Reinforcing International Norms against Nuclear Testing

Today, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2310, which reaffirms the importance of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), a treaty that was signed 20 years ago but has never entered into force. The resolution, first raised and drafted by the United States, underscores the Obama administration’s commitment to bring a CTBT into force, despite the Senate’s reluctance to address this issue. After voting against the treaty in 1999, the Senate held no hearings until a few weeks ago.

Q1: Where does the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty stand today?

A1: The CTBT opened for signature in 1996. Since then, 183 states have signed the treaty, but only 166 (as of today) have ratified it. The treaty cannot enter into force until all of the Annex 2 states have signed and ratified it. The key countries that have to act—either to ratify or to sign and ratify—are China, North Korea, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, and the United States.

In the meantime, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) has been up and running since 1996. CTBTO is headquartered in Vienna and operates an International Monitoring System (IMS) comprising 321 sites and 16 laboratories. CTBTO, now under the leadership of Dr. Lassina Zerbo, has demonstrated the value of the IMS by detecting all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons tests since 2006.

The United States, as a signatory to the CTBT, has contributed its assessed share for CTBTO for many years. At roughly $28 million, this amounts to 22 percent of CTBTO’s overall budget. This is in accordance generally with U.S. assessments for UN agencies.

Q2: If the CTBT hasn’t entered into force, why don’t more countries test nuclear weapons?

A2: Six of the nine states with nuclear weapons have signed the CTBT. Article 18 of the Vienna Convention provides that signatories are obligated “not to defeat the object and purpose of a treaty prior to its entry into force.” The convention states further that “a State is obligated to refrain from acts which would defeat the object and purpose of a treaty when: (a) it has signed the treaty or has exchanged instruments constituting the treaty subject to ratification, acceptance or approval, until it shall have made its intention clear not to become a party to the treaty; or (b) it has expressed its consent to be bound by the treaty, pending the entry into force of the treaty and provided that such entry into force is not unduly delayed.” Thus, the United States and other countries that have signed the CTBT consider themselves bound not to take actions to contradict the purpose of the treaty. This has not always been the case. For example, George W. Bush administration officials declared they did not support the treaty and would not seek to become a party to it, but they still maintained the nuclear test moratorium. The Obama administration has supported U.S. ratification of the CTBT since it took office, and President Obama stated in Prague in April 2009 that he would immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification.

For its part, the United States stopped testing nuclear weapons in 1992, after conducting 1,032 atmospheric, underwater, and underground nuclear tests. The United States initiated the Stockpile Stewardship Program within the Department of Energy to develop ways of maintaining the safety, security, and reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal without explosive tests.

Of the remaining three nuclear-weapon states that have not signed the CTBT, India and Pakistan have declared unilateral testing moratoria, while North Korea has an active underground nuclear test program. India announced its unilateral test moratorium after the 1998 nuclear tests at Pokhran, but subsequent statements and actions, even after the U.S.-India nuclear deal, have undermined that commitment. For example, Indian foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee told the press in October 2008 that India had a right to test and would not be bound by a treaty obligation, and India has sought to soften the consequences for nuclear testing in its nuclear cooperation agreements signed after that deal. Pakistan’s ambassador in Vienna, Ayesha Riaz, recently reaffirmed Pakistan’s voluntary test moratorium and stated that Pakistan would not be the first to resume nuclear testing in South Asia. CTBTO has included North Korea in its outreach efforts, with little success to date.

Q3: What are the objectives of the UN Security Council resolution?

A3: UN Security Council Resolution 2310 calls upon states to refrain from testing nuclear weapons and urges the remaining Annex 2 states to sign and/or ratify the CTBT. It also recognizes the commitments the five nuclear-weapons states made in 1995, assuring they would not use nuclear weapons against those nonnuclear-weapon-state parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Finally, the resolution affirms the value of the IMS as an important contributor to stability and as a confidence-building mechanism. 14 members of the UN Security Council voted in favor of the resolution, with one abstention (Egypt). Though many celebrated the resolution for underscoring the importance of the CTBT and moratoria against nuclear testing, several states lamented that the resolution did not make a stronger call for progress toward disarmament.

U.S. officials indicated their objective of achieving three goals with the Security Council resolution: providing momentum for the treaty’s entry into force, strengthening and lending additional authority to the moratoria against nuclear testing, and bolstering the work of the CTBTO Preparatory Committee and the IMS. Although there was concern in Congress about whether the resolution would be binding, the final text does not impose any binding restrictions. As such, it will not provide any additional legal authority to prohibit North Korea, or any other state, from conducting a test. It will, however, help to strengthen the international norm against nuclear tests. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the P5) met in Washington on September 14–15 and issued a statement supporting continued national moratoria against nuclear testing and urging states to take the necessary steps toward entry into force for the test ban treaty.

Q4: Is the CTBT still relevant for the United States?

A4: Critics of the CTBT have argued that it makes little sense for the United States to constrain itself when it cannot force other key countries to adhere to a test ban. The United States has conducted more nuclear tests than any other country and has shown, for almost 25 years, that it can maintain its nuclear arsenal without testing. At this point, the benefits of restricting other countries’ activities outweigh the costs of restricting U.S. activities. A test ban would limit the nuclear capabilities of states outside the NPT, such as North Korea, Israel, India, and Pakistan, and provide a further firebreak down the road for Iran.

Many analysts believe that U.S. ratification could put pressure on China to ratify, with a potential domino effect on India and Pakistan. India and Pakistan tested in 1998 after the CTBT was signed, and their commitment to a test moratorium is fragile. For example, India has lobbied hard with its new nuclear partners since 2008 to ensure that civil nuclear cooperation agreements are not terminated if it tests again. Finally, it is certainly in the U.S. interest to get North Korea to halt its nuclear tests, and a CTBT that has entered into force would provide another tool with which to apply pressure on the reclusive regime.

Sharon Squassoni is a senior fellow and director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Amelia Armitage is a research assistant with the CSIS Proliferation Prevention Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Sharon Squassoni

Amelia Armitage