Why you should care
Because you don’t want nuclear annihilation either.
Pope Francis’ call last week at the United Nations “to work for a world free of nuclear weapons” was a welcome reminder that, 70 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we still live in a dangerously weaponized era. A comprehensive and verifiable ban on nuclear testing is an essential element on the road toward achieving this nuclear-weapons-free world. Today, the testing ban is within reach, but it is at risk. This week at the U.N., nations met to determine the future of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). Their success or failure matters for the nuclear agenda and far beyond. Some supporters may be growing tired of the upward climb, but to give in to fatigue or frustration now would be a grave mistake.
Seventy years ago, the nuclear weapons era was triggered by the first nuclear test in the Alamogordo desert in the United States, and the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those blasts are forever imprinted on our collective consciousness, but they were not the last. Nuclear testing continued ferociously without concern for public health or the environment. Altogether, the yields of the nuclear tests conducted between 1945 and 1980 are equal to a Hiroshima-size bomb of 13 kilotons exploding every 11 hours for 35 years. A half-century passed before the world attempted to halt this process.
Opened for signature on Sept. 24, 1996, the CTBT is not only a unique global effort to put a stop to all nuclear explosions everywhere — by everyone, forever — but it’s also a meaningful mechanism for eliminating nuclear weapons altogether. Additionally, it is the only agreement to obligate nuclear-weapons possessors and nonpossessors alike to undertake concrete steps toward disarmament.
This endeavor is not a theoretical exercise. Instead, an unparalleled international verification system has been designed, built, tested and is operating to confirm that countries fully adhere to the ban on nuclear tests. The centerpiece of the verification regime is the International Monitoring System, a worldwide network for detecting nuclear explosions that consists of 337 monitoring stations in 89 countries spanning the most remote parts of the globe.
This is what efficient, cost-effective, multilateral investment by governments looks like. The system has been tested and proven in the real world: The North Korean tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013 — the only ones this millennium — were detected with speed and accuracy, and the data was provided to member countries.
Yet the future of the CTBT as a necessary and functioning pillar for international peace and security is far from assured. Its rules are not yet legally binding, and its operations and benefits are temporary. Further action is required from a mere eight countries for the treaty to become fully enshrined in international law. China, Egypt, Iran, Israel and the United States are signatories, but have yet to ratify. India, North Korea and Pakistan have yet to sign. This small minority wields disproportionate influence on the ultimate fate of the treaty and is currently blocking the near universal will of all other nations.
We are at a crossroads. Down one path is a world without nuclear test explosions, where a trusted verification regime eradicates global threats through accountability.
Down the other path is a grim and disheartening world unbound by the sensibilities of civilized nations. The voluntary suspension of nuclear testing could shatter and fuel regional arms races and proliferation crises. Even if the testing moratorium remained, the cause of eventually eliminating nuclear weapons altogether would be set back substantially. Moreover, the experience, expertise, talent and infrastructure developed in test monitoring could atrophy and disappear, leaving us further impoverished in terms of the capabilities needed to achieve and maintain a world without nuclear weapons.
Whether countries pass or fail this particular test of modern-day multilateralism matters for more than the nuclear weapons agenda. If countries falter after nearly two decades, how will they succeed in tackling challenges such as climate change, which also needs collective solutions requiring monitoring and accountability, as well as mutual trust and respect?
CTBT-ratifying countries must go further to protect their investment in global, regional and national security. They must also consider what costs they might exact on countries that continue to stymie the will of the majority. As for the eight holdout countries, are they willing to ignore progress and bear the consequences? Some of them may consider this a matter of weighing their national interests against global interests. Engaging with the CTBT and its verification regime would reveal those interests to be complementary and not in competition.
The world is becoming increasingly dangerous and complex. Now is the time to embrace the progress already made and bring the CTBT into force as a first concrete and achievable step in answering Pope Francis’ call for a world free of nuclear weapons.