The nuclear culprits

20 September 2007
USA and North Korea are strangely on the same side as nations gather for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) organisation this week. John Gittings explains the connection.
Can there possibly be a current global issue on which the United States and North Korea, plus Iran and China and just six other countries, line up against the rest of the world? Even professionals in international affairs might rack their brains, but the answer can be found this week at an under-reported conference in Vienna. More than 100 countries are attending the meeting of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) organisation, the fifth held since it was signed in 1996. They are trying to persuade 10 countries whose refusal to sign and/or to ratify the treaty means that it cannot take effect. These are China, Colombia, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and the US. The Bush administration is in company with one fellow permanent security council member, four other nuclear powers, two alleged "rogue states", and two or three odd allies, all thumbing their noses at the 140 countries which have already ratified the treaty. The US and North Korea plus India did not even bother to send a delegation to Vienna. Signing and ratifying the treaty should hardly be controversial: an international agreement to ban all tests will impose an additional constraint on any country tempted to go down the nuclear path. It would create a sense of optimism which is badly needed for the future of other disarmament negotiations. A verification system for spotting tests is already in place and when fully implemented it will be able to detect explosions down to 500-ton yield with 90% accuracy, and those with much lower yields at all known test sites. (Though not yet fully operational, it picked up North Korea's low-yield test last year.) Signatory states will also be obliged to allow on-site inspections. President Clinton called the treaty the "longest-sought, hardest-fought prize in the history of arms control", but that was before the Republican-led senate snubbed him by refusing to ratify it. Even Henry Kissinger joined a call this year for a bipartisan effort to achieve US ratification. What is now needed is far more intense public scrutiny and media focus: the current meeting in Vienna has been reported mostly, if at all, by using agency wires. We need to name and shame, in particular, the US and China who as permanent security council members and also as nuclear-power members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty have especially high visibility and authority in this field. "Whenever the Bush administration speaks or votes against the CTBT," says Rebecca Johnson (head of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy), "it lets North Korea, China, India and the others off the hook." Chinese diplomats claim that they support the treaty but that the National People's Congress is still deliberating over it. If Beijing really is the mature, responsible world power which it now claims to be, it should stop making this feeble excuse. The National People's Congress will ratify the treaty the moment that it is told to do so.