Getting the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Back on Track

The year 1996 seems a long time ago - it was the year of the Atlanta Olympics, the Whitewater Scandal and the Manchester bomb. It also marked Osama bin Laden's first call for war against the USA.

Yet it was also the moment when an alternative future for the world opened up. After decades of stop-start negotiations in the United Nations, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was overwhelmingly approved more than ten years ago.

That year also marked the ruling of the International Court of Justice on the general illegality of nuclear weapons and the requirement for nuclear disarmament, the report of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, and the statement by 61 international generals and admirals calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons. It was, in short, a heady year for nuclear disarmament.

The test ban treaty was a real step forward. It was described as the 'People's Treaty', because of the huge groundswell of public support to end nuclear testing forever.

Since that time, the good news is that 176 states have signed the treaty and 135 states have ratified it. Unfortunately, the treaty will not enter into force until it has been ratified by 44 states who participated in the 1996 disarmament conference and who possess either nuclear power or research reactors.

The bad news is that only 34 of those listed on the annex have done so. The holdouts are: China, Columbia, North Korea, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, Pakistan and the United States.

The United States is key to progress. But the US Senate's highly partisan 1999 rejection of the CTBT, the opposition of the Bush administration, and the reluctance of the nine other CTBT hold-outs have left the treaty to languish. It never enjoyed formal entry into force and this inaction has left the door open to renewed nuclear testing. The new Senate leadership should make reinvigoration of the global nonproliferation regime a high priority. Ratifying the CTBT could provide a centerpiece to demonstrating a change in leadership: the US rejoining the rest of the world to promote international cooperative agreements, from reducing global warming to keeping lethal WMD material out of the hands of criminals and terrorists.

This can't happen too soon. North Korea has marched through the open door with its first underground test of an atomic device. There is widespread agreement that the test has escalated tension in the region and raised the stakes in the stand-off with the United States. It could also destroy the prospects for the CTBT and open the floodgates to more nuclear-armed states. While we welcome the current agreement with Pyonyang which may ultimately eliminate the North Korean nuclear program, and lead to a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, the details of implementation have yet to be worked out, and already, strong conservative opposition to the agreement is beginning to appear.

The door to an alternative way forward is also still open, and the United States could seize the moral high ground by leading the world through it. If President Bush were to press the Senate to reconsider and support ratification of the treaty, it could be part of a far-reaching strategy for shoring up the North Korean agreement, peacefully tackling the Iranian nuclear program and for preventing a world with 40 or more nuclear powers.

The North Korean and Iranian nuclear crises exemplify an increasing number of damaging developments that make it clear that the non-proliferation system needs to be strengthened and updated, not neglected or discarded. The international community must not only work together to develop more effective diplomatic approaches towards North Korea and Iran, but it must also apply stricter international safeguards on all nuclear programs, prevent the spread of uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing, secure a global halt to the production of fissile material for weapons purposes, take new steps to reduce the number and role of nuclear weapons and achieve the entry into force of the CTBT.

If, in 1963, at the height of the Cold War, the US, UK, and USSR could negotiate a limited test ban treaty. Why can't we ratify a comprehensive treaty now? Were we less threatened then? Are Iran and North Korea greater threats to the United States than was the USSR?

The CTBT is vital to a system of security that does not rely on nuclear weapons. Its entry into force would put a cap on the nuclear age. Posturing for domestic politics and insisting on a macho attitude in international relations has dangerous long-term implications, both for America and the rest of the world. Since the Bush administration has come to power, global non-proliferation has gone into a holding pattern at best, a tailspin at worst.

That can only lead to a world overpopulated with nuclear weapons and a nuclear war sooner or later. The consequences do not bear thinking about. So it is vital that CTBT supporters put the treaty back on the American and European political agenda and move to secure ratification by other key states.

Dr Ian Davis is the Co-Executive Director of the British American Security Information Council (BASIC)

Dame Anita Roddick is the founder of The Body Shop and a BASIC patron