The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty: Myths and Realities



The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) was adopted with near unanimity by the UN General Assembly on 24 September 1996. Today the CTBT nears universality. 182 states have signed the Treaty of which 157 have also ratified it, among them nuclear weapons states like France, the United Kingdom and Russia.


The text of the CTBT was drafted after two years of intense, in depth negotiations by the U.N. Conference on Disarmament. But this was the result of four decades of proposals, resolutions, and many rounds of negotiations, reports and scientific studies.

The idea of a legal ban on nuclear testing was first proposed in 2 April 1954 by Jawaharlal Nehru as a means to curb the nuclear arms race of the Cold War, to protect the environment and populations in Asia and the Pacific where most of the nuclear testing was conducted at the time and, most important, as an essential first step towards nuclear disarmament.

The first decade of negotiations for a CTBT was only partially successful. They produced in 1963 a Partial Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (PTBT) to which India is a full adherent.

Despite the fact that it lacks a multilateral verification regime like that of the CTBT, the PTBT basically imposes obligations of the exact same scope as the CTBT: it bans all nuclear explosions in the atmosphere, in space or underwater, though it falls short of fully closing the door on nuclear testing because it does not cover underground nuclear testing.

So to a great extent, when it comes to nuclear tests above the ground, India already adheres in a legally binding manner to the main CTBT norm. As far as underground nuclear testing is concerned, immediately after the 1998 nuclear tests India has announced an indefinite moratorium on nuclear testing. In the last 14 years India and Pakistan consistently abide to this moratorium and this practice is likely to continue.

The entry into force of the CTBT is a necessary precondition for nuclear disarmament, it’s necessary even to reach a point where a binding timeframe can become visible.

Ever since the very first proposal for a treaty banning all nuclear explosions by Nehru, such a treaty was perceived as a condition necessary, though per se not adequate, for the achievement and subsequently the sustainment of a world free of nuclear weapons.

In other words the CTBT, or the PTBT before it, were never meant to become or to substitute a “Nuclear Weapons Convention.” But they were seen as a sine qua non condition for the realization of nuclear disarmament. So while the entry into force of the CTBT might not guaranty nuclear zero, the delay of its entry into force most certainly delays progress towards that goal.

It’s unfair and unproductive to criticize the CTBT, or any treaty for that matter, on the grounds of it not being a not cure-all. The CTBT however is a necessary building block for nuclear disarmament and an important part of the non-proliferation architecture by arresting not only horizontal but also vertical proliferation, arresting qualitative nuclear warhead development.

In the end states should weigh their options: are they safer if all other countries stop nuclear testing in an effectively verifiable way or if they leave open the possibility for own nuclear test – at the expense of leaving open the door for nuclear tests by all others, a path inevitably leaving to new nuclear arms races and tensions.

The CTBT imposes a zero nuclear yield ban. ‘Subcritical’ tests and computer simulations are not covered. Almost all states negotiating the CTBT agreed that subcritical testing and computer simulations are not militarily and politically significant to threaten strategic stability. Though not negligible, they cannot even be compared to the political, environmental and humanitarian dangers and damage posed by explosive nuclear testing.

However if one deems important to also ban these activities, this is more likely to materialize through future multilateral negotiations building on the accomplishments of the CTBT while it’s impossible to achieve without the CTBT firmly into force first.

The CTBT is not discriminatory. On the contrary, it has a democratizing effect in international affairs. The CTBT does not discriminate between haves and have-nots.

All the obligations and benefits deriving from the Treaty are applied in an equal, uniform, non-discriminatory manner for all states regardless of size, political influence or nuclear capabilities. The rule that the CTBT imposes is simple, straightforward and the same for all.

No nuclear test explosions, anywhere, by anyone. This rule by nature and the CTBT verification regime by design are unable of discriminating against any state. All countries have equal access to the verification relevant findings and the wealth of scientific data of the CTBTO monitoring system, now 85% operational, that can be used for natural and nuclear disaster mitigation efforts like early tsunami warning. This was demonstrated in the wake of the triple disaster in Japan in March 2011.

The role of the CTBTO was crucial in tracking radioactivity releases from Fukushima. The CTBTO data can help to save lives and this is an important consideration for signing the treaty. If anything, the CTBT bridges the gap between countries when it comes to technological capabilities and capacity in resources for arms control verification, scientific research and disaster mitigation.