The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and Nuclear Disarmament

By Elizabeth Cartwright

Originally published in June 2013

Jose Saramago, the Portuguese author and poet, once relayed a dream that in his lifetime a strike would take place in a weapons factory. He called it, “my one pathetic hope, that humanity might yet be capable of changing its path, its direction, its destiny.”

Rajiv Gandhi, addressing the U.N General Assembly in 1988, appealed, “Nuclear war will not mean the death of a hundred million people. Or even a thousand million. It will mean the extinction of four thousand million, the end of life as we know it on our planet earth…We seek your support to put a stop to this madness.”

In 2013, Saramago’s dream has not been realised and the threat of Gandhi’s holocaust is still a spectre in the wings. The high hopes of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty seem to be just that, high hopes and hot air. In simple terms the CTBT has at its core, the aim of eliminating all nuclear test explosions in both the civil and military purpose. It opened for signatures in 1996…but as yet it is still not in force.

The superpowers of the USSR and the United States under General Secretary Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan aspired at Reykjavik twenty years ago, to the elimination of all nuclear weapons. Shocking as it was, it was what the world needed to see and hear, and still needs to see and hear in our new age. The most powerful nation’s leaders, with the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons were envisioning a nuclear free future.

The impact on non-ratification should not be underestimated now, more than at any other time; this is a treaty that was deemed, “the hardest sought, hardest fought prize in arms control history”, by signatory and former US President Bill Clinton. So why then are the United States among those who have still to ratify? Hopes were raised and voiced when Obama gave the famous Prague speech,

“The existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War…so today, I state clearly and with conviction Americas commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons”.

Since Obama gave this speech however, the US approach to nuclear disarmament has been mixed. The Senate and leading Republicans are not making it easy by a long stretch for President Obama, even so far as announcing they will work to thwart any plan to reduce the arsenal further.

What will it take to rekindle the vision of a world without nuclear weapons? The nuclear strategy needs to be seen as anything other than a strategy. The term strategy is defined as a,’ plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim’, nuclear could only achieve devastation. Anything that endangers world security deserves the full implementation of the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty, even as far as a complete and much more drastic overhaul of the treaty itself.

Cynics cite that there is no formal enforcement and therefore it is a tool with no teeth, but in what way could there be an enforcement of a weapon so extraordinary that nothing compares in potential damage infliction? Maybe we have to see it in its own right, acknowledge that it cannot be enforced because we have nothing more powerful, there is no beyond game. The rhetoric needs adjustment to one of complete disarmament of all states.

Out of 183 States, the treaty has been ratified by 159. Of those remaining to ratify we have China, the DPR of Korea, Egypt, India, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Israel, Pakistan and the USA. In 2015, when the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty review conference takes place, the ratification of the treaty by the outstanding states has to be prioritised. On top of this a renewed commitment to nuclear disarmament should commence. As the leading superpower, the US must be prepared to stand by the convictions it wishes the rest of the world to live by. The US is not however stand alone, the other possessors of nuclear must be treated the same.

The fundamental flaw of the CTBT is that it is not in favour of nuclear disarmament but rather preserving the status quo. This flaw is twofold. Firstly the ratification does not necessarily mean that a nuclear free future is assured. Second, in a way the CTBT concerns not only the states that already possess nuclear weapons or those that have ratified the treaty even when they do not themselves possess them – but other countries aspiring to become nuclear, such as Iran, which represent a special category of states. In fact, counter-intuitively, the CTBT may provide an incentive to those states to seek nuclear weapons by perceiving the hypocrisy of nuclear states and the CTBT itself. The CTBT prevents these countries from testing nuclear weapons – hence developing them – but on the other hand allows nuclear states to retain them. Nuclear states do not need to perform tests anyway because they already possess them.

In way of illustration I would like to draw on a post-colonial perspective. In the Brussels Treaty of 1890, the sale of breechloaders to Africans was prohibited between the 20th Parallel North and the 22nd Parallel South. The way in which this was accomplished geographically allowed white regimes from the colonial powers to be equipped with weapons which were denied to Africans during the crucial period of the delineation and colonization of Africa. This is not meant to be a history lesson, of which we could find many. Rather it highlights political subjectivity within the CTBT where few international regimes can “monopolise the means of violence against the many who must be denied those means domestically (for national security) or internationally (in the national interest)” (Grovogui 2006)

What does it say when the countries who advocate nuclear disarmament are the very countries that possess it and refuse to give it up? What does it say when a President of a democratic country cannot garner the support of his country folk? Not only is this a ready excuse for other countries when pushed to disarm, but it makes a mockery of the scale of nuclear war, as a reality which could all too easily be realised at our peril.

A firm commitment to plant the seed of Gandhi’s dream into the twenty first century is needed. Nuclear disarmament is the biggest, bravest challenge of our time, and needs to take centre stage once again. In the Prague speech, Obama also said, “I’m not naïve. This goal will not be reached quickly – perhaps not in my lifetime. But now, we too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, ‘yes we can”. It is not utopian, nor madness; rather it is the sanest path to a peaceful future.

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