By Rizwan Asghar
CTBTO Youth Group member
Originally published on Daily Times, 14 October 2017.


Over the past two decades, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) has emerged as one of the top-tier international organizations 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. As of October 2017, 183 states have signed and 166 have ratified the treaty. 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.

The Trump administration remains annoyingly silent, showing little willingness to consider the treaty on its merits. Historically, the United States has always been a key advocate of agreements to support nuclear testing. President Eisenhower and his successor John F. Kennedy devoted a great deal of effort to negotiate a comprehensive ban but could not succeed because compliance with the CTBT was unverifiable at that point in time. The early signs of opposition to the CTBT emerged in the early 1980s because of security related concerns.

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

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.

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. Opponents of the CTBT argue that nuclear testing is required to maintain a high level of confidence in nuclear stockpiles in the United States. However, this argument is no longer valid since, under the science-based Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program, the US does not need to resort to nuclear testing to maintain the safety and reliability of its existing nuclear-weapon stockpiles.

Another point of criticism is that CTBT’s monitoring and verification systems are not capable of preventing cheating by identifying secret nuclear tests. Even this argument does not withstand scrutiny.  The CTBTO has a very sustainable and verification regime. The International Monitoring System (IMS) with its 321 monitoring stations and 16 radionuclide laboratories is fully operational and capable of detecting nuclear explosions anywhere across the globe.

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 building bipartisan support in US Senate. Disarmament advocates should particularly approach those Republican senators who have not been exposed to this debate before and educate them about the benefits of 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.

As a republican president, Donald Trump has greater political ability to make sure that the US ratifies the treaty. The greatest arms control cuts in the past 40 years have been done by republican presidents. The ratification of the CTBT will not only promote nuclear disarmament but also help us reach the ultimate goal of elimination of all nuclear weapons from the face of the earth.

As a CTBTO youth member, I feel a strong urge to engage on this issue and produce policy initiative to help win negotiations for the CTBT. Pakistan should also ratify the CTBT and play its role in making the world a better place for the next generation.


The writer is a PhD scholar at University of California, Davis, and a CTBTO youth member. He can be reached at [email protected]