Millions of people around the world who have worried over the past 51 years about the 2,000 or more test explosions that have refined and expanded the threat of nuclear disaster can be pleased that on Sept. 10 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the text of a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty (CTBT). The vote of adoption was 158 to three (India, Bhutan, and Libya), with five abstentions. The text is identical to the final version negotiated by the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva (blocked by India's insistence on a schedule for the elimination of existing nuclear devices), but then brought to the General Assembly by Australia with an impressive 127 co-sponsors.
The first sentence reads: "Each state party undertakes not to carry out any nuclear test explosion or any other nuclear explosion, and to prohibit and prevent any such nuclear explosion at any place under its jurisdiction or control."
The CTBT specifies 44 nations, those with nuclear facilities, that must ratify in order for the treaty to enter into force. Forty-three of these supported the motion. Only India has pledged not to sign. President Clinton signed for the United States on Sept. 20.
According to Aaron Tovish of Parliamentarians for Global Action, the recent adoption of the Test Ban Treaty by the General Assembly is an important step in a long journey. It is also important because it clears the deck, and makes new space for concerned people to think through and create strategies for the next steps in the campaign for nuclear disarmament. Much effort over the past four decades has been dedicated to such a test ban, and now that it has been achieved, or almost achieved, much of that energy can be devoted to the step-by-step reduction of the current nuclear threat and the eventual abolition of all such weapons.
Despite criticisms that have been levelled at the provisions for the entry into force of the CTBT, Tovish sees the document as a de facto ban which will make it less and less likely that any nation would risk doing explosive testing. Even if ratification is delayed, the CTBT is at the very least "an unverified formal moratorium, which is much better than a unilateral one." Computer simulated tests are still available to the great nuclear powers, but that doesn't worry Tovish because they will probably not feel the need to add to the "more than four dozen fully tested, certified designs" they already have at their disposal. It is unlikely that they would spend billions to produce an untested system when they have so many tested ones. In effect the test ban freezes the technology at its current state and also caps the number of nuclear states at the present level, ridding the world of two sources of instability.
Tovish thinks we need to continue to press for the verification process to be made active and we must push for national ratifications of the treaty. Despite Clinton's signature, this may not be an easy task in the U.S., where the Senate will have the final say. India, which says it will not accept the treaty, will need time to find a way out of the position into which it seems to have locked itself. We should let it cool down. But time is on our side in this situation.
The ban on testing is like dropping a huge weight off one's back. Now we can work for a ban on production of weapons and control of the materials from which they are made, and when we have that we won't need to worry about what is going on in the laboratories. And, says Tovish, we have to attack the logic of the U.S. and Russia: two democracies continuing the threat of mutual destruction, like a couple of cowboys in a bad drama. Clinton recently claimed that there are no more Russian weapons aimed at American children. It may be true that right now an accidental firing would send a Russian missile to the Arctic Ocean rather than Washington. But even if we could confidently verify that as fact, in a matter of minutes the priority targets could be changed again. Someone must calm the combatants, take the weapons away, defuse them.
The CTBT is a significant step forward and we must plan for many more steps to reach the final objective of a nuclear weapons free world.
Ron Shirtliff is a member of Science for Peace and a former English professor at Ryerson Polytechnic University, Toronto.