A Total Nuclear Test Ban is the Best Way to Strengthen the NPT

Five years of persistent efforts by the nonnuclear states to get international negotiations going for a total nuclear test ban now appear to have succeeded.

For more than a quarter of a century, with only a brief exception from 1977 to 1980, the three nuclear parties (the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union) who negotiated the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) and exploited its loophole permitting underground nuclear tests, refused or were unable to agree to undertake negotiations for a comprehensive test ban (CTB). Finally, the two superpowers agreed in 1987 to begin negotiations on a step-by-step approach to limit nuclear testing, but this approach would not even address a CTB until well into the next century.

The first step was to revise the unratified 1974 Threshold Test Ban Treaty (which permitted nuclear tests up to an excessive limit or 150 kilotons — more than 10 times the size of the Hiroshima bomb). After they reached agreement on much more intensive inspection and verification, the US would submit the treaty to the US Senate for ratification. Thereafter, the two parties would negotiate further limitations leading to the ultimate objective of a complete cessation of nuclear tests as part of the process of eliminating all nuclear weapons. American officials freely admitted that this agreement was intended to remove the pressure in Congress and from the public for an early total test ban.

But late last month, the US reneged on even this slow motion step-by-step approach. On January 23, 1990, the State Department announced that, after the signature of the revised threshold test ban treaty at the Summit Conference in June 1990, they would not continue the negotiations for additional limitations on testing. As the Washington Post reported on January 24, ‘The Bush administration has broken a longstanding US pledge to begin immediate negotiations with the Soviet Union aimed at further constraining underground tests.’ The Washington Post also reported that US officials acknowledged that this move could anger both Moscow and the US Congress. The move, however, had been pressed for by the Pentagon who wanted to repudiate the pledge for further negotiations.

Frustrated by the endless arguments put forward by one or another of the nuclear powers as to why it was not possible even to begin negotiations for a CTB, the Non-Aligned countries finally (on August 5, 1988, the 25th anniversary of the PTBT) took advantage of a procedure set out in the Partial Test Ban Treaty and called for a conference to amend it and to convert it into a CTB treaty. They were supported in this effort by the Soviet Union, but opposed by the United States and the United Kingdom.

The Non-Aligned states insist that unless all nuclear tests are stopped, as promised in both the PTBT and the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), there is no way to end the nuclear arms race. Nuclear testing fuels that ongoing race by permitting the development of more dangerous modernized weapons or new third generation nuclear weapons. The latter include x-ray lasers for strategic defences (Star Wars) and ‘decapitation’ warheads to destroy underground command, control, communications and intelligence centers. Despite the undertaking in the NPT to pursue negotiations for a ‘cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date’ there are now more than seven times as many strategic nuclear weapons as there were in 1968. Even if the START negotiations achieve a 50% reduction, the two superpowers would retain more than 11,000 strategic weapons. The US and UK, however, insist that so long as they must rely on nuclear deterrence for their security, they must continue to test to develop new nuclear weapons. In addition, they say that if the amendment conference is held before the NPT Review conference (in August-September 1990), it would have an adverse effect on the review conference and could damage the NPT which comes up for renewal or extension in 1995. In this respect, the Non-Aligned Summit Conference in Belgrade in September 1989, declared that a CTB is ‘absolutely essential for the preservation of the non-proliferation regime embodied in the NPT.

The three nuclear parties to the PTBT had stated that they would fulfill their obligations as depositories to convene the amendment conference. However, they embarked on a series of manoeuvres that would undermine the conference. They announced, without prior consultation with the other 115 parties to the PTBT, that they would convene the conference for two weeks in Geneva in January 1991. The US and UK also said that all participants should pay for the costs of the conference equally, which is unheard of in UN practice.

After consultations by the parties with the depository governments failed to achieve agreement, 57 states submitted a resolution at the UN General Assembly last fall calling for a preparatory committee to meet in New York at the end of May 1990, followed by a one week session of the conference at the beginning of June, with a second two week session in January 1991, also in New York.

The costs were to be shared on the basis of the UN scale of assessments, which is the standard practice, in order to facilitate the largest possible participation at the lowest cost. This historic resolution was adopted by the General Assembly on 15 December 1989 by a vote of 127 in favour, 2 against (the US and UK) and 22 abstentions (including Canada and other Western and neutral countries). The Soviet Union, despite the fact that it is anxious to improve its relations with the United States, voted for the resolution; China and France which are not parties to the Treaty did not participate in the vote. The US said that it would participate in a preparatory organizational session in June 1990 but not in a substantive session of the amendment conference held before the NPT Review conference. It also maintains that, if a CTB is the price for the extension or renewal of the NPT in 1995, it would abandon the NPT. It seems obvious that the US feels that the NPT is vulnerable because of complaints by the non-nuclear parties that the nuclear powers have not lived up to their promises in both the 1963 PTBT and the 1968 NPT to end all nuclear tests for all time. But the manoeuvres of the depository governments, instead of helping to preserve the NPT, are more likely to hasten its demise.

Most observers believe that the US position is contrary to its interests and is untenable. If it were to show a willingness to cooperate fully with the amendment conference, it would almost certainly ensure that the NPT Review conference in 1990 would be successful and it would improve the chances of preserving the NPT when it comes up for renewal in 1995.

Moreover, with the ending of the Cold War, the need to continue testing is increasingly anachronistic. By stopping tests, each of the superpowers could be largely freed from the fear that the other might develop new or modernized weapons that would give it strategic advantage.

Furthermore, by approving and ratifying a CTB amendment to the PTBT, the nuclear powers could prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons to additional countries, the fear of which is one of the excuses for continued testing. If the amendment is ratified by a majority of the parties (60), including the three depository countries, it would become automatically binding on all the parties. That would mean that such near-nuclear states as Argentina, Brazil, India, Israel, Pakistan, and South Africa, all of which are parties to the PTBT but not the NPT and have adamantly resisted all pressures to adhere to it, would be barred from testing. That would certainly be the most expedient way to strengthen the NPT and the non-proliferation regime.

It would also therefore seem to be clear that, by its obstinate opposition to a test ban, and even to the start of negotiations for a CTB, the US is not only failing to live up to its treaty undertakings, but is acting contrary to its interests and professed desire to preserve and strengthen the NPT.

The failure of the nuclear powers to carry out their obligations under the PTBT and the NPT has also made it more difficult, and perhaps impossible, for them to gain agreements to restrain the proliferation of chemical weapons to other countries. Measures to prevent proliferation are inherently discriminatory and are viewed by the countries at whom they are aimed as unacceptable. These countries now insist on total prohibition of such weapons rather than trust promises for their eventual elimination. In addition, they are particularly wary about efforts to prevent the proliferation of ballistic missile technology because of experience with the NPT.

Some allies of the three nuclear powers, with Canada in the forefront, have supported the step-by-step approach to a CTB, beginning with a declining lower-yield threshold treaty and a declining annual number of tests, but the US and UK are not prepared to accept such limitations. Those countries wanting an early CTB also reject this approach on the grounds that it would delay a CTB for many years, and would take too long to foreclose the development of third generation nuclear weapons.

Most countries, including some Western allies, show little or no enthusiasm for the prospect of early ratification of the 1974 Threshold Test Ban Treaty and the 1976 Peaceful Nuclear Explosion Treaty. They regard the threshold level of 150 kilotons as much too high to have any military significance. The non-aligned countries regard these treaties as tending to legitimize continued testing. A number of countries think that it would be better to negotiate the CTB in the Geneva Conference on Disarmament, although the US and UK have strongly opposed any such negotiations for years. Even if they should now agree, however, this would mean that, since that Conference operates only on the basis of consensus, any one of the forty members could bring the negotiations to an end. This could not happen in the amendment conference.

Some nuclear powers and their allies appear to believe that the NPT can be preserved without a CTB and argue that it is better to ‘save’ the NPT even if the CTI3 must be ‘sacrificed’. They do not, however, have any new proposals for strengthening the NPT. On the other hand, a number of nonnuclear states that support both the CTB and the NPT believe that, without a CTB, the NPT cannot survive, and predict that by 1995 we shall have both a CTB and a NPT, or neither.

The amendment conference appears to be the only innovative approach that could lead to a strengthening of the NPT by providing a singular opportunity to hell) achieve a CTB, the longstanding aim of the overwhelming majority of the world community. It therefore seems to be the best way, and perhaps the only feasible way, of strengthening the non-proliferation regime.

Now that the amendment conference is to become a reality, a concerted effort by the public and the US Congress might persuade the Administration to reverse its negative and self-defeating policy and adopt a more constructive and positive attitude toward both the conference and a CTB. If recent events in world affairs have demonstrated anything, it is that rising expectations and ‘people power’ can lead to unexpected and dramatic change.

Where does this leave Canada, a leading supporter of the step-by-step approach, who prides itself on being a most loyal ally of the US?

Canada has historically been a strong supporter of both a comprehensive test ban and of nuclear non-proliferation. But in recent years, Canada appears to have been ‘taken in’ by the US and has supported American manoeuvres to undermine the test-ban amendment conference in the mistaken belief that this would help to ‘save’ the NPT. Nevertheless, the Canadian Government did announce that, now that the amendment conference is going to take place, it would ‘participate constructively’.

Since the US has now announced this latest breach of promise, and the step-by-step approach has fallen flat on its face, surely the time has come for Canada to announce its full support for an early total test ban and thus help to strengthen the nonproliferation treaty and regime. The best way to do this is to join the vast majority of the world community in backing the test-ban amendment conference.

That conference is the only diplomatic and political game that remains that can achieve progress towards a total test ban. If Canada does do so, and tries to persuade its NATO allies to join with it, then there is hope that in 1995 we shall have both a CTB and a renewed NPT.

William Epstein is a Senior Fellow at the United Nations Institute for Training and Research. He represented the Secretary-General at the negotiations that led to the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, the 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco and the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The above text was the outline for a talk delivered to The Canadian Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, on Feb. 8 at University College, University of Toronto.

Whole issue on one page | as PDF

ISSN 1925-170X (Print) | ISSN 1925-1718 (Online)