The Need for the Entry into Force of the CTBT


Amb. Sergio Duarte – TRANSCEND Media Service

25 Nov 2016 – Since its adoption by the United Nations General Assembly in 1996, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) has remained in a singular and unprecedented situation. Although not formally in force, because eight countries (China, DPRK, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel Pakistan and the United States) have yet to sign or ratify it, the CTBT has set an important and powerful standard against nuclear explosions. This reinforces the non-proliferation regime established by the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

Regardless of the status of the CTBT, a clear norm prohibiting such explosions is definitively enshrined in the corpus of international law. The International Monitoring System (IMS) installed by the CTBTO Technical Secretariat has proven effective to distinguish any nuclear detonation from natural seismic movements and has been instrumental in reducing the harmful consequences of the latter by providing early warning of telluric phenomena. Scientific evidence shows that doubts about the efficacy of the IMS to verify possible violations of the Treaty are no longer justified.

With the regrettable exception of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, all countries possessing nuclear armament have observed voluntary unilateral moratoria on such explosions for almost twenty years. The Russian Federation, the United States and the United Kingdom have not tested since 1992. However, pressure from military establishments and sectors of public opinion to abandon that posture appears to be increasing. The argument that resumption of testing is necessary to ensure the efficiency and credibility of existing nuclear forces is likely to gain ground in some of those States.

On the other hand, ongoing “modernization” of such forces in several nuclear-weapon States gives rise to mounting concern that new types of atomic weapons are being developed with the objective of making their use justifiable and acceptable in a “limited” nuclear confrontation. While the CTBT allows for so-called subcritical experiments in the laboratory, political, military and defense authorities in some of the nuclear-weapon States continue to argue that actual detonations will eventually be indispensable to assess their real effects in the theater of operations. Once the taboo against testing is broken, the whole normative structure painstakingly built by the international community to curb the spread of nuclear weapons and advance the goal of nuclear disarmament will risk unraveling. The entry into force of the CTBT is a vital element to prevent such a dangerous development and will also help to prevent an acceleration of the nuclear arms race and an escalation of regional and bilateral tensions.

Leadership by the United States is generally considered key to bring at least some of the other seven hold-out States to sign or ratify the CTBT. However, despite its relevance to the non-proliferation regime, this issue was not publicly debated during the recent presidential campaign in that country. For the past sixteen years, U.S. ratification of the CTBT has remained hostage of the growing polarization of political forces in Washington, while other States whose ratification is needed for the entry into force seem to find it convenient to keep their options open. Given the new political configuration result from the recent American presidential elections, it is to expected that this issue will again to the forefront in the internal formulation of national policies on arms control as well as in the international debate on action regarding concrete, legally binding measures of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.

The negotiation of a ban on nuclear weapons due to start in March 2017 at the United Nations provides a promising and authoritative forum for reaching agreement on realistic measures of nuclear disarmament as well as on a decisive push for a universal, legally binding prohibition of tests. Active and constructive participation in those debates by all members of the U.N. is essential for achieving substantive progress toward a world free of nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, it should be stressed that the entry into force of the CTBT is a worthwhile goal by itself and must be pursued regardless of the outcome of wider negotiations.


Sergio Duarte – Brazilian Ambassador, former United Nations High Representative for Disarmament Affairs; former Chairman of the Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons; former President of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 28 Nov 2016.

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