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The Future of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

CNS Feature Story

The current budgetary crisis at the PrepCom for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization threatens to further diminish prospects for the CTBT's entry into force. However, recent political developments may breathe new life into the treaty.

By Keegan McGrath, Stephanie Bobiak and Jean du Preez, CNS

March 7, 2008

Though the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) opened for signature in 1996 and is considered a major cornerstone of the nonproliferation regime, the treaty has yet to enter into force. To do so, all of the Annex II states—members of the Conference on Disarmament who possessed nuclear power or research reactors in 1996—must ratify the treaty before it can legally codify the now well-established international norm against nuclear testing. As of January 2008, nine Annex II states have not yet ratified. It is however encouraging that Colombia (an Annex II state) did so on 29 January 2008.

Why has the treaty not entered into force more than eleven years since it was open for signature in September 1996? The most obvious reason is that the remaining Annex II states have not ratified. A deeper analysis of their reasons for not doing so is in most cases linked to the impact of current U.S. foreign policy on the nonproliferation regime, and of the Bush Administration's strong opposition to the treaty. The ensuing domino effect of this policy on other Annex II states, particularly in regards to China and India, is obvious. But the impact of the lack of U.S. leadership and pressure on Annex II states such as North Korea and Israel should also be borne in mind.

It is likely that without U.S. support, international security related treaties and related organizations may become obsolete and irrelevant. Hence, the CTBT may be destined to fade into oblivion unless the United States, as it did in the 1990's, provides determined leadership, strong international support and firm financial backing. If the present trend continues whereby many of the most significant states remain outside the treaty framework, states that have already joined may start to question the viability of the CTBT and the utility of investing political and financial capital into a moribund treaty and an organization that is already suffering financial difficulties. The Preparatory Commission (PrepCom), established to prepare for the eventual establishment of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), is currently experiencing severe financial strains as states fail to pay fully their assessed contributions in a timely manner.

Many critics—including those who helped block U.S. ratification in 1999—have argued previously that the CTBT's verification mechanisms are insufficient. However, the CTBTO PrepCom's ability to accurately detect and record nuclear events, and distinguish those from non-nuclear events is already well-documented. The successful detection of the 9 October 2006 North Korean nuclear explosion provided compelling evidence of the verification regime's ability to monitor for very low-yield nuclear tests. The potential civil and scientific applications of the PrepCom's International Monitoring System (IMS) also demonstrate the technical merits of the verification regime. Nonetheless, as a greater number of CTBT states default on their assessed contributions and funds dry up, promoting treaty implementation as well as constructing and maintaining monitoring stations may become insurmountable endeavors.

The Good, ...

Over the years, CTBT states have supported the treaty through assessed contributions, political support and the establishment of numerous IMS facilities within their territory. This support, furthered by encouragement from the public, NGO's and the establishment of Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones, has created a strong norm of "non-testing" that has greatly bolstered the nonproliferation regime.[1] As of February 2008, 144 states had ratified the treaty, including the whole of the European Union, illustrating the overwhelming support that the CTBT enjoys. The latest ratification by Colombia (an Annex II state) in January 2008 may provide renewed momentum in support of the treaty globally. The significance of Colombia's ratification was illustrated by a special meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) Committee on Hemispheric Security on 7 February 2008 to consolidate the Treaty of Tlatelolco and to promote the entry into force of the CTBT. [2] Of the OAS states whose ratification is required for the CTBT to enter into force, the United States is the only country yet to ratify.[3]

U.S. opposition to the CTBT is widely considered the central obstacle to the treaty's entry into force, as it is believed that several key Annex II states will not ratify unless the United States does. But, a window of opportunity may be opening up to reinvigorate interest in and support for the treaty. Several recent political pronouncements in the United States have increased the salience of the CTBT and subsequently, the prospects for U.S. ratification. While not reflective of current U.S. policies, it is significant that in their January 2007 Wall Street Journal op-ed, George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn called for a world free of nuclear weapons. These four senior statesmen also called for "a bipartisan process with the Senate, including understandings to increase confidence and provide for periodic review, to achieve ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, taking advantage of recent technical advances, and working to secure ratification by other key states."[4]

The results of the 2008 elections could result in a change in attitude in Washington in regards to CTBT ratification. The two Democratic Party presidential contenders have both indicated that, if elected, they would seek Senate ratification of the treaty. Senator Hillary Clinton categorically stated in her November/December 2007 Foreign Affairs journal article that she "will seek Senate approval of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) by 2009, the tenth anniversary of the Senate's initial rejection of the agreement. This would enhance the United States' credibility when demanding that other nations refrain from testing."[5] Although Senator Barack Obama is believed to support ratification of the treaty,[6] it is unfortunate that his official campaign website Obama'08 makes no reference to the CTBT. [7] On the Republican side, while Senator John McCain voted against ratification in 1999, he stated after the vote that the Senate can and should reconsider the CTBT.[8]

A central and highly valued component of the treaty is the IMS, which provides for the dissemination of information relating to nuclear explosions, thus alleviating concerns of treaty noncompliance. The IMS comprises of 337 monitoring facilities that continuously monitor the earth for evidence of a nuclear explosion. Utilizing seismic, hydroacoustic, infrasound and radionuclide technology, the IMS detects, records and verifies the occurrence of a nuclear event.[9] Thus far, over US$1 billion has been invested in the development and implementation of the IMS, making it far more expansive than any system developed by an individual country.[10]

The technological developments and successes of the IMS have also been far greater than expected; certainly greater than those expected in 1999 when the U.S. Senate rejected CTBT ratification due in part to questions regarding the treaty's verifiability.[11] For instance, IMS stations confirmed that the October 2006 test by North Korea was indeed nuclear in nature. Not only did seismic stations in South Korea and as far away as South America accurately measure the seismic activity as a result of the explosion, but an IMS station in Yellow Knife, Canada conclusively measured the release of radioactive noble gasses less than two weeks after the test.[12] The DPRK nuclear explosion demonstrated the ability of the IMS to quickly gather and disseminate reliable information to CTBT states regarding possible nuclear events. The ability of the system to detect the North Korean test—which was estimated to be less that 1 kiloton—also demonstrated its capability to detect even lower yield nuclear test explosions than originally anticipated with a high degree of accuracy. The proven sensitivity and accuracy of the IMS is one of several reasons the CTBT has proven to be a benefit to member states, even though the treaty has yet to enter into force.

...the Bad,

Despite the Bush administration's dislike of the treaty, it has continued to partially fund the IMS, thereby benefiting from the data provided by the monitoring system. All signatory states receive information regarding nuclear events, whether or not the treaty has entered into force. While the U.S. Atomic Energy Detection System (USAEDS) enables the United States to detect nuclear explosions over large areas of the globe, only the IMS can truly provide worldwide coverage. There are, for instance, areas in Russia and China where the USAEDS cannot monitor with a high degree of confidence. There have also been instances in the past where the IMS, though incomplete, proved more effective than the U.S. system. For example, the IMS proved that a 1997 recorded event off the Novaya Zemlya island (former Russian nuclear test site) was an indeed an earthquake, and not a nuclear test, as the United States originally claimed.[13] In addition, the IMS is more credible source given its multilateral nature as opposed to a national system where intelligence claims may be viewed with more skepticism. In this way keeping up the IMS may be advantageous to current or future U.S. administrations and IMS monetary support could continue even if the treaty does not enter into force.

Although the United States defaulted on its financial obligations in 2007, the recent payment of US$23.8 million - as part of its assessed contributions for 2008 - restored its voting rights at the CTBTO PrepCom. [14] However, the United States still owes US$26 million in assessed contributions for previous years. As a major contributor, continued U.S. financial support is critical if the PrepCom is to fulfill its mandate. U.S. assessed contributions comprise approximately 22 percent of the PrepCom's total budget of US$111 million.[15] In November of 2007, the PrepCom announced that despite the application of severe austerity measures, the funding shortfall for 2007 is approximately US$22.5 million.[16] Lack of funding may result in the PrepCom's inability to appropriately maintain its monitoring stations, let alone complete the construction of the IMS, and may impair the organization's ability to fulfill its mandate even if all 44 Annex II states were to ratify. Executive Secretary Tibor Tóth explicates that quite simply: "Money is the oxygen for the verification system to breathe".[17]

In addition to its negative impact on the PrepCom's ability to prepare for the entry into force of the treaty and the establishment of the international verification regime, including a challenge inspection system, U.S. reluctance to pay in full its assessed contributions has produced a contagion effect among other CTBT states. While many CTBT states have strongly commended the technical progress with respect to the IMS, it is clear that the magnitude and cost of such a system cannot be fully justified without the treaty's entry into force.[18] In other words, CTBT states are less inclined to continue supporting a treaty that they believe may never come into force. It is significant to note in this context that although CTBT states could lose their PrepCom voting rights if their assessed contributions are more than a year overdue, this penalty seems to have little sway as the budget crisis continues.[19] In recent years, large contributors such as Argentina and Brazil have had their voting rights suspended, while more modest contributors, such as Iran and Peru, have faced the same penalty.[20]

...and the Ugly

The remaining Annex II states that have yet to sign or ratify the treaty have only exacerbated the current financial crisis and deteriorated morale among CTBT members and PrepCom staff. But, opportunities such as the North Korean Six Party Talks could act as catalysts for the treaty's entry into force, thereby alleviating the financial crisis. So far, however, none of the five negotiating partners have insisted that Pyongyang sign and ratify the CTBT as part of the February 2007 "freeze agreement" of its reprocessing facilities. Interestingly, Japan and South Korea, both strong supporters of the CTBT, have not pushed for North Korean ratification within the framework of the Six Party Talks, since a test ban should naturally follow denuclearization. The Bush Administration's opposition to the treaty obviously precluded CTBT ratification in the agreement with Pyongyang. Considering that North Korea already conducted a nuclear explosion, it would seem especially pertinent to include the need for CTBT ratification within any agreements related to the country's nuclear future.

Though China has repeatedly affirmed its support for the treaty's objectives and hosts numerous IMS stations, Beijing has not ratified the treaty, arguing that the ratification process has been delayed in the Standing Committee of People's National Congress. This position deprives China of a significant opportunity to assert itself as a responsible world leader while at the same time increasing diplomatic pressure on the United States. It is however, unlikely, for China to ratify until the United States takes the first step to do so.

Regional tensions also play an important role in some states' hesitancy to ratify the CTBT. For instance, Israel's status as a non-signatory to the NPT has been a major factor in Egypt's refusal to ratify the CTBT. At the same time, Israel has not ratified the test ban due in part to Egypt and Iran's refusal to do so. Since Israel has neither confirmed nor denied its nuclear weapon program, its refusal to ratify the CTBT creates and exacerbates tensions in the region. Additionally, since the United States has walked away from the treaty, there is no pressure on Israel to support the accord.

Looking at South Asia, Pakistan's ratification is clearly dependent upon India's, and Islamabad has in fact proposed a simultaneous process to facilitate ratification. Unfortunately, this may be a slow process as India has been opposed to the treaty since its negotiation in the Conference on Disarmament. India has, however, stated that it will not prevent the treaty's entry into force. Although criticized for rewarding a nuclear-armed state outside the NPT, the proposed U.S. – India nuclear deal missed an ideal opportunity to force India to sign and ratify the treaty, thereby capping the Indian weapons program. However, given its opposition to the treaty, the Bush Administration made no effort to lock India into a legally binding commitment not to ever test again. The current stalemate in New Delhi and in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) on whether and how to allow the deal to move forward opens up opportunities to make CTBT ratification a perquisite for any nuclear trade with a country outside the NPT.

