by Dennis Sadowski
WASHINGTON (CNS) — The U.N. Security Council has brought new attention to a 20-year-old treaty that would ban nuclear weapons testing, but still has not gone into effect.
Advocates for nuclear disarmament, including the chairman of a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops committee, praised the move, saying the time has come to enact the treaty and take additional steps to shrink the world’s nuclear arsenals.
Security Council members adopted a resolution Sept. 23 urging nations that have not signed the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty, or CTBT, to do so. The vote was 14 in favor with Egypt abstaining.
As of late September, 183 nations had signed the treaty and 163 of them have filed ratification documents with the U.N., including the Holy See. The U.S. has signed the treaty but has yet to ratify it. On another front, the U.S. unilaterally halted its testing program in 1992.
The advocates want to see the treaty go into effect as soon as possible. Without a formal test ban in place, they said, testing by any nation could begin or resume at any time.
“One of the most important aspects of the resolution is that it brings the CTBT back to the forefront of debate and discussion both with the holdout states but also the international community,” explained Kelsey Davenport, director of nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association in Washington and a University of Notre Dame graduate.
Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, welcomed the Security Council vote, saying the USCCB has long supported the treaty’s ratification. He described the council’s action in a statement “as encouraging this important step toward a world without nuclear weapons.”
Traditional Catholic peace organizations hailed the resolution and called on the remaining non-ratifying nations to act swiftly to enact the treaty.
“It’s imperative, it’s critical that they get on board,” said Sister Patricia Chappell, executive director of Pax Christi USA and a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.
At Pax Christi International, co-president Marie Dennis said the Security Council resolution “gives us a little more force to support the CTBT.”
“We’re hoping that after 20 years, the United States and other countries that have not ratified or entered into even signing will do so. But much more needs to be done,” Dennis told Catholic News Service.
She said the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty and other treaties governing nuclear weapons that already are in force “are important expressions of the yearning of the world to get rid of these weapons.”
Jerry Powers, director of policy studies in the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace at the University of Notre Dame, said the resolution is a “modest effort to solidify the global norm against testing.”
“What we shouldn’t be doing is testing so we can develop new weapons or modernize existing weapons,” he told CNS. The technology has evolved, he said, to allow for continuously testing the viability of nuclear weapons without setting off an explosion.
Powers explained that since the treaty was adopted in 1996, a global system of monitoring nuclear tests has been established and has been proven to work. It was that system that has alerted the world about North Korea’s underground nuclear tests in recent years.
However, Republicans in the U.S. Senate remain unconvinced.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, in a statement released after the Security Council vote, said that senators hold the same concerns related to compliance verification and the potential negative impact on the country’s nuclear deterrence capacity as they did in October 1999, when the treaty was rejected, 51-48.
A treaty requires a two-thirds affirmative vote by senators for ratification.
Rubio also called on President Barack Obama to confirm that the test ban treaty addresses those concerns before the Senate would take up another vote on the treaty.
Davenport at the Arms Control Association, however, agreed with Powers, saying that today’s international monitoring system has demonstrated to be “incredibly effective” at nuclear deterrence and detecting additional testing.
She said advocates for nuclear disarmament would do best to demonstrate to senators the upgrades in technology that have occurred during the last two decades that would address their concerns.
“One of the reasons I think this [Security Council] resolution is important is it creates an opportunity to make these arguments and have these discussions and to encourage senators to re-engage with these issues and seek answers to the questions they do have,” she told CNS.
Even if the U.S. does ratify the CTBT, it won’t automatically go into effect. The treaty’s Annex 2 provision requires 44 countries to sign and ratify the document before it goes into force. Eight of those 44 countries not yet on board are the United States, China, North Korea, India, Pakistan, Iran, Egypt and Israel.
The nuclear disarmament advocates acknowledged that North Korea poses difficult challenges for the world, given its disregard for international norms. It is the only country to conduct nuclear tests this century.
In early September, North Korea conducted its fifth and most powerful nuclear test so far and may be planning a sixth possible test.
Those concerned about that nation’s nuclear capabilities and continuing tensions over its testing include Pope Francis and the Vatican. The situation threatens the “peace and stability of the region” and the international nuclear nonproliferation protocols, a Vatican diplomat official said Sept. 27.
Despite North Korea’s actions, Davenport said she believes that the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty could take effect if all other Annex 2 countries ratify the test ban treaty.
“I would hope,” she said, “the international community would look for creative ways to prevent one country form holding the international community hostage from preventing the CTBT entry into force and . . . look for creative ways to convince North Korea to end its testing program.”