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The Nuclear Test Ban: Time to Finish What We Started

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The Debate

The Nuclear Test Ban: Time to Finish What We Started

Two decades after the CTBT’s signing, now is time for the world’s leading states to come together to finish what we started

The Nuclear Test Ban: Time to Finish What We Started
Credit: Federal Government of the United States via Wikimedia Commons

The growing global concerns about North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities and tensions in the region are a stark reminder of the need to re-energize the cooperative, diplomatic efforts necessary to advance nuclear risk reduction initiatives, including the global treaty to verifiably ban all nuclear weapon test explosions.

Two decades ago, the nations of the world came together to negotiate a verifiable ban on nuclear weapons test explosions. The 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) prohibits “any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion,” anywhere on Earth, whatever the yield.

Today, the nuclear test ban treaty has near universal support and is a pillar of international security. The treaty has been signed by 183 states and ratified by 166 thus establishing a powerful alliance against nuclear test explosions. Only one country — North Korea — has conducted nuclear test explosions in this century.

Under the prohibition on nuclear explosive testing established by the treaty, states not possessing nuclear arms would be practically barred from acquiring and fielding them by not being able to test, and those already having nuclear arms would have far greater difficulty developing new types.

Following the decision by Russia and the United States to halt nuclear testing in 1991 and 1992 respectively, multilateral talks on the test ban treaty started, other states halted testing, and global nuclear tensions eased. The treaty was also crucial to winning support for the 1995 decision to indefinitely extend the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the foundation for our common efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons.

Working together, state signatories have supported and funded the work of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) to establish an effective International Monitoring System to verify compliance. Today, the system is nearly complete and is operating to detect and deter nuclear explosive tests. There are 302 detection facilities already in place, out of 337 envisaged by the treaty, in over 90 countries. A state-of-the-art analytical center at the Vienna headquarters staffed by top-notch experts can pinpoint a suspected nuclear test location. As demonstrated by a full-scale exercise in Jordan in 2014, the CTBTO can carry out short-notice on-site inspections in case there is a suspicious event.

Our work, however, is not done. The full capabilities of the verification regime including monitoring system and on-site inspections, are not yet available because the treaty has still not formally entered into force, which requires 44 named countries possessing nuclear technology in 1996 to ratify the Treaty. Eight key states — the United States, China, Egypt, Iran and Israel — still need to ratify the nuclear test ban treaty, while North Korea, India and Pakistan, also need to, but have not yet signed it. As a result, the Treaty remains in limbo.

The nuclear test ban treaty is too important to slowly fade away. The world will be a far more dangerous place if states resume nuclear testing. As Russian President Vladimir Putin said in his April 11, 2016 statement on the occasion of the 20th anniversary “these countries’ unwillingness to become full parties to the treaty is cause for great regret.”

During 2016 the international community on individual and collective basis was making enormous efforts to promote early entry into force of the Treaty and was as never before united in pursuing this goal. On September 23, 2016, the UN Security Council approved — and 42 states endorsed — Resolution 2310, which urges those countries to ratify “without further delay,” calls on all states to refrain from conducting nuclear tests. The resolution calls on states to “provide the support required” for the CTBTO.

It is essential that we translate these words into action. This begins with a reexamination of the assumptions harbored by the eight remaining states for delaying action on their ratification of the treaty.

For the United States, this requires a serious review and debate in the Senate about the benefits of the CTBT, and its implications for national and international security. It has been a quarter-century since the last U.S. nuclear test explosion, yet the U.S. Senate has not reviewed the treaty since late-1999.

Since then, U.S. weapons labs report that their science-based stockpile stewardship program gives them greater confidence in their ability to maintain the reliability of the U.S. arsenal than during the era of nuclear explosive testing. And the global system for monitoring compliance with the nuclear test ban treaty, which unproven in 1999, is now more than 90 percent complete and its capabilities have surpassed original projections. As former president Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz once said: “Republican senators might have been right voting against [the CTBT] some years ago, but they would be right voting for it now.”

The current U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrote in his responses to questions from his January confirmation hearing, “I think the [nuclear test] moratorium has served us well.”

Certainly, all countries, including the United States and the rest of the remaining states, have benefited from the ban on nuclear testing established by the treaty. But without ratification of the nuclear test ban treaty by Washington and other key states, the door to the resumption of nuclear testing remains open, and the long-term legal and operational basis of the treaty, and international nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament regime as a whole, cannot be considered complete and effective.

Furthermore, without action toward reconsideration and ratification of the treaty by the United States and other remaining states, disappointment of many states will only grow as we approach the important NPT Review Conference in 2020.

Stagnation in the process of entry into force of the nuclear test ban treaty was one of the reasons that prompted many states to seek alternative ways such as separate negotiation on a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons altogether even in circumvention of the 2010 NPT Action Plan providing that nuclear disarmament should be implemented in a way that promotes international stability, peace and security, and based on the principle of undiminished and increased security for all.

Ratification of the test ban treaty by Washington, as well as other hold-out states, could help address the perception of a disarmament “gap” and help provide renewed momentum and strength to the disarmament and nonproliferation enterprise and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

For China, political support for the test ban treaty over the past 20 years has been strong, and we have seen an increased level of technical engagement and cooperation with the Preparatory Commission for the CTBTO on verification issues in the past few years, including the transmission of data from its monitoring facilities and the first certification of a Chinese facility last December. Ratification of the nuclear test ban treaty is an opportunity for China to reaffirm its growing leadership in nuclear issues.

Continued nuclear weapons testing by North Korea would run counter to the global norm against nuclear testing and complicate progress toward the treaty entry into force. A comprehensive settlement of the situation on the Korean Peninsula should include a North Korean pledge to halt further nuclear testing.

India and Pakistan could advance the cause of nuclear disarmament, substantially ease regional tensions, and improve their standing in international nuclear fora by converting their nearly two decade-long unilateral test moratoria into legally binding commitments to end nuclear testing through the test ban treaty.

Ratification of the nuclear test ban treaty by key states in the tumultuous Middle East—namely Egypt, Iran, and Israel — should be considered as an integral part of establishing a zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East that will enhance peace and security in the region and strengthen the global non-proliferation regime.

Some two decades after the conclusion of the nuclear test ban treaty, now is time for the world’s leading states to come together, once again, to finish what we started. The ongoing global effort to reduce nuclear dangers and our collective security depends on bringing the treaty into force so that we have an enduring baseline for predictability in strategic relations.

Sergei Ryabkov is the deputy foreign minister of the Russian Federation; Lassina Zerbo is the executive secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization.