Towards non-proliferation

By Rizwan Asghar,
CTBTO Youth Group member
Originally published on The News Pakistan, 5 April 2017.

Global efforts to halt the quantitative and qualitative nuclear arms race by preventing nuclear weapons testing started less than a decade after the first nuclear explosive test was carried out in Alamogordo, New Mexico and the US in 1945.

Arms control advocates have consistently pushed for adopting a treaty to ban all nuclear explosions. But no binding framework was put in place. To date, more than 2,000 nuclear tests have been carried out in 60 different locations across the globe.

As the existential threat posed by the existence of nuclear weapons has emerged once again – following the four nuclear tests conducted by North Korea in this century alone – a new momentum is gathering for a worldwide ban on nuclear testing. For more than two decades, nuclear experts have considered ratifying of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). The treaty bans nuclear explosions in all environments as a prerequisite to ban nuclear testing. However, the treaty remains in limbo due to the political processes in some countries – which are complicated and lengthy – and the ‘after you’ policy adopted by some countries.

It has now been more than 20 years since the CTBT was opened for signature. As of January 2017, 183 states had signed the CTBT and 166 had ratified it. A deadlock exists because one of the treaty’s clauses – known as Article XIV – makes the ratification by 44 states with commercial or research nuclear reactors a necessary requirement for the treaty to become legally binding. Of those 44 specified states, China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and the US have so far been reluctant to ratify.

Under the present circumstances, the chances of the CTBT being ratified by these unwilling countries appear to be slim. With China linking its ratification process to that of the US and Pakistan waiting for India to ratify the treaty first, bring the CTBT into force has been a daunting challenge. After the CTBT was defeated by the US Senate in 1999, the Bush administration made little effort to promote it even though US ratification could have also spurred Egypt and Israel to sign and ratify the treaty. In order to break this deadlock, many non-nuclear weapon states are considering the option of the ‘provisional application’ of the CTBT until the Article XIV conditions are met.

This approach will not only enable the consenting states to avoid unnecessary political obstacles but will also strengthen the nuclear test-ban regimes. Without violating the provisions of Article XIV of the treaty, this approach is likely to increase pressure on other countries to accelerate their ratification processes. After it has been applied provisionally by a large number of states, the CTBT will have an enhanced legal status and thereby increase the political costs of violation. In this way, the treaty will provide a stronger legal basis for collective UN action against violators and there will also be a glimmer of hope to prevent failure of the ‘test-ban’ norm.

According to Article 25 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969: “A treaty or part of a treaty is applied provisionally pending its entry into force if: (a) the treaty itself so provides or (b) if the negotiating states have in some other manner so agreed.” The CTBT does not rule out provisional application. Even during the negotiations over entry-into-force requirements, the idea of provisional application was discussed by many states as a way to prevent a handful of other states from exercising a veto. The CTBT could thus take legal effect for those who wish to abide by the agreement. Though not binding on those who remain outside, the treaty in provisional application will be more likely to act as a brake on further ‘copycat’ testing.

A major criticism levelled against the provisional application of the CTBT is based on the apprehension that the US – which contributes a fifth of the overall costs of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO) – may oppose this step and limit its funding to the organisation. Such fears are exaggerated because any such decision to cut down funding to the CTBTO will be far more costly to Washington in terms of political influence against nuclear proliferation.

Since May 1998, successive governments in Pakistan have tied their stance on the CTBT to New Delhi’s future course of action. Pakistani analysts have frequently commented that in a nuclearised South Asia, the CTBT will have relevance only if both India and Pakistan are parties to the treaty.

In 1998, Pakistan responded to India’s nuclear tests by conducting its own underground explosions. Pakistan fears that India even harbours plans to conduct additional nuclear tests in the future. But Pakistan has repeatedly made it clear that it will not be the first to resume nuclear testing in the region. Although it subsequently came under enormous pressure from the US to accept the CTBT, the government in Pakistan maintained that its ratification depended on India’s future course of action.

Some people have argued that if Pakistan joins the CTBT, it will be able to access CTBT monitoring data. In addition, signing the CTBT will be the perfect tool to promote Pakistan’s position as a responsible nuclear state willing to accept real restraints – unlike India. Pakistan’s willingness to join the CTBT might also prove to be instrumental in securing cooperation in civilian nuclear technology from the US and other major powers. On the other hand, some analysts feel that it would be suicidal to sign the CTBT.

The technological advancements in the global nuclear test monitoring system have already made it easier to detect underground nuclear tests with a yield of even less than one kilotonne.

The CTBT’s entry into force will also make on-site inspections possible. Over the past few years, Russia and the US have spent billions of dollars on modernising their nuclear forces. The CTBT, after taking full legal effect, could be a major contribution to non-proliferation goals by restraining countries with nuclear weapons capabilities from further modernising their nuclear forces.