Testing Times for the Test Ban

This Friday, at the United Nations, foreign ministers from 100 countries will adopt a declaration promoting concrete actions to ensure the entry into force of the global treaty banning nuclear tests.
Last week marked the 15th anniversary of the signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. This important pact, which not only bans all nuclear testing but also constrains the development of new nuclear weapons, has been signed by 182 states and ratified by 154. However, the CTBT can only come into force when certain states possessing nuclear capabilities have ratified. Of the 44 named states on which entry into force hinges, only nine remain. They are China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and the United States. North Korea, India and Pakistan have not signed.

According to the CTBTO preparatory commission for the treaty, next Friday’s final declaration concluding the conference will name the nine.  The United States is the prime focus to which others look to provide an example. Indonesia announced in May last year that it would ratify “soon” but has not yet done so. It is expected that Indonesia and China would rapidly follow suit if the U.S. were to ratify. But it is difficult to see how the United States can do more than to signal the Obama administration’s continued commitment to ratification, given the entrenched opposition among Senate Republicans determined to systematically oppose any Obama initiative before next year’s presidential election.

Ellen Tauscher, the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs, who will be in New York next Friday, is a fervent supporter of the treaty and will doubtless talk about technical briefings organized for Senate staff. But nobody in Washington is expecting the Administration to push for a vote on the Senate floor before 2013, given the toxic political atmosphere. Indeed, to preserve the Administration’s credibility internationally and to avoid counter-productive effects in Washington, some think it might be preferable for the Obama Administration, and the future of the treaty itself, if aides were to tone down their advocacy until after the election.

However, there are also concerns that significant delay could spell disaster for the future of the CTBTO and its carefully-constructed monitoring network, as budgets are squeezed. A book to be launched this week will make the case that combining the international and on-site monitoring systems with national technical means, can effectively deter non-compliance and build confidence. The book, “Detect and Deter: Can countries verify the nuclear test ban?” by experts Ola Dalhman, Jenifer Mackby, Svein Mykkeltveit and Hein Haak, directly addresses some of the treaty’s critics who say that the verification system is unable to detect low yield tests.  We are also awaiting the expected long-awaited public release of a technical study by the National Academy of Sciences. But in Washington’s parallel universe, it remains to be seen whether science can triumph over politics.

Anne Penketh

These are the personal views of the author.

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