The Guest Column

17th November 1996

Test Ban Treaty and the 'explosions' without explosions

by Stanley Kalpage

During the cold war years the superpowers and other nations accumulated nuclear weapons for national security and also for prestige. The nuclear arms race has been the worst menace to world security for five decades. Now, nations are keen to reduce the spread of nuclear weapons and finally to eliminate them. Two important steps towards this goal have been taken within the past eighteen months: one, the indefinite extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in May 1995; and the other, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) which was signed in September this year. Both are milestones in the long and difficult journey towards the complete elimination of all weapons of mass destruction, including not only nuclear but also chemical and biological weapons as well.

The nuclear arms race

With the successful testing of the first atomic bomb in the New Mexican desert on 16 July 1945, the technology of war had advanced to a point where humanity had created a weapon of such power as to cause its own destruction. All modern arms control comes with that realization, and is based on the necessity to control and limit nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. Nuclear weapons did not long remain with the US alone. Other nuclear weapon states followed: the USSR (1949), the UK (1952), France (1960) and China (1964). It was predicted at one time that by the late 1970s the number would increase to around 30 and could have doubled by 1995, if the trend had continued.

With the collapse of the former Soviet Union, the safety and security of fissile material then distributed among Russia, Kazakhastan, Belarus and the Ukraine, caused anxiety. Equally so, the spread of terrorist groups with diverse causes and the possibility of some of them having access to nuclear material made it imperative to stop nuclear proliferation.

Arms control negotiations began in the 1960s. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons - the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), for short - was signed in 1968 and entered into force in 1970. Before 1970, the acquisition of nuclear weapons was one of national pride; it now became a violation of international law. Today, the NPT has 180 parties with only a small number of nations currently outside this Club of Conscience.

However, the NPT was directed not only against horizontal proliferation but also against vertical proliferation as well. The five nuclear powers of 1968 agreed to engage in disarmament negotiations to reduce the number of nuclear weapons they possessed with the aim of ultimately eliminating them. The three basic objectives of the NPT are: (1) promotion of nuclear non-proliferation; (2) promotion of arms control and disarmament; and (3) promoting international co-operation in the peaceful use of nuclear energy under effective safeguards.

In 1968, there was no agreement to give the NPT permanent status because negotiations at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva are based on consensus - nothing is agreed until all agree. A compromise was effected to give the NPT a twenty-five year trial period. After that, a conference of the parties was to decide, by majority vote, not by consensus, whether to make the NPT permanent.


The twenty-fifth anniversary of the entry in to force of the NPT took place on March 5, 1995 and the conference of the parties met in New York from April 17 to May 12, 1995 to consider the extension of the NPT. The conference, presided over by Jayantha Dhanapala, Sri Lanka's ambassador in Washington, decided to extend the NPT indefinitely with some degree of conditionality as well as greater accountability by the nuclear powers. At the same time, agreement was reached to complete negotiations on a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) by September 1996.

The 110-member Non-Aligned Movement was divided on an indefinite extension of the NPT. They were disturbed by their perception of a lack of progress by the nuclear weapon states in fulfilling their disarmament obligations and what they felt was the resultant inequality in the NPT system. By not agreeing to an indefinite ban, non-aligned countries wanted to exert leverage over the nuclear weapon states to ensure progress towards a CTBT and other disarmament measures. Eventually, while agreeing to an indefinite extension of the NPT by consensus, the conference decided to pursue other disarmament goals, notably the conclusion of a CTBT by 30 September 1996.

Test Ban Treaty

The General Assembly first called for a CTBT in December 1993 and negotiations began in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva in January 1994. On 11 August 1995, President Clinton announced that the US was willing to negotiate a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to reduce the danger posed by nuclear weapons proliferation. He would seek, he said, a zero yield CTBT, which would ban any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion, however, small it was, immediately upon entry into force of the treaty. The CTBT, negotiated in the 61-member Conference on Disarmament in Geneva this year, under the chairmanship of Ambassador Jaap Ramaker of the Netherlands, was agreed to by all the parties to the conference except India. The CTBT contains a clause permitting a party to withdraw from the treaty for reasons of Supreme national interest.

India's position

India had pioneered the CTBT proposal way back in 1954 as a partial but worthy measure to restrain the development, manufacture, deployment, use or threat of use, of nuclear weapons. Her intransigent attitude at the Conference on Disarmament surprised many and has been widely criticised.

India's position was that the CTBT must be seen only as a first step on the road to nuclear disarmament. India also argued that the CTBT should be placed in the framework of a step-by-step process of nuclear disarmament leading to the elimination of all nuclear weapons within a stipulated time- frame. India was not willing to give up its nuclear option unless all current declared nuclear weapon states (China, US, UK, France and Russia) dismantled their nuclear weapons as well. This was, of course, an unrealistic expectation.

India noted that American scientists have devised ways of testing nuclear bombs without an actual explosion, and alleged that the US intended to carry out such experiments even after a complete test ban. Indians argued that the CTBT, as visualised by the Americans, is not a step towards disarmament but a means of perpetuating Nuclear apartheid. It was thought that if India refused to sign the treaty so would Pakistan. But, after objecting at first, Pakistan signed the CTBT.

India had carried out its only nuclear test in 1974. In India a strong domestic consensus exists on this issue, with the Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP) openly in favour of making India a nuclear power. Public opinion in India is for nuclear testing so that India could formally enter the club of declared nuclear weapon states. Once admitted to the club, they say, they could happily adopt the club's self-serving line that the bomb is safe in its hands but not in those of others. India cited national security as a key factor behind its decision not to sign the CTBT.


India wanted to retain the nuclear option not only because of its conflict with Pakistan but also because of its fear of China which had been exploding about two tests each year. Its series of four more tests was unlikely to be ended before this year. China wanted to exempt peaceful nuclear explosions (PNEs) from the ban. China also proposed on-site explosions and suggested that any explosion would have to be approved by a vote of the treaty organization's executive council. After these preliminary observations, China agreed to the CTBT as drafted in Geneva.

The effective implementation of the CTBT needs a foolproof monitoring system to monitor the smallest of explosions and verification to guard against violations. This task will be undertaken by an International Seismic Verification Network with the assistance of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Nuclear-free zones are being established in different regions of the world. The Treaty of Tlatelolco in the Latin- American and Caribbean region, the Treaty of Rarotonga in the south pacific, and the Treaty of Pelindaba in Africa are three of these. The ASEAN countries are contemplating such a zone. These nuclear-free zones are considered to be building blocks to progress towards nuclear-free regions elsewhere in the world.

Asia has been lagging behind in the creation of such nuclear-free zones. The Middle East and South Asia should also be declared nuclear-free zones. In each of these regions the presence of threshold nuclear states, like Israel, India and Pakistan is proving to be an obstacle. The Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace concept envisaged a nuclear-free zone in the Indian Ocean region. Unfortunately, this was not to be.

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