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Interview with Tibor Tóth, Executive Secretary of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization
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Oliver Meier

On September 30, one week after the conclusion of the Conference on Facilitating the Entry into Force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in New York, Arms Control Association’s international representative and correspondent Oliver Meier met with Ambassador Tibor Tóth. Tóth, an Hungarian diplomat with extensive experience in the field of arms control and disarmament, is the newly appointed head of the Provisional Technical Secretariat, which sets up the future Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) Organization. He succeeds Wolfgang Hoffmann, who had served as executive secretary since March 1997.

ACT: Ambassador Tóth , you took over Aug. 1 as executive secretary of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization. Could you outline to us briefly what your priorities will be for the next couple of years in your work?

Tóth: Of course the priorities are very much defined by the treaty. They are very much defined by the resolution on the establishment of the [Preparatory Commission]. They are very much defined by the mid-term plan,[1] as well as for five years ahead. In that respect, whatever is prescribed by those documents, we will have to continue the implementation. I see two main areas for the Provisional Technical Secretariat. One is the further universalization of the treaty, and the other area is the continued buildup of the [International Monitoring] System (IMS) and putting in place those necessary ingredients for the implementation of the treaty.

As for the first part, of course, it’s a job shared with the members of our constituency, the signatories and ratifiers. While this is a joint venture of course, on many, many issues, we are doing an extremely important job. Universalization, in my judgment, is not just about ratification. There are important stepping-stones, all signatories or ratifiers are integrated in our family, in our arrangement, if you wish. For many of them, the [IMS] station-building is an important part of the job.

We will have, together with [the relevant states], created the necessary links of communications once those stations are built and certified. We have to see to the creation of the [ National Data Centers] and the communication links between [National Data Centers] and the Vienna International Data Center. [We have to see whether] traffic exists in both directions where, on the one hand we are getting the necessary data—waveform data and radionuclide data—and at the same time, whether we are able to distribute in this testing and provisional creation phase the data as well.

Why is the future operation of this arrangement important? This is a point that I would like to emphasize. The CTBT is a unique arrangement among the verification regimes. We are not just collecting information that is relevant for benchmarking comparisons or implementation, but after we have collected that information, we are sharing all that information with the members of our arrangements. In the second respect, I find it quite a unique and quite a democratic arrangement to enable countries to make good use of that arrangement. We have to enable them through capacity-building, through training to have a capacity available. That’s an important element as well as a stepping-stone leading to more and more integration of signatories and ratifiers. So all these steps are very important on the better integration of countries, which would lead to universalization together with ratification.

ACT:As the former chair of Working Group A,[2] can you briefly describe to us the overall financial situation of the organization and what are your anticipated requirements? Are signatory states making contributions sufficient to meet those needs? Can you tell us which states are in arrears? And also what could be done to improve the financial situation?

Tóth: Yes. Right now, we are close to the end of the third quarter of the year. My own feeling is that we are very close to the payment of the assessed contributions [at the level] where it used to be in the last couple of years. Still, we will have to make sure in the next three months that it really happens. If this will be the case, some still missing contributions will come in. Again, probably we will be above 90 percent of payment. Normally it’s between 90 percent and 95 percent, dependent upon whether we are speaking about the year, the existing financial year, or referring to the previous financial year. This is a very good ratio in the light of some of the difficulties in the other organizations. At the same time, it’s critical for us. We are an organization that is spending less than 20 percent of the budget on administrative costs. Of course, on one hand, it’s quite trivial in the light of the important buildup job we are to carry out. At the same time, it’s a result of certain elements of rationalization where we try to keep the administrative costs as low as possible. As for the prospects, we will have to see whether this payment pattern will continue or not. There might be, in the case of the United States, a continued discussion.

ACT: If I can just ask you a question on that point. The current U.S. administration does not support the treaty, but it continues to contribute a very large portion of the overall assessed dues. It withholds a share, however, that would be used for preparing the on-site inspection regime. A small number of states that provide a smaller share of CTBTO’s budget have also withheld or failed to deliver on their obligation for other reasons. What has been the effect on the work of CTBTO, and what do you think can be done to overcome these challenges?

Tóth: First of all, all payments, big or small, are important. The big ones because of the financial health of the organization; the small ones because of the political dedication expressed. As I mentioned to you, the rate of 90 percent to 95 percent payment is a very healthy rate, so in that respect, compared to many, many organizations, I think we have an excellent example. In the case of the United States, as it was stated by the Secretary of State, we hope that this might be in 2006 a one-time shortfall, if it is not resolved by the joint Senate/House [Conference] Committee, because right now there is a discussion about that.[3]

ACT: If I can just interrupt, what do you think might be the impact on CTBTO if the United States were to further cut its funding? As you mentioned, the Bush administration has proposed contributing $7.5 million less than its assessed contribution. What is your thinking on the possible effects of that?

Tóth: I would suggest waiting for the outcome of this joint Senate/House of Representatives discussion, because, as I understand, there’s a chance that at least a major chunk of the more than $7 million might be brought back as a result of the initiative that was undertaken in the Senate. And of course as I mentioned, the assessed contributions are needed, so we are making good use of the money, but for the continued buildup of the system we need the money. In terms of smaller countries, many of them are probably facing financial or economic difficulties, so it’s not necessarily an absence of political dedication on their side. At the same time, of course, we are encouraging all, all states-parties to pay their assessed contributions.

ACT: If I can change topic, we already mentioned the importance of continuing to build up the IMS. Can you give us a brief overview of current capabilities of the IMS, how many stations are completed? When do you anticipate completion? What is your target date?

Tóth: Around two-thirds of the system is ready, about 60 percent. As for the dynamics, there is a good dynamic because just during the last two years, 115 [IMS stations] were put in place, which is practically doubling the stations in place, so it’s not just the absolute number this time but the dynamics are very rapid. We have to put these numbers in the right context. We are the Preparatory Commission. If you have a look around at how preparatory commissions are functioning normally, real life for those regimes which do have a preparatory commission starts after the entry into force. It was very much the case, for instance, for [Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] OPCW. We have to put in place practically the whole system by the time of entry into force. So we, as a newly born baby, were expected from day one not just to walk but to run with high speed if you wish. So we are trying to do that. Another aspect of showing how dynamically our capacity is building is to show it through the products, because the stations are just a means of retrieving products, which is the data—data relevant for future comparisons benchmarking. In the last two years, the daily volume of data exchange tripled from 5 gigabytes per day to 14 gigabytes per day, which is an indication on the one hand of the volume generated by more and more stations. In addition to that, it’s an indication that more and more countries are participating in the provisional operation and the testing of the system. Right now we have 89 countries, and more than 700 end users of the data in those 89 countries. Again, a number dynamically increasing.

ACT: You already mentioned that the system is expected to be ready at entry into force. What’s your planning in terms of when you aim for completion? Could you also talk a little bit about the technical hurdles in completing the system? What do you see as the biggest hurdle right now?

Tóth: First of all, the good news I shared with you is that the system is two-thirds ready. The bad news is that we have to build the remaining one-third, and the low-lying fruit in terms of stations to be built have been built, so those stations that remain are in difficult geographic places, climate-wise in difficult places, or, because of some of the administrative and other arrangements, in difficult conditions. The Provisional Technical Secretariat had to build up two-thirds of the stations in the last nine years. What is ahead of us to bring the level to around 90 percent to 95 percent readiness by the end of 2007. And if you take into account that two-thirds of the stations were built, many of them in easier places in let’s say eight years, then this is quite a challenge. That would mean at the same time that by early 2008, around 90 percent to 95 percent of the system would be ready. Of course, it’s not just about building the stations. It’s about the communication lines; it’s about making those ingredients and putting them in place, which I mentioned earlier, the communication lines, [National Data Centers], the way how we are interacting with states signatories and ratifiers, and in addition to that, the testing on the system. So for nearly a year now we are running a system-wide [performance] test that is called SPT1, and this exercise should give us some idea how in its integrity, the different elements that were created, would really create a system, how they would work together in as seamlessly a way as it is possible.

ACT:Can you say something about the geographical coverage of the system right now? How good is it? What can you detect?

Tóth: The system is quite sensitive and already a couple of years ago the system was good enough to pick up, in 1998, the [Indian and Pakistani] test explosions. The system was good enough to pick up those confidence-building non-nuclear explosions, for instance in the case of Kazakhstan, which were below the 1 kiloton range, I think 0.1 kilotons was the number.[4] And the system was even able to pick up some accidental explosions as well. So it’s a system that is relatively versatile, yes, at the same time we have to improve the coverage of the system. We have to improve the coverage of the system in Asia, we have to improve the coverage of the system in the Middle East, and we have to improve the coverage of the system, geographically speaking, in Africa. We have to, technology-wise, improve the radionuclide components[5] as well, so there is work to be done in that respect. And the other issue is that once we put systems in place, more and more we have to realize there is a maintenance job as well. So putting a system in place is one thing, but there are accidental phenomena, ruptures of cables that we will have to fix as well, so that is another element that is affecting our daily life.

ACT:If I can move away briefly from test-ban monitoring, in March, the Preparatory Commission decided to explore options for releasing IMS data to tsunami-warning organizations.[6] On a trial basis, the Provisional Technical Secretariat was given the mandate to share data from seismic and hydro-acoustic stations[7] immediately with any tsunami-warning organization recognized by UNESCO. Are there are any results from this test yet, and what is the status of discussions for using IMS data for tsunami early-warning?

Tóth: Indeed, based upon this mandate given to us, we did our homework. What I can share with you is that as a result of the effort of all scientists, we managed to narrow down the timeframe needed for the first package of data which, for the purposes of the treaty, we are producing within less than two hours—this is called [Standard Event List] SEL raw data—we managed to reduce that lead time to 20 minutes, for a rawer package of data, at the same time data that is quite relevant for tsunami alert functions. And we are in accordance with the mandate on a testing and exploration basis, sharing this data through UNESCO’s International Geographic Commission, with regional hub organizations like the Northwest Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Japan, or the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Honolulu. We had a discussion in the recent session of Working Group B,[8] end of August/early September, where we number one reported all these efforts on our part, and there were experts from both centers who shared with us their impression, and there seems to be an expectation that we continue this testing and exploration. Of course all that means that these regional hub organizations are releasing further the information. So hopefully with this 20 minutes lead time, if you put this lead time in the 26 of December 2004 context [when a disastrous Tsunami occurred in the Indian Ocean] , this is life-saving data in that context for countries like Thailand, Sri Lanka, countries on the African coast.

ACT: Looking ahead, do you think these trials will be a precedent for wider use of IMS data for other scientific and disaster-relief purposes, and looking even further ahead from a technical perspective, is it possible that data collected and analyzed by the IMS, including radionuclide data, might be useful to CTBT states-parties in assessing whether there are cases of non-compliance with other international agreements, particularly the NPT?

Tóth: First of all, we are exploring these opportunities in accordance with the mandate given to us. So it’s very much up to the state signatories and ratifiers to decide which areas they see that we should additionally explore possibilities. There is a serious exploration undertaken by signatories and ratifiers; during the last three years there were a couple of events—London, Sopron, Hungary, and Berlin—where very intense attention was devoted to both civil and scientific applications of the data. You mentioned some of them. I would like to add the potential relevance of infrasound data[9] as a result of volcanic eruptions for safe security overflight information in areas where such volcanic eruptions might happen. Or the global warming phenomenon could be followed once we can build up the necessary database to compare data. How far member states will request us to move in this direction? My feeling is that we will have to focus on the core function of our mandate, which is CTBT implementation. At the same time as we see, from the renewed mandate given to us as a result of the session of Working Group B, and from the statements that were delivered in the recent Article XIV conference,[10] where there is very strong political support. We probably feel encouraged with this understanding that we shouldn’t lose sight of the core mandate, but we will remain helpful and relevant for humanitarian, disaster-alert, and other purposes. And we achieved all these results without significant additional costs, which is quite important.

ACT: One last question on on-site inspections. Given the absence of the United States representatives from discussions on on-site inspections, how are preparations for on-site inspections going? Are you planning any new measures to speed up discussions, in particular for the on-site inspection manual, and are there any plans to conduct field exercises in the near future?

Tóth: I think what we are doing is very much based, again, on the treaty, language [of] resolutions and the Preparatory Commission midterm plan, and in that respect, on the 2003 Strategic Plan. Those elements indicate to us that, as it is the case with the IMS, there is some system-wide testing that is going on. There is a need to see how, in an integrated context, the [on-site inspection] elements can be brought together. What is foreseen as a result of the recent meeting of Working Group B—and it is subject to approval by the November plenary—is an integrated field exercise to be undertaken in 2008. There are some preparatory steps to mention; two directed exercises will take place as well. All of that of course would require the necessary ingredients to be put in place. You mentioned that the ongoing work on the operational manual is important. There are test manuals to be developed by Working Group B, which should be like an underlying guidance for these exercises. We as the secretariat are working on standard operating procedures, and so please again, in different areas, for this integrated field exercise, on the equipment side there is an expectation that we will receive from member states the necessary in kind support. While I’m not sure that the term “exercise” is fully accurate, all of these elements will have to be put together in a realistic way where we can simulate their function. So that would be the purpose of all activities for the next two to three years in this area. It’s very much like the SPT1, we are trying to test whatever we have created in the last couple of years, based on the level of readiness that we have achieved. I don’t think it’s any speeding up. There’s no speeding up, no slowing down, we are moving forward as it is prescribed.


ENDNOTES

1. The Medium Term Plan is a planning tool that guides the work of the Preparatory Commission for the period 2005-2009.

2. Working Group A is a subsidiary body of CTBTO’s Preparatory Commission and is responsible for budgetary and administrative matters.

3. See Tiffany Bergin, “Hill Split on CTBTO Funding,” Arms Control Today, September 2005, p. 40.

4. On August 22, 1998, a chemical explosion of 0.1 kiloton was conducted as a confidence-building measure under the CTBT. The explosion took place under a joint U.S.-Kazakhstan program to destroy facilities at the former Soviet nuclear test site in Eastern Kazakhstan. At the time, several International Monitoring System stations in the region were not yet operational, but the explosion was well located on the basis of detections at stations far away in Alaska, Central Africa, Norway, Scotland, and Sweden, as well as at three nearer stations in Russia.

5. The radionuclide network of 80 stations will use air samplers to detect radioactive particles released from an atmospheric nuclear explosion or vented from an underground or underwater nuclear explosion. Forty-one radionuclide stations had been completed as of December 31, 2004. See Preparatory Commission for the CTBTO, “Report of the Executive Secretary on Major Programmes 1-7 for 2004,” CTBT/PC-24/3/Annex III, June 27-28 2005 (hereinafter Report of the Executive Secretary 2004).

6. See Oliver Meier, “CTBTO Releases Test Ban Monitoring Data for Tsunami Warning,” Arms Control Today, April 2005, pp. 39-40.

7. Fifty primary and 120 auxiliary seismic stations will be used to detect seismic waves generated by earthquakes, explosions or other phenomena. Eleven underwater hydroacoustic stations are being established to detect explosions under water or in the atmosphere at low altitude. As of December 31, 2004, 32 primary seismic, 94 auxiliary seismic, and 7 hydroacoustic stations had been completed. See Report of the Executive Secretary 2004.

8. Working Group B is a subsidiary body of CTBTO’s Preparatory Commission and responsible for verification.

9. Sixty land-based infrasound stations will use sonar to detect atmospheric tests. As of December 31, 2004 half of the planned stations had been completed. See Report of the Executive Secretary 2004.

10. The Fourth Conference on Facilitating the Entry Into Force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was held in New York from September 21-23, 2005.

Posted: September 30, 2005