Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO): Bridging the Conflict between Progress and Humanism

The perspective from a highly technical and science-based organization, gives a positive and hopeful outlook on what technological progress can contribute to the future of humanity.

Progress has always been a double edged sword. Nuclear technology is a clear example: it has the ability to harness nuclear power but also to develop nuclear weapons. This is a problem that has dominated international diplomacy for over 70 years and has left the greatest of minds searching for practical solutions.

Francis Bacon once said “If we are to achieve results never before accomplished, we must employ methods never before attempted”. For a verifiable end to nuclear testing this meant creating something new. In 1996, the international community agreed to a Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and verification regime.  

More than 2000 nuclear tests were conducted over the course of the 20th century. But in 1996, efforts to preserve our humanity lead to the conclusion of a nuclear test ban treaty that was both effectively verifiable and practically enforceable. 

A global network of 337 monitoring facilities of the IMS, together with National Technical Means (NTM), makes it impossible to conduct a nuclear test without the international community knowing about it. Twenty-seven of these monitoring stations are in the Russian Federation with five more on the way. This system is supported by the International Data Centre in Vienna which processes and analyses data continuously.  

Today, I can say with confidence that even if a country conducting a nuclear test does not announce it, the CTBTO ensures that the international community receives accurate, reliable and timely data about any suspicious event.

The Treaty’s verification regime is in fact already so advanced that its detection capability is far greater than negotiators had thought possible. Isn’t this an example of technical progress in the interest of humanity? 

As an illustration:  On 3 September 2017 at 3:30 UTC 36 of our seismic stations detected a large unusual seismic event in North Korea. Within an hour, analysts were reviewing data from over 130 stations and we were able to brief member States that same morning on the details of what emerged as the latest and largest announced nuclear test by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

In addition, the potential of the IMS goes further than nuclear non-proliferation. There are a wide range of civilian uses for the technology and the data. The IMS and its radionuclide laboratories were invaluable in monitoring the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. IMS data is also used for tsunami early warning, tracking marine mammal migration patterns; it can contribute to weather forecasts and climate change research, and more. The CTBTO and its verification regime represents a real achievement for science and diplomacy in making the world a better place. It is a representation of what we can achieve when we work together as the international community towards a common goal.

Our verification regime is nearing its completion. The CTBT has been described as operational, but not yet in force. There are currently eight from the so-called 44 Annex 2 States that must ratify the Treaty before it comes into force. Five States have signed but not yet ratified the Treaty. Three States have neither signed nor ratified the Treaty.

An in-force CTBT would lock-in and enhance the nuclear testing verification regime.

Looking forward, we should have a positive and hopeful outlook at what technological progress can bring to the future of humanity. Progress does not have to conflict with humanism, progress can be in the interest of all.

The CTBTO and its verification regime have achieved more than anyone could have predicted more than 20 years ago. This is possible due to the strong will and commitment of Member States. This has also been possible thanks to technological progress.

Leo Tolstoy once said “the sole meaning of life is to serve humanity”. Let us paraphrase it by saying that progress must always serve human values. This is exactly what the CTBTO is working towards, a future that will benefit everyone. For a world free of nuclear weapons. 

Lassina Zerbo is Executive Secretary, The Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO)

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.