US Avoids Conference on Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

( - The U.S. government, which has rejected a treaty banning nuclear testing, is not participating in an international conference on the treaty in Vienna this week.

Despite Washington's evident lack of interest, a U.S.-based arms control advocacy group said it remained optimistic that American policy would change, to enable the eventual implementation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

The treaty, which seeks to outlaw all nuclear detonations, cannot become active without ratification by the U.S. and 11 other specified countries that have not yet formally supported it.

President Clinton signed the CTBT in 1996 but the Senate voted three years later against ratification, after critics argued that it could undermine America's ability to maintain its nuclear superiority.

The U.S. remains the largest funder -- providing almost one-quarter of the annual $84 million budget -- of the CTBT Organization's Preparatory Commission (PrepCom), the Vienna-based body working to prepare for the treaty's entry into force.

The Bush administration has not sent a delegation to a three-day conference in the Austrian capital, aimed at hastening the treaty's implementation. The U.S. did also not attend the previous such meeting, in New York in late 2001.

The Counselor for Arms Control at the U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Vienna, John Sequeira, was instead taking part in routine PrepCom "working group" meetings, a spokesman said from the mission Wednesday.

PrepCom spokeswoman Daniela Rozgonova confirmed by phone Thursday that the U.S. had not officially registered or sent an official delegation to the conference, where representatives from more than 100 nations are discussing ways of hastening the treaty's entry into force.

One unofficial U.S. observer was present, she added.

New weapons considered

Several speakers at the conference have focused on the two major nuclear powers that have not ratified the treaty -- the U.S. and China -- and urged them to do so.

The other 10 holdouts on the list of nations whose ratification is required are Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and Vietnam.

In his address, the representative for Malaysia, speaking on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, directed criticism at the U.S. for a nuclear posture review presented to Congress at the end of 2001, which considers the possible development of new types of nuclear weapons.

They include small nuclear weapons that could be used against targets able to withstand conventional attack, such as underground bunkers.

Ambassador Hussein Haniff said developing new types of nuclear weapons contravened assurances given by the five major nuclear powers at the time the CTBT negotiations were concluded.

A U.S. test ban moratorium has been observed since 1992, but the Pentagon's nuclear posture review cautioned that maintaining the nuclear stockpile without further testing may not be possible indefinitely.

"Some problems in the stockpile due to aging and manufacturing defects have already been identified," the document said. "Increasingly, objective judgments about capability in a non-testing environment will become far more difficult."

"Each year the DoD and DoE [departments of defense and energy] will reassess the need to resume nuclear testing and will make recommendations to the President," it said, adding that "nuclear nations have a responsibility to assure the safety and reliability of their own nuclear weapons."

On the website of the U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Vienna, information on the CTBT includes a mention of the Senate's 1999 rejection, and speaks of "if" rather than "when" the treaty enters into force.

Despite these signs, an organization promoting the CTBT in the U.S. believes that the official U.S. stance will eventually change.

Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association (ACA), said Wednesday the Bush administration's policy was "self-defeating."

He challenged the assessment in the nuclear policy review that testing may be needed to ensure that existing weapons remained reliable and safe.

"Nuclear testing has not been and is still not necessary to maintain the existing U.S. arsenal, rather, to proof-test new bomb designs," Kimball told

The ACA's lobbying efforts and those of other key states around the world had, in his view, "moderated" the U.S. government's opposition to the CTBT.

He pointed out that the Administration and Congress still support paying about 95 percent of the U.S. assessment to the Preparatory Commission.

The U.S. had also, "for now," not moved to withdraw its signature from the CTBT, Kimball added.

A number of conservative commentators and policy analysts have called for the U.S. to "unsign" the treaty, as it did the treaty creating the International Criminal Court.

"Unless unsigned, it remains a loaded weapon that can be taken up by the Senate at any time," conservative columnist Robert Novak argued last year of the CTBT.

'Next battle'

For Kimball and the ACA, the "next important battle" is to get the administration to cancel any proposals to research and develop new nuclear weapons.

Conceding that the prospects for the test ban treaty's entry into force in the next few years were slim, he said was nonetheless "confident that U.S. leadership on the CTBT will eventually be renewed and the other states that must sign and ratify can and will."

"Why am I confident? The CTBT cannot alone stop nuclear proliferation, but we cannot stop nuclear arms competition and further proliferation without the CTBT," he said.

Heritage Foundation expert Baker Spring, who argued strongly ahead of the 1999 Senate decision that the CTBT would make the U.S. less rather than more secure, reiterated that view in a Heritage report released earlier this year.

"In reality, an atrophying U.S. nuclear force is likely both to encourage proliferation by states like North Korea because they will view it as a source of U.S. weakness and to result in more serious consideration of the nuclear option by countries like Japan because they will be less certain of U.S. security commitments," he wrote.

See earlier story:
Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Ratification Urged (Sept. 3, 2003)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow