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UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs
June 2, 2022
UN Conference Shows Support For Test Ban; U.S. Absent
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Philipp C. Bleek

A November 11-13 UN conference intended to advance entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) showcased strong international support for the pact but was marred by a U.S. decision not to attend.

Delegates from 118 states, including 49 representatives at the ministerial level, attended the conference, many stressing the treaty’s role in stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. Opening the conference, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States “should have made it clear to everyone that we cannot afford further proliferation of nuclear weapons.”

Several close U.S. allies delivered statements strongly supporting the treaty. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw sought to “underline” his country’s “commitment to multilateral non-proliferation regimes and to this treaty.” Japanese Ambassador Nobuyasu Abe called the treaty “a practical and concrete measure for realizing a nuclear-weapon-free world” and pointedly critiqued “the hesitation of some of the major states to ratify.” The U.S. Senate refused to give its advice and consent to the treaty in October 1999, and the Bush administration has said it will not ask the Senate to reconsider ratification.

After a drawn-out internal debate, the administration decided only days before the conference not to send a U.S. representative. Richard Grenell, spokesman for U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Negroponte, said simply, “We’re just not going to engage.”

Several diplomats privately expressed disappointment at the U.S. failure to attend. With an apparent shift toward a more multilateral foreign policy in support of the global campaign against terrorism, some delegations said they had expected the United States to send at least a low-level official to the meeting.

Some observers continued to hold out hope for eventual U.S. ratification. The conference president, Mexican Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs Miguel Marin Bosch, told journalists at a November 11 briefing, “If you keep up the pressure on the United States, I believe they will come around.” Speaking to delegates at the conference, Edward Levine, aide to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden (D-DE), also held out the possibility that the treaty could be reconsidered and ratified by the Senate.

The conference concluded by adopting a consensus document that notes “with concern” the fact that the treaty “has not entered into force five years after its opening for signature,” calls on states to maintain existing testing moratoria, and calls on states that have not done so to sign and ratify the treaty “as soon as possible.”

The conference also yielded a new proposal from Russia. Representing his country, former Minister of Defense Igor Sergeyev suggested that Russia is interested in “considering the possibility to develop additional verification measures for nuclear test ranges going far beyond the treaty provisions” once the treaty enters into force. Measures could include “exchange of geological data” or “installation of additional sensors.”

The treaty’s monitoring and verification regime is currently being established in preparation for entry into force. Wolfgang Hoffman, executive secretary of the Preparatory Commission, told conference delegates that, as a result of “strong political commitment” and commensurate funding, progress is being made on establishing the treaty’s “unique global verification regime comprising an International Monitoring System, a consultation and clarification process, [and] on-site inspections and confidence-building measures.”

Opened for signature in 1996, the CTBT will take effect once it is ratified by 44 nuclear-capable states, but to date three of those countries—North Korea, India, and Pakistan—have not signed, and 10 others, including the United States, China, and Israel, have yet to ratify. Several states used the conference to announce their ratification or signature of the treaty. The tally of signatories is now 164, and the number of ratifying states has reached 89.