The United States Needs to Step Up and Ratify the Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty

With nuclear tensions on the rise in East Asia, Washington finally needs to show some leadership and commit to a testing freeze.

Soldiers and cameramen near the Small Boy nuclear test, part of Operation Sunbeam also known as Operation Dominic II. Nevada, 14th July 1962.  (PHoto by Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)
Soldiers and cameramen near the Small Boy nuclear test, part of Operation Sunbeam also known as Operation Dominic II. Nevada, 14th July 1962. (PHoto by Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the opening for signature of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). It should be a cause for celebration, but it’s not; the treaty still remains in legal limbo. The fact is that out of the eight countries whose ratification is needed for the CTBT’s entry into force, two are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and bear special responsibility for international peace and security — the United States and China.

Testing of nuclear weapons was one of the most visible manifestations of the Cold War. Nuclear explosions sent ripples putting peace and security under duress. The struggle to outlaw testing of nuclear weapons became the unifying factor in the global push to stop the arms race and the first international agreement demonstrating that success was possible was the Moscow Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Tests in Three Environments, also known as the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, negotiated by Russia, Britain, and the United States.

In subsequent years, Soviet and American experts cooperated in the context of the international Group of Scientific Experts laying out the foundations of the CTBT verification regime. While the actual conclusion of the treaty did not happen until 1996, the Soviet Union was the first of the P-5 states to announce a moratorium on nuclear testing on Oct. 24, 1990. Russia has since adhered to this voluntary undertaking. The United States issued its own nuclear-testing moratorium in 1992 followed by all the other P-5 countries.

The CTBT belongs to all its members and serves all of mankind. In the words of the Russian Foreign Ministry at the time of Russia’s ratifications, the CTBT is “an insurmountable barrier … to any attempts to spread or qualitatively improve nuclear weapons.” Russia has a proud sense of ownership of the treaty and its establishing multilateral verification regime: It undertook an obligation to forgo nuclear testing. It also hosts and operates the second-largest number of facilities (32 of the 337 facilities) in the international monitoring system. This serves as clear and unquestionable evidence of Russia’s consistent and continued commitment to nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament and to strengthening strategic stability in the world through the CTBT.

Russian ratification was concluded in 2000 with the expectation that the United States would conclude its own ratification process despite the rejection of the treaty by the U.S. Senate in October 1999. Rather than wait for the United States, Russian leadership supported the CTBT when its future was not clear. Then-Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov — currently a member of the Group of Eminent Persons (GEM) supporting the CTBT — said the ratification was “a serious claim by the new Russian leadership to an active foreign policy in the field of disarmament. … The ball is now in the court of the United States.” Some 16 years later, Ivanov’s words still ring true.

Expectations raised by President Barack Obama in his Prague speech seven years ago — when he made CTBT ratification a top priority for his administration — were short-lived. With the presidential election later this year, there is precious little time to waste. It is imperative to move forward and to demonstrate real support for the treaty.

The political complexities associated with ratification of the CTBT by the United States are well known. At times, it may be difficult to envision unanimous endorsement of the treaty in the Senate. But leadership sometimes means accepting that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Through outreach and knowledge sharing, further practical steps can be taken to encourage an understanding of the CTBT within the United States that is more in line with the wide and growing international consensus in its support.

Security and stability are best achieved through generally recognized, collectively elaborated norms. All countries, including the United States and the rest of the remaining states, need the CTBT. None of them should hold it hostage. Without entry into force, the legal and operational basis of the international nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament regime cannot be considered complete and effective.

In the wake of the Iran nuclear deal, there is momentum to advance adherence to the CTBT in the Middle East. No states in the region conduct nuclear tests. Key states have signed the CTBT; they have already said “no” to nuclear testing. But they need to turn this “no” into a “never.” The 20th anniversary of the treaty is an ideal time to move ahead. Another way ahead is to ensure real progress toward creation in the Middle East of a zone free of nuclear weapons and other WMD.

The situation on the Korean Peninsula is of severe concern. The ongoing rocket launches and nuclear tests in DPRK are escalating tension and causing real risk of a full-scale military conflict. We strongly believe that DPRK has to comply in full with its obligations as a member state of the United Nations, abandon further nuclear tests and missile launches, and return to Six-Party Talks. A nuclear-test moratorium could be a proper starting point. All other parties should refrain from any activity that could further aggravate the situation of the Korean Peninsula.

Aspirants for great power status in South Asia have to realize that with great power comes great responsibility. Transformation of unilateral moratoriums into a legal undertaking in the multilateral context is a crucial step they could take in their quest for a greater international recognition. At a minimum, they should proceed with working with the CTBTO on a technical level in order to build trust and prepare ground for a greater political engagement when the time is ripe.

All these are important steps to ensure that the CTBT stays relevant and that the specter of nuclear testing stays in the past — where it belongs. This will not be possible unless the remaining two P-5 countries take concrete measures to finalize their ratification of the CTBT in accordance with the provisions of its Article XIV. Without such action, the current situation with CTBT entry into force is not sustainable. Russia has demonstrated its commitment to work with its partners to promote the goal of outlawing nuclear test explosions. The question is whether the leaders of the remaining eight countries, whose ratification is needed for the CTBT to enter into force, are ready to follow suit.

Photo credit: Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images

Sergey Ryabkov is deputy foreign minister of the Russian Federation.
Lassina Zerbo is the executive secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization.

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