Test-Ban Treaty Advocates See ‘Window of Opportunity’ Opened by Obama

By Patrick Goodenough | September 9, 2009 | 4:20 AM EDT

CTBTO Executive Secretary Tibor Toth addresses a press conference in New York on September 24, 2008 alongside Michael Douglas, movie star and U.N. “messenger of peace.” (U.N. Photo by Ryan Brown)

(CNSNews.com) – Proponents of a global ban on nuclear weapons testing are optimistic that President Obama’s support for ratifying the pact will encourage other holdouts to follow suit, speeding up its entry into force.
But the prospect of a U.S. shift is causing unease in India, where a debate has erupted over whether a nuclear test in 1998 was as successful as claimed – and whether, given those doubts, the government should ratify a treaty prohibiting future testing.
There also has been no sign that either Iran or North Korea is willing to embrace the test-ban agreement.
If the U.S. and eight other specified countries including India, Iran and North Korea do not ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), it cannot go into force.
At the Vienna-based agency preparing for the treaty, the CTBT Organization (CTBTO) preparatory commission, diplomats on Tuesday spoke of an “important window of opportunity” in reaching that goal, given the international climate generated by Obama’s stance.
“The time has arrived more than ever before to push ahead the non-proliferation regime and achieve concrete steps in nuclear disarmament,” said Omar Zniber, Morocco’s envoy to international institutions in Vienna, citing Obama’s declarations.
The French envoy, Florence Mangin, also referred to a “new atmosphere created by the Obama administration since the speech in Prague and the American willingness to ratify the treaty.”
In Prague last April, Obama spelled out his vision of a nuclear-free world, pledging to ratify the CTBT and reduce the stockpile of U.S. nuclear weapons while urging others to do the same.
Mangin pointed to U.S.-Russia disarmament talks that are under way, and to what she suggested were positive indications from China. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told a disarmament conference in Geneva last month that Beijing was “dedicated to promoting early ratification of the treaty and will continue to make active efforts toward this end.” Most analysts expect China not to take the step until the U.S. does.
France and Morocco will jointly preside over a high-level conference in New York on Sept. 24-25 to discuss ways of pushing the CTBT closer to reality.
The conference is the sixth of its type since the CTBT was drafted in 1996, but the Bush administration stayed away from previous meetings in 2001, 2003, 2005 and 2007, focusing its energies instead in developing missile defense and the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a program designed to prevent  the proliferation of non-conventional weapons by stopping and searching suspect ships.
The CTBT requires ratification by 44 states which at the time of negotiations possessed nuclear power or research reactors, and which were listed in “annex two” of the agreement.
The U.S. has upheld a moratorium on testing since the early 1990s, and President Clinton signed the treaty in 1996.
Three years later, however, the U.S. Senate voted against ratification, amid concerns that the CTBT could undermine America’s ability to maintain its nuclear superiority, and in turn damage global stability by weakening the U.S. deterrent. There were also questions about how compliance would be verified.
Over the last decade the number of annex two states has slowly fallen, with Vietnam in 2006 and Colombia in 2008 the latest to ratify it.
The nine yet to do so are the U.S., China, Iran, Egypt, Israel and Indonesia, which have signed but not ratified; and India, Pakistan and North Korea, which have neither signed nor ratified.
Zniber said that as declared nuclear weapons states, the U.S. and China had a particular responsibility to ratify the treaty. The other declared weapons states have done so – France and Britain in 1998 and Russia in 2000.
High expectations
Indonesia last June said that it would ratify the treaty as soon as the U.S. does.
Indeed, the CTBTO believes U.S. ratification will help to break the logjam, and that its participation in the New York conference after previous absences, coupled with a special U.N. Security Council meeting on Sept. 24 focused on nuclear disarmament – and which Obama is chairing – will lend impetus to the drive.
“I think a new license for life has been given to multilateralism and nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament,” CTBTO head Tibor Toth said in Vienna Tuesday.
Toth, a Hungarian diplomat, said the two meetings in New York, with their high-level attendance, would constitute a “nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament powerhouse.”
In India, meanwhile, a retired scientist who held a key post when the country carried out five nuclear tests in May 1998 sparked a debate this month by saying that one of the tests, a supposedly successful detonation of a thermonuclear bomb, had been a “fizzle” –jargon for a nuclear device producing a lower than intended yield.
While claims to that effect had circulated widely before, this time the person making them, K. Santhanam, was the Defense Research and Development Organization scientist in charge of the test site preparations.
The government was quick to dismiss Santhanam’s allegations, but some experts are arguing that the doubts raised meant that India could not afford to sign up to a treaty that would preclude future tests.
“The implication [of Santhanam’s claims] was clear: India should not consider signing the CTBT because we still need to conduct further tests to ensure the credibility of the country’s nuclear deterrent,” Prof. Amitabh Mattoo of Jawaharlal Nehru University and Rajive Nayan of the Indian Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses wrote in the Calcutta Telegraph.
India’s deterrent is aimed at neighbor and traditional foe Pakistan, which tested nuclear weapons of its own just weeks after India’s tests.
A recent Congressional Research Service report said that Pakistan possesses a stockpile of some 60 nuclear warheads and is taking steps that will produce qualitative and quantitative improvements to its arsenal.
Neither India nor Pakistan is expected to change their opposition to the CTBT while the other holds out. Likewise, Israel, Egypt and Iran have cited each other’s position as factors in their reluctance to ratify.
Biden leads effort
The U.S. Senate’s rejection of the treaty in 1999 went 51-48, mostly along party lines.
Obama has tasked Vice President Joe Biden, who as ranking minority member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee led the unsuccessful 1999 attempt to get the ratification legislation passed, to spearhead the new effort to build support in the Senate.
Passage requires the support of 67 Senators, and the Democrats would need to find at least a handful of votes on the Republican side of the aisle.
Among the most outspoken GOP opponents of the move is Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, who in an op-ed written jointly with former assistant secretary of defense Richard Perle in June said the treaty “simply is not verifiable.”
Kyl and Perle said the Senate also blocked ratification in 1999 “because of an understandable reluctance … to forgo forever a test program that could in the future be of critical importance for our defense and the defense of our allies.”
CTBT proponents say earlier concerns about difficulties in verifying compliance have been largely answered by the expansion of a verification regime – an International Monitoring System (IMS) of 337 facilities in 89 countries around the world, more than 70 percent of which are now in place.
The IMS facilities gather seismic, hydroacoustic and radioactive data after an explosion and send them via satellite and ground hubs to the Vienna CTBTO headquarters for analysis.
When North Korea carried out a first nuclear test in 2006, IMS stations as far away as Canada and Latin America detected the resulting activity. After Pyongyang’s second test, last May, almost three times as many IMS facilities registered the event, according to the CTBTO.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow