The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test- Ban Treaty (CTBT).


The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test- Ban Treaty (CTBT) is the treaty banning all nuclear explosions - everywhere, by everyone. The treaty was negotiated at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in 1996.

But, despite more than 20 years after the UN opened the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) for signature on 24 September 1996, it has still not entered into force. It is the only multilateral treaty to have met such an uncertain fate. The call for a CTBT was made long ago, in the early 1950s, as a first step towards nuclear disarmament. The United States supported the negotiations when these finally began in 1994 and then President Bill Clinton was the treaty's first signatory; today, there are 183 countries that have signed up and of these, 164 have ratified the treaty. Yet the CTBT's entry into force remains an elusive goal. This was mainly due to the fact that Article XIV of the CTBT states that the treaty can enter into force only when all of the 44 states possessing nuclear weapons capabilities and research reactors sign and ratify the treaty. Of these 44 states, the treaty awaits formal ratification from the US, China, Israel, Iran and Egypt (which have already signed) and both signature and ratification from India, Pakistan and North Korea, in order to implement a legally binding global ban on nuclear testing. Though short of signing the CTBT, India has endorsed the basic objective of the treaty by declaring a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing.

Nuclear Test

Between 1945 and 1996 when the CTBT was adopted, over 2000 nuclear tests were conducted by the United States (1000+), the Soviet Union (700+), France (200+), the United Kingdom and China (45 each). Three countries have carried out nuclear explosions after the 1996: India and Pakistan in 1998 and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 2006, 2009 and 2017.

Significance of the Treaty

The CTBT with its 183 signatories and 164 ratifications is one of the most widely supported arms-control treaties. This near universal support is due to the treaty’s non-discriminatory nature, where everyone has the same obligation never to conduct a nuclear explosion. As another mark of progress, the prohibition against testing has emerged as an established global political and behavioural norm. The international condemnation of North Korea as the only country that has conducted nuclear tests in this millennium is a vivid illustration.

After each of the North Korean nuclear tests, all CTBT State Signatories received the same high-quality information about the location, magnitude, depth and time of the event within hours of detection by the CTBTO system of monitoring stations.

Further, CTBTO has evolved from a mere blueprint to the custodian of the world’s largest and most sophisticated multilateral verification system through the International Monitoring System (IMS). Over 300 stations in 89 countries have been built to monitor for signs of nuclear explosions around the globe and round the clock. The IMS monitors the Earth’s crust, listens in the atmosphere and in the oceans and sniffs the air for traces of radioactivity.

While scanning the globe for signs of a nuclear test, this monitoring system produces data that have many spinoff applications, from disaster early warning to scientific research on the Earth’s inner structures, climate change or meteors, to name just a few of the potential uses.

In addition to it, CTBTO is also making contributions to the nuclear safety field. After the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident, CTBTO data provided timely information on the radioactive emissions from the crippled plant and their global dispersion.

The IMS has also facilitated a rich international exchange of data and expertise and boosted technological advancements pertaining to infrasound and noble gas monitoring. Additionally, the CTBTO has an active programme of engagement with the international scientific community who can tap into a wealth of data generated by the IMS, and civil and scientific applications are booming.

In spite of all these achievements, the CTBT has yet to become global law due to its demanding entry into force clause, which requires the signature and ratification of all 44 countries listed as nuclear technology capable.

What is CTBTO?

The abbreviation stands for the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization. The organization promotes the treaty so that it can enter into force. It also establishes a verification regime to monitor adherence to the Treaty.

CTBT and India’s Journey

India underscored the need for a test-ban treaty long before the establishment of the CTBT. In 1954, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was the first leader of a state to call for an “immediate standstill” agreement on nuclear testing between the United States and the former Soviet Union. However, ignoring India’s efforts, the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) was signed by the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom in August 1963, which did little to halt the actual number of nuclear tests that presently figures at 2055. Thereafter, the worsening security concerns with China’s nuclear test in 1964, the 1965 India-Pakistan war and U.S. intimidation in the 1971 war drove India to conduct a peaceful nuclear test in 1974 to keep the nuclear testing option open. However, India still continued supporting the idea of a nuclear test-ban policy—this is evident from a June 1978 statement calling for a ban on nuclear weapons testing at a Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), followed by a call in 1982 for a freeze on nuclear weapons production. In 1988, India proposed an Action Plan that advocated a ban on development of new weapons systems, and recommended nuclear disarmament in a time-bound framework of 22 years. Believing that the CTBT was a cardinal aspect of the disarmament process, India continued to support multilateral negotiations and jointly co-sponsored a consensus resolution on the CTBT at the UNGA in 1993.

However, India’s efforts towards a test-ban treaty, as a vehicle to eventually achieve total nuclear disarmament, were thwarted in 1995 with the indefinite extension of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). India protested that not only did the NPT profess unequal obligations between the nuclear-haves and have-nots, but it also did not mandate the original nuclear weapon states (NWS) to adopt equal obligations towards universal nuclear disarmament. Simultaneously, the China-Pakistan illicit nuclear nexus heightened security considerations and compelled India to eventually conduct a series of nuclear tests in May 1998. Immediately after the tests, India declared a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing and has continued to adhere to that position. Following the 1998 nuclear tests, India expressed a flexible position on the CTBT and specified its readiness to discuss a de jure formalization of its voluntary moratorium on future nuclear testing.

However, India made it clear that its support for the CTBT could not exist in any “vacuum” and “depended on a series of reciprocal activities” from the P5 nations (US, China, France, UK and Russia) : namely to refrain from conducting future tests under the guise of safety purposes, and to preclude all horizontal and vertical proliferation.

Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty

A fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT) is a proposed international agreement that would prohibit the production of the two main components of nuclear weapons: highly-enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium. Discussions on this subject have taken place at the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD), a body of 65 member nations established as the sole multilateral negotiating forum on disarmament. The CD operates by consensus and is often stagnant, impeding progress on an FMCT.

Why India hasn’t Joined CTBT?

India has pursued a consistent and principled policy on nuclear disarmament and the CTBT. It is a policy rooted in the conviction that nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction and the elimination of nuclear weapons will enhance the security of all people and all nations.

Since its inception, India has had a number of reservations about the CTBT. While it has stood by its demand for a nuclear weapons-free world, various principled, procedural, political, and security concerns have stood in the way of its support for the CTBT.

India’s principled opposition drew from its emphasis on universal and complete nuclear disarmament in a time-bound manner. India has traditionally believed this to be the end goal with the test ban just being a path to get there. But it did not insist on a complete disarmament clause in 1994, acknowledging that it was a “complex issue.”

The turning of the tides came with the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995, which did not result in a firm commitment to nuclear disarmament by the P5 as sought by the ‘have nots’. After the NPT extension, India felt that apart from the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT), the only way to hold the P5 to a time-bound elimination of nuclear weapons clause was through the CTBT. While some of these concerns were incorporated into the CTBT text, the ‘time bound’ aspect was not. India saw the attempt at a test ban becoming an end in itself, while exacerbating technology differences between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. For instance, one of India’s concerns was the possibility of those already possessing nuclear weapons upgrading their arsenals through sub-critical and laboratory simulated testing.

Added to this mix was a crucial domestic political factor: the run-up to the Indian general elections of 1996. The political parties did not want to risk alienating the voting population since foreign policy decisions like these could be misinterpreted as capitulation to the West.

On the security front, India thought that it faced uncertain dangers from Pakistan and China, which had conducted nuclear tests even while the CTBT was being negotiated. As party to the CTBT, India would be waiving the possibility of testing and developing its own nuclear weapons whereas China would be able to retain its arsenal as per the NPT. This was compounded by the fear of nuclear collusion between China and Pakistan.

All of this culminated in then Indian envoy to the United Nations in Geneva, Ambassador Arundhati Ghose’s statement in 1996 in which she said, “…India will not sign this unequal treaty, not now, nor later.”

Further, there are also those, particularly from India’s scientific and security bureaucracies, who continue to believe that accepting the CTBT would hinder India’s strategic nuclear program development and the option to test must be kept open. Others consider the hold up of CTBT ratification by the United States Congress and by China as diplomatically convenient for India in that this precludes an official Indian stand on the matter.

Apart from this, there is no public debate on the CTBT in India – certainly none displaying the vigour with which it continues to be debated in the West.

Gains for India by Signing CTBT

If India decides to sign the CTBT, the diplomatic gains from such announcement will be immense. At a time when India is increasingly accepted as an emerging global power and as a responsible member of the nuclear community, a voluntary decision to sign the CTBT would enhance our stature further. At a more pragmatic level, this type of move will greatly strengthen India’s case for being admitted to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and other international groupings. Unreasonable and impractical demands have been made over the last couple of years that India should first join the Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT) before being considered for membership of the NSG. Such arguments wouldn’t stand against the fact that besides having always followed all the NPT guidelines in spirit, by signing the CTBT, we will go well beyond what even some NPT weapon states have done.

Importance of CTBT The CTBT is the last barrier on the way to develop nuclear weapons. It curbs the development of new nuclear weapons and the improvement of existing nuclear weapon designs. When the treaty enters into force it provides a legally binding norm against nuclear testing. The treaty also helps prevent human suffering and environmental damages caused by nuclear testing.


India’s 1998 nuclear test was “fully successful” in testing fission and thermonuclear weapons capable of yields up to 200 kilotons. This implies that India might not require additional nuclear tests, unless there is a significant deterioration in its security environment. Despite the change in governments over the years, India has continued to uphold its commitment to a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing, signifying a political consensus on its stated position on the CTBT.

A nation aspiring to be a world power must not shy away from taking bold initiatives at crucial periods. As Shakespeare wrote, “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” Such an opportunity is available to India to fortify its place as a leader in the community of nations, that too without flexing its military or economic muscle.

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