 1999 are not valid anymore.

There is a strong political imperative for the US Senate to reevaluate the merits of CTBT with a fresh perspective. Strong bipartisanship and a well-executed ratification campaign can help CTBT advocates turn the tide in their favour. Any future vote on the CTBT must be preceded by extensive hearings that address the concerns of the treaty’s opponents. A multi-pronged strategy is required that is aimed at build bipartisan support in US Senate. Disarmament advocates should approach those Republican senators who have not been exposed to this debate before and educate them about the benefits of the treaty.

The stakes are high. There is no doubt that a second rejection of the CTBT would be disastrous. It would discourage other countries from ratifying the treaty. If the US takes the lead and ratifies the treaty, it will restore its credibility on nuclear nonproliferation issues. It will serve as a catalyst for similar action by other states. US ratification will set in motion a good domino effect, pushing many other states – including China, India, Pakistan and possibly Iran – to ratify the treaty.

The road to the twin goals of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament goes through a universal ratification of the CTBT. A test ban treaty would prevent China from further advancing its nuclear capabilities and stop the vertical proliferation of nuclear weapons in the existing nuclear states. Since CTBT imposes a zero-yield ban on the testing of nuclear weapons, it will be difficult for other nations to cheat.

The technological data gathered by the CTBTO’s monitoring network can be applied for many purposes. During a recent visit to Vienna, an Italian scientist told this writer that the data collected by the CTBTO can be used to strengthen early warning systems for monsoon in Pakistan.