As Iran struggles to convince the international community of its peaceful nuclear intentions, ratification of the CTBT would give credence to Tehran's claims that it is not developing a parallel military nuclear program. Since the CTBT would provide an additional "downstream" mechanism to prevent Iran from applying its enrichment capability to develop nuclear weapons, it would be an important act of confidence for Teheran to ratify. However, Iran will most likely wait until both the United States and Israel ratify the treaty.

Following Colombia's 29 January 2008 ratification, Indonesia is the only Annex II state without a clear reason for not ratifying, thereby putting Jakarta in a precarious situation. The remaining eight Annex II states either have nuclear weapons or suspicions exist that they possess nuclear weapons, or their opposition to the treaty is linked to the policies of neighboring states with nuclear weapons. In spite of Indonesia's long-standing principled stance on nuclear disarmament and its leadership role in the Non-Aligned Movement, it now finds itself in the company of states that are keeping their nuclear options open. In addition to the political importance of ratifying, entry into force of the treaty would enhance civilian and scientific applications of the IMS for Indonesia, especially the early warning and detection of tsunamis. While Indonesia has expressed full support for the objectives of the treaty, its reluctance to ratify is most likely due to the failure of the nuclear weapon states to ratify.


Prospects for entry into force of the CTBT are greater today than they have been in several years, yet the current budget crisis has the potential to cripple the PrepCom. Though the PrepCom was able to secure financial contributions from the United States, along with surplus funds from CTBT states, this is only a temporary financial cushion. Even though a new U.S. administration may bring renewed support for the treaty, U.S. ratification in no way guarantees that the other Annex II States will follow suit. Presently, the treaty's greatest recent progression is the ratification by Colombia. As an Annex II state, the Colombian ratification removes yet one more obstacle to the treaty's entry into force, which should at the very least encourage states to pay their assessed contributions. Nonetheless, if prospects for CTBT entry into force are to improve, substantial progress must first be made at the financial level. Without a sustainable PrepCom to fulfill the treaty's mandate, interest in the CTBT may diminish, thereby creating a major setback to the international community's hard-won nonproliferation efforts and successes. Simply put, progress towards entry into force will improve the financial situation as more states see a reason to commit fully to the treaty. Given these challenges, it is clear that the financial crisis and the delay in the entry into force are inextricably linked.


[1] The treaties of Pelindaba, Rarotonga, Semipalatinsk, Bangkok, Antarctica and the Nuclear Weapons Free Status of Mongolia have all banned the testing of nuclear weapons. NWFZ Tutorial, Nuclear Threat Initiative website, http://www.nti.org/h_learnmore/nwfztutorial/pdfs/nwfz_new_protocolchart.pdf. Dr. Hans Blix, "CTBT: Going the Last Mile to Banish Nuclear Weapons Testing," CTBTO Spectrum, July 2007, http://www.ctbto.org/reference/outreach/ctbto_spectrum_10/p6_7_Cover_story.pdf.

[2] The Treaty of Tlatelolco (1967) established a nuclear weapons free zone in Latin America and the Caribbean. The treaty, among other provisions, prohibits nuclear testing and was signed and ratified by all states in Latin America and the Caribbean.

[3] "Countries in the Americas that have not yet signed and ratified the CTBT are encouraged to do so," CTBTO Highlights 10, 11 February 2008, Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization website, http://www.ctbto.org/press_centre/featured_articles/2008/2008_11_02_oas.htm

[4] George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn, "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons," Wall Street Journal, 4 January 2007,

[5] Hillary Clinton, "Security and Opportunity for the Twenty-first Century," Foreign Affairs, November/December 2007, http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20071101faessay86601/hillary-rodham-clinton/security-and-opportunity-for-the-twenty-first-century.html.

[6] Stephen Zunes, "Barack Obama on Diplomacy," FPIF Commentary, Foreign Policy in Focus, 17 January 2008, http://www.fpif.org/fpiftxt/4901; and "The Candidates and Nuclear Nonproliferation," Council on Foreign Relations website, January, 16, 2008, http://www.cfr.org/publication/15279/candidates_and_nuclear_nonproliferation.html

[7] Official presidential campaign site for Senator Barack Obama, http://www.barackobama.com.

[8] Daryl G. Kimball, "Prospects for Ratification of the CTBT by the United States," Presentation for the VERTIC-Arms Control Association Seminar: The CTBT: Achievements, Challenges, and Opportunities, Vienna, Austria, 18 September 2007.

[9] "An Overview of the Verification Regime," 2008 CTBTO Preparatory Commission, Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization website, http://www.ctbto.org/verification/overview.html.

[10] In regards to the IMS' comprehensiveness and sensitivity, CTBTO Executive Secretary has stated that "no single country can have a system like this." "CTBTO faces budgetary challenges," Press Release, 22 June 2007, Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization website, http://www.ctbto.org/press_centre/featured_articles/2007/2007_2206_budgetarychallenges.htm?item=293.

[11] This point was made by Dr Raymond. Jeanloz, a professor at the University of California at Berkley. His lecture at the Monterey Institute of International Studies on 30 November 2007 was based upon an impending paper entitled "Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty and U.S. Security" to be presented at the Hoover Conference.

[12] Though over 20 different CTBT IMS seismic stations detected the event, only a radionuclide station can unambiguously confirm the presence of nuclear materials in the atmosphere. On 21 and 25 October 2006 the radionuclide station in Yellowknife, Canada detected the presence of xenon-133, thereby confirming the occurrence of a nuclear event. Dr. Robert G. Pearce, "North Korea: A real test for the CTBT verification system?", CTBTO Spectrum 9, August 2007, http://www.ctbto.org/reference/outreach/spectrum_issues_singles/ctbto_spectrum_9/p24.pdf; "The CTBT verification regime put to the test - the event in the DPRK on 9 October 2006," Featured Article, 4 September 2007, Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization website, http://www.ctbto.org/press_centre/featured_articles/2007/2007_0409_dprk.htm.

[13] Paul B. Irwin, "Russia: The "Seismic Event" at Novaya Zemlya: Earthquake or Nuclear Test?" Nuclear Threat Initiative website. April 1998, http://www.nti.org/db/nisprofs/over/novztest.htm.

[14] "Congress Must Remedy Past U.S. Funding Shortfalls for Global Nuclear Test Monitoring System," Press Release, Arms Control Association, 21 May 2007, http://www.armscontrol.org/pressroom/2007/20070521_CTBT.asp.

[15] Associate Press, "US Pays 23 Million to Nuclear Test Ban Organization," PR-inside.org, http://www.pr-inside.com/us-pays-us-23-8-million-to-nuclear-r457513.htm.

[16] "Report of the Twenty-ninth session of the Preparatory Commission," Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, 12 – 14 November, 2007

[17] "CTBTO faces budgetary challenges," Press Release, 22 June 2007, Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization website, http://www.ctbto.org/press_centre/featured_articles/2007/2007_2206_budgetarychallenges.htm?item=293.

[18] This sentiment was best reflected by the Argentine statement at the Article XIV Conference held in Vienna on 17 – 18 September, 2007, http://www.ctbto.org/reference/article_xiv/2007/statements/1809_pm_session/1809pm_argentina_spanish.pdf, (in Spanish).

[19] "Resolution establishing the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organization, Adopted on 19 November 1996," Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, http://www.ctbto.org/reference/legal_resources/prepcom_resolution.pdf.

[20] Information about States Signatories' assessed payments to the CTBTO from the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization website, CTBTO Highlights, 28 February 2008, http://www.ctbto.org/prepcom/0507_collections.pdf.

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