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EDITIONS
Thursday, 14 October, 1999, 09:24 GMT 10:24 UK
Q&A: What is the CTBT?
The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is one of the most complex treaties ever agreed - and its ratification is proving just as testing.

If it comes into force, it will mean that all nuclear explosions anywhere in the world will be banned. Air-burst detonations are already covered by an earlier tretay.

The CTBT sets out nuclear disarmament as a principle but diplomatically avoids the politics of the issue.

Its supporters argue that while the goal remains total disarmament, the treaty is capable of preventing the development of new weapons, or improving those that exist.

Former US President Eisenhower was among the first to propose the treaty and while he actively built up nuclear stockpiles, he said his failure to successfully clinch a deal was the "greatest disappointment" of his administration.

After decades of false starts, the traditional "big five" nuclear powers of the USA, Russia, China, the UK and France backed talks which led to the CTBT coming into being at the United Nations in September 1996.

President Bill Clinton was the first world leader to sign the historic document. To date 154 states have followed.

So how does it work?

Once ratification is completed, the Vienna-based test ban organisation will report if it believes an explosion has taken place.

This work will be carried out by 321 monitoring stations and 16 laboratories throughout the world.

The scientists will be able to demand the right to inspect an area if they believe a nuclear test has been carried out.

So the CTBT has been an international success?

Not yet.

The treaty cannot come into force until 44 individually named states ratify it in their own legislatures. These 44 nations are those known to be holding or thought capable of developing nuclear weapons.

To date, 24 of this group have ratified, including only two of the big five, the UK and France.

Among other named states yet to ratify but known to hold nuclear weapons are Israel, Pakistan and India, though Israel did sign the treaty in 1996.

But surely everyone must want to sign?

While almost every nation subscribes to the test ban treaty's noble aims, the realities of international power politics are playing their part with many nations seemingly waiting to see what the US does.

President Bill Clinton has warned Congress that if it fails to ratify the treaty it would "be a signal that the United States wants to lead the world away from the cause of non-proliferation."

He says that the US now has the technology to safely stockpile weapons, carry out computer simulated tests and monitor other states, leaving it with no excuse not to sign.

Congress rejected the legislation on 13 October 1999, after Republicans argued that the CTBT would fail to properly monitor other nations.

What's holding it up?

Many nations say a test ban without disarmament is no longer good enough.

Both India and Pakistan, which carried out tit-for-tat nuclear tests in 1998, remain opposed to the CTBT, though they have faced massive US pressure to sign.

India has publically argued that the CTBT merely formalises nuclear discrimination, allowing the big five to maintain modern weapons but preventing others from developing an adequate nuclear deterrent.

Another argument against ratification is that the US also remains capable of breaking the spirit of the treaty by continuing with research into ballistic missile defences, the successor to former President Reagan's "Star Wars" programme.

Are other talks taking place?

Large scale disarmament talks are currently failing to bear fruit.

Talks at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva have been frequently criticised as flawed and bogged down in procedural wranglings.

The conference president said that its work could only be a "microcosm" of the wider international environment which has seen nuclear tension rise in the past 18 months.

The Canberra Commission of 1997, a side report linked to the Conference on Disarmament, argued that if states carried out a number of measures including taking weapons off alert and mothballing some technologies, countries would feel able to negotiate.

What about talks between Russian and the US?

Opening sessions of the "Start III" (Strategic Arms Reduction) negotiations between the US and Russia have yet to get off the ground even though they hold out the prospect of reducing the number of warheads held by each nation to as low as 1,000.

Moscow has also warned that US that its missile defence projects, which could only go ahead under a modification of the key 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile missile treaty, could spark an entirely new and far more dangerous arms race.

See also:

06 Oct 99 | Americas
12 Oct 99 | Americas
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