No. 6 - Nov. 1996
Vol. 44 - pp. 26-30

Towards a nuclear test ban treaty

Ambassador Jaap Ramaker
Permanent Representative of the Netherlands to the Conference on Disarmament, and the 1996 Chairman of the Conference's Ad Hoc Committee on a Nuclear Test Ban.

Amb. Ramaker
The two-and-one-half year long negotiations on a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty ended in stalemate in September. Despite this setback in the Geneva Conference on Disarmament, the treaty text was tabled as a UN resolution which was adopted by a large majority. The CTBT is now open for signature. This article explains the unusual path this momentous treaty has taken to arrive at this point.

The question of limiting or banning nuclear weapon test explosions has remained on the multilateral arms negotiations agenda since 1954, the year in which India proposed the conclusion of a "standstill agreement" on testing. None of the various treaties concluded since then, however, comprehensively provides for either a complete ban on nuclear explosions in all environments or for a ban on nuclear explosions of any yield. Notwithstanding the multilateral Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) of 1963 or the bilateral US-Soviet Threshold Test Ban Treaty of 1974 and the Peaceful Nuclear Explosion Treaty of 1976, the world community retained its aspirations for a comprehensive test ban treaty.

The Geneva Conference on Disarmament (CD) and its predecessor, the Eighteen Nations Committee on Disarmament, devoted much attention to this issue. The CD, for instance, agreed on the establishment of the Group of Scientific Experts (GSE), to work out verification measures for an eventual CTBT. Indeed, the present seismic network for the detection of underground nuclear explosions of the CTBT is based upon the work of the GSE over the past 20 years.

But political circumstances in the Cold War years prevented agreement on starting actual negotiations on a CTBT. Early on in the 1980s, the US administration took the view that nuclear testing was essential for the security of the Alliance. A comprehensive test ban was therefore seen as a long-term objective in the context of nuclear arms control. The Soviet Union basically held the same views as far as the Warsaw Pact was concerned.

The start of negotiations

With the end of the Cold War, the situation changed. In 1991, France took the initiative for a "réflexion commune" (common consideration) on nuclear testing among the five nuclear weapon states. During that and the following year, France, the Russian Federation and the United States declared unilateral moratoria on nuclear testing. Increasingly, the idea gained ground that negotiations on a comprehensive test ban should start soon. The CD, which had just successfully finished negotiations on the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), was generally preferred as the forum for such negotiations.

On 10 August 1993, the Conference's Ad Hoc Committee on a Nuclear Test Ban (AHC/NTB) agreed on a negotiating mandate. According to the operative part of this mandate, the Conference should "negotiate intensively a universal and multilaterally and effectively verifiable comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty, which would contribute effectively to the prevention of the proliferation of nuclear weapons in all its aspects, to the process of nuclear disarmament and therefore to the enhancement of international peace and security".

In January 1994, negotiations started under the Chairmanship of Ambassador Miguel Marin Bosch of Mexico. At the outset, a lot of preparatory work had to be done. This was first and foremost true for the verification aspects of the future treaty, but also for its legal and institutional aspects which were still underdeveloped. During the first months of the negotiations, numerous proposals for different aspects of the treaty were presented. Some proposals were entirely new, others were based on existing arms control and disarmament treaties such as the PTBT or the CWC.

Sweden (in December 1993) and Australia (in March 1994) presented complete draft Treaties. Already by mid-1994, Ambassador Marin Bosch intended to present a 'vision text', that is, a text describing goals beyond what had been proposed on the basis of the material available.

Warnings came primarily from Western delegations against such a 'vision text', because looking too far ahead at what a CTBT should be, without having properly negotiated a text, could alienate the nuclear weapon states and could therefore endanger the negotiating process. In the view of these delegations, a Chairman's text in the then prevailing state of negotiations should only reflect those proposals made and serve as the basis for further negotiations. Instead of presenting a 'vision text', therefore, by the end of the 1994 CD session, the Chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee incorporated all the elements provided to him into a 'rolling text' to serve as a basis for the negotiations.

The negotiations in 1995

During 1995, negotiations proceeded steadily on the basis of the 'rolling text' - that is, a text with bracketed passages still under discussion. There was convergence on more and more issues, in particular regarding the technologies for the monitoring of possible nuclear explosions, to be integrated into the International Monitoring System (IMS). By the end of 1995, there was agreement that the IMS should consist of a seismic network, a hydro-acoustic network to monitor the oceans, an infrasound network to monitor possible atmospheric nuclear explosions, and a network of radionuclide monitors to capture radioactive particles that would identify explosions as having been nuclear.

As far as institutional aspects of the treaty were concerned, a large measure of convergence was reached on the powers and functions of the international organization to be established for the implementation of the treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO). The only real issue to be settled here was the composition of the Executive Council, the organ responsible inter alia for taking decisions on requests for onsite inspections.

The final year, 1996

By 1996, however, a number of key issues still remained unresolved and, according to a UN resolution adopted in 1995, the negotiations would have to be brought to a close and the treaty opened for signature by September 1996. The degree of divergence on the key issues made it very unlikely that further negotiations on the basis of the rolling text would bring compromise much nearer. Even in the final phase of the negotiations, delegations appeared not to be prepared to compromise on their specific concerns. It became apparent that they needed to be assisted in this. Thus, on 28 May 1996, a Chairman's text was tabled - the first complete and integrated text of a draft CTBT. This text was the Chairman's best judgement of where the balance of the treaty, seen in its entirety, could lie. Although nations like China, India and Pakistan at first did not accept that this text could be the basis for further negotiations, that is what it became in practice.

What then were the major issues causing difficulties to the negotiating parties?


For a long time there had been widely diverging views on what exactly the CTBT should ban. On the one hand, the nuclear weapon states wanted to keep open the option of small-yield explosions for safety and reliability testing. On the other hand, many non-aligned countries, foremost India, Indonesia and Pakistan, wanted to extend the ban to include non-explosive testing so as not only to put an end to any development of nuclear weapons, but also to preclude the safety and reliability tests of existing nuclear weapon stockpiles.

A breakthrough was reached when, in the spring of 1995, France, the United States and the United Kingdom accepted "zero yield" as the meaning of the words "... not to carry out any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion...", a formulation contained in the so-called "Australian formula". This language, introduced in the rolling text by Australia, gained increasing support in the course of 1995 and 1996. This left China and Russia, as the only nuclear weapon states not agreeing to the Australian language, more isolated.

China could not accept the Australian formula because it would exclude the possibility of so-called "peaceful nuclear explosions" (PNEs), a concept China attached great importance to, but which found no support from any other delegation. Russia was hesitant, because it still preferred scope language which was modeled on the PTBT (the "Moscow Treaty"), listing the specific environments where nuclear explosions would be prohibited.

On the other end of the spectrum, India and Pakistan could not accept the Australian language, because it would not preclude either sub-zero testing - that is, with zero yield - or computer simulations. Their anxiety was raised by President Clinton's statement, tying the American support for a zero yield ban to the ability of the United States to secure the safety and reliability of its nuclear weapons arsenal. They accused the nuclear weapon states of trying to create a regime which would only prohibit the "simple" way of testing and leave the possibility of sophisticated, non-explosive testing in the hands of a few, thereby constructing a discriminatory regime that would only benefit "horizontal" non-proliferation and would have no impact on "vertical" proliferation, that is the qualitative improvement of nuclear weapons, or on nuclear disarmament.

To allay these fears and to counter the notion that a zero yield CTBT would have no impact on the nuclear weapon states' nuclear capacities, the Director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), John Holum, stated in the Conference on Disarmament on 23 January 1996, that a CTBT was an indispensable step towards nuclear disarmament in itself and that it was precisely the nuclear weapon states that would be most affected by it. He indicated that explosive testing was needed in order to confidently develop new nuclear weapons. For lack of such confidence, the practical impact of a CTBT would be to end the development of advanced new weapons and keep new military applications from emerging.

Qian Qichen
Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen puts his signature to the CTBT on 24 September.
(EPA/Belga 36Kb)
Eventually, Russia and China accepted the Australian scope language. China could do so after a compromise formula was found postponing the discussion of the question of PNEs to a Review Conference ten years after entry into force and making any decision in this matter dependent on consensus, thereby practically banning PNEs for the future. This left those who felt that the Australian formula was not going far enough with the problem of deciding whether to insist that the CTBT specifically ban the qualitative improvement and further development of nuclear weapons. India, in addition, had gone as far as insisting on tying the CTBT into a time-bound framework for complete nuclear disarmament, an idea that was rejected outright by the nuclear weapon states and that was not thought by most of the other delegations to be a realistic demand in the framework of these negotiations.

A compromise solution that eventually was acceptable to the great majority was a reference in the preamble to the effects of a CTBT, "recognizing that the cessation of all nuclear weapon test explosions and all other nuclear explosions, by constraining the development and qualitative improvement of nuclear weapons and ending the development of advanced new types of nuclear weapons, constitutes an effective measure of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation in all its aspects".

Onsite Inspections

Western countries claimed that besides information emanating from the International Monitoring System, information from other sources should also be allowed as a basis for an onsite inspection (OSI) request. The reason for this was the inherent limitations of the IMS which, for practical and financial reasons, was designed in such a manner that it could not give a 100 per cent guarantee of detecting any possible nuclear explosion, especially if conducted under an evasive scenario.

China, India and Pakistan, on the other hand, were adamantly opposed to any role for non-IMS information. Their argument was that to allow for such information to be used would be tantamount to legalizing espionage and would be strongly biased towards the technologically advanced nations. The Russian Federation accepted the use of information from National Technical Means (NTM) of verification as a basis for an OSI request as long as the methods used were indeed technical.

These diametrically opposed views tied in with the question of what decision-making procedure the Executive Council of the future CTBT Organization would use to approve an OSI request. Western countries advocated the same model that had been accepted for the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), where an OSI takes place unless a two-thirds majority of all members of the Executive Council voted against it (the "red light approach").

China, India, Pakistan and Russia rejected this outright and insisted on a positive decision by the Executive Council with a qualified majority (the "green light approach"). Because neither side wished to compromise, in his Chairman's text, the Chairman formulated a package that allowed "any relevant technical information obtained by national technical means in a manner consistent with generally recognized principles of international law" to be used as a basis for an OSI request. As a counterbalance, the Executive Council would have to decide by a simple majority of all its members to approve an OSI.

Entry into Force

On the issue of the conditions under which the CTBT could take effect, certain countries insisted that a CTBT would only make sense if all nuclear capable states not legally prohibited from conducting nuclear explosions (the five nuclear weapon states and the three so-called "threshold" states) were on board, demanding that this be made a condition for the Treaty to enter into force. On the other side were those countries which did not want to give an actual veto to any state, as such a state could then hold the treaty's entry into force hostage, and therefore advocated a simple numerical formula as in the case of the CWC.

When it became clear that India was not going to be one of the original signatories of the CTBT, discussion of the subject took on more dramatic overtones. It was obvious that those who wanted to make entry into force of the CTBT conditional on ratification by inter alia India were at the same time taking the risk that the treaty would never enter into force. The Chairman proposed a compromise formula, which struck a fine balance between timely entry into force and the requirement of ratification by the eight relevant states. However, it turned out that no other solution than to make ratification by all eight, and therefore by India, a condition sine qua non for entry into force, could find the necessary acceptance. Thus, a new formula was found whereby the CTBT will only enter into force after ratification by 44 countries possessing nuclear reactors, which are named in the treaty, including India.

The endgame

Notwithstanding intensive negotiations, agreement could only be reached on a limited number of changes to the Chairman's draft CTBT tabled on 28 May of this year. These were introduced in a new version of the Chairman's text on 28 June 1996. On that occasion, the Chairman had to conclude that no further movement in positions of delegations could be discerned. As a result, it was his feeling that "convergence had reached its peak". After careful study of this revised draft, an increasing number of states expressed the view that, although they still had problems with one or more specific aspects of the treaty, they could accept and support it as the best possible compromise.

Only one further change was made to this text. At Chinese insistence, the requirement to decide by a simple majority of the members of the Executive Council to approve an OSI was further tightened to "30 affirmative votes of members of the Executive Council". By this change a fundamental requirement was met: all five nuclear weapon states could accept the draft treaty text.

At that point, India had already officially announced that it could not sign a CTBT which, like the present draft text, did not place the treaty in the context of a timebound framework for nuclear disarmament. India, however, went even further by stating that it would not allow a draft treaty to leave the CD that would maintain India against its will as one of the states upon which entry into force was conditioned. In India itself, the feeling that this would put illegitimate political pressure on the country to sign and ratify increased. Thus, India blocked consensus not only on the substance of the treaty, but also on the treaty's transmittal to the UN General Assembly (UNGA).

The UNGA route

Despite this deadlock in the CD, the CTBT was far from dead. While regrettable that the CD could not reach agreement on the treaty, support for the draft CTBT as it emerged after 21/2 years of negotiations in the Conference was so solid that increasingly states considered it justified to let the world community itself pass judgement on it. That is why Australia, supported by some 130 co-sponsors, tabled a draft resolution in early September 1996, proposing the adoption of the CTBT negotiated in Geneva. On 10 September 1996, the resolution was adopted by an overwhelming majority of the UN membership and on 24 September 1996, the CTBT was opened for signature. (1) While it may take some time before the treaty enters into force - the entry into force criteria, as described above, remain unchanged - it nevertheless will establish a norm that nuclear explosions are a thing of the past.


  1. The main text of the treaty is accessible at http://www.acda.gov/treaties/ramaker.htm and its annexes may be viewed at http://www.acda.gov/treaties/table.htm

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