External Affairs

Interview: Another Big Push for the CTBT's Entry into Force

CTBTO head Lassina Zerbo explains why he has convened a foreign minister-level conference of CTBT member states and key holdouts for June 13.

With a Ph.D. in geophysics, Lassina Zerbo brings to his job as executive secretary of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO) the technical knowledge that is needed to head the international body tasked with monitoring nuclear explosions around the world. The only problem is that the treaty whose implementation the CTBTO is meant to oversee has yet to enter into force. In the interim, Zerbo, who is from Burkina Faso, keeps himself and his organisation busy by demonstrating the monitoring and detection capabilities they have built up over the years – and quietly, or not so quietly, lobbying for the treaty’s entry into force.

In an all-or-nothing provision that India bitterly opposed at the time of the CTBT’s drafting, Article 14 states that the treaty will not enter into force unless all countries with significant nuclear facilities listed in a special annex (the list of Annex 2 countries’) sign and ratify. Eight of the 44 Annex 2 countries have yet to do so: the United States, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, Iran, Egypt and North Korea.

On Monday, June 13, Zerbo and the CTBTO will hold a foreign minister-level conference of CTBT member states and all Annex II countries in Vienna to push for the treaty’s entry into force. India will not be attending.

In an interview to The Wire earlier this year, Zerbo discussed what he hoped to achieve from such an event, and what possible routes to the CTBT’s entry-into-force might look like.


It’s now been 20 years since the CTBT opened for signature. Entry into force is nowhere in sight. Traditional wisdom has it that unless the United States ratifies the treaty, China won’t, and unless China ratifies, India won’t, and Pakistan won’t. But what is your strategy for bringing the CTBT’s entry into force? Is there a magic formula you have that could produce a favourable outcome from your point of view?

Look, when you talk about magic formula, and if I look at the 21st century, and how geopolitics works, I tend to say we need a crisis, to make the magic formula. Because if you look at Syria, the only way we could dismantle chemical weapons in Syria, is to have been left in a situation where  chemical weapons were used. I don’t want that to happen for the CTBT.

I think for the CTBT we have it already [being adhered to] to a certain extent – with the DPRK being the only country conducting nuclear test explosions. The magical solution is to consider the DPRK not isolated from the entry into force of the CTBT. In 2006, when they tested, people took it as a joke; they did it in 2009, and people said “no it’s not a serious test,” or “we don’t believe we found out a nuclear release”, or people said “no are you sure this is where it’s coming from?” because you found it in Canada, I mean there was a lot of speculation. Then, in 2013, we didn’t find any [trace], until 50+ days, when we had a release that could be correlated and people started taking not only North Korea seriously, but the international monitoring system of the CTBT. Because we are the only institution to have detected an isotope release that could be correlated to the event in the Korean peninsula. For me, this was enough. To creating the condition for those who believe in a world without nuclear weapons in the long run. If you believe in a world without nuclear weapons, you start by stopping testing, and stopping North Korea from testing by entering into a dialogue [with] North Korea, together with the eight remaining countries [whose ratification is needed for the CTBT to enter into force].

What is my magical formula? Let’s take India. We want, and I want, a platform, where we can discuss India’s frustration with regard to this treaty, India’s concern with regard to this treaty. And not only India, you talk about India without Pakistan, or Pakistan without India, but then we go to the Middle East: Israel, Egypt, Iran. What are their issues? Then we talk to North Korea. We sit together and share your frustration, to get the best possible understanding of what we can do to move forward. It cannot be done only in the US context or only in the India context, it has to be done together and that’s why I’m calling for a meeting with all Annex 2 countries, at the 20 years mark, to reflect on the past and discuss the issues of concern, and understand the frustration and use it as a background to move forward, and the best time is the 20 years [since the treaty was drafted], and the best time is the fact that North Korea is still conducting nuclear test explosions, and we need to stop it.

So this would be the first ever meeting of the Annex 2 countries, since the treaty opened for signature?


You want a ministerial level meeting so as to have a political dialogue among the Annex 2 countries?

Yes, political dialogue amongst the Annex 2 countries. To – it’s not a discussion to come and say “bang, you’re not right you should ratify/ bang you’re not right, why did you do that?” It’s to come and say: “can we listen to India?” I know Article 14 has been an issue. Where are we today with Article 14? What can we do to understand India’s concern? And how this concern fits with Pakistan and other countries.

I think in diplomacy, what happened in Iran shows that if we sit together and discuss this issue, with dignity, respect – mutual respect I mean – we will achieve something. It will lead to potential action in the years to come. It’s not about rushing. It’s about creating the foundations for this treaty to be ready for entry into force.

Are you confident that all the Annex 2 countries will respond positively to an invitation for such a conference?

I cannot say I’m confident. But, I mean, we can only try. We can try in good faith. [The meeting] is not a commitment. It’s a platform to dialogue. To discuss. To share everything. To throw out everything that we have inside. For people to know where we are. That’s the platform I want to create.

What is your understanding of India’s position right now? What kind of dialogue or discussion have you had with Indian diplomats or Indian ministers on how India looks at the CTBT?

No, the only [talk I had] was with a former advisor to the prime minister on disarmament, Rakesh Sood – I met him a year and a half ago – in Washington during the Carnegie conference. Or last year, I think. You know, he explained India’s position, which is, you know, this issue of the Article 14 during the negotiation. What do you want me to say – that I don’t understand India’s position? In diplomacy you have to understand everyone’s position! But in diplomacy as well, it’s all about give and take. We have to compromise. How can we bring India to sit around the table, telling them that we respectfully understand their concern but how can we move forward – what are they proposing, as a possible outcome for this deadlock situation in the region?

India in the past has said that it will not stand in the way of the treaty entering into force –

Which I appreciate.

And which is commonly interpreted to mean that if, say, the United States and China –


Yes, ratify, then India is also likely to, and then Pakistan would. This suggests that, even as you are right – that it’s important to hear all the eight countries, and have a discussion among themselves – the hardest job for you will be to convince Washington to ratify this Treaty. Do you have any specific plans for breaking that particular logjam?

Okay. I don’t think the matter is to convince Washington because the administration is convinced that the CTBT ratification [fits into] US national security, and President Obama said it, not me. It helps US national security, as well as international security. He repeated it three times over two years. In New York. In Prague. And in Berlin. And, subsequently, there were discussions at Capitol Hill including the recent statement by [energy] secretary [Ernest] Moniz and [secretary of state John] Kerry, with regard to their commitment to the CTBT.

But what is the situation in the US? They don’t have the numbers in the Senate. You’d agree with me that if they had an absolute majority – the two-third majority – the CTBT would be ratified by the US today. But I don’t want to see the CTBT in the US context as ‘Democrat against Republican’. We need a bipartisan framework where people consider the CTBT ratification as an important element of US national security. And to achieve that, we have to educate the skeptics – those who think that this thing is too far from their preoccupation.

This is what we need. And this is what the US state department is working on under [US under secretary for arms control] Rose Gottemoeller’s leadership. And under the scientific leadership of secretary Moniz, starting from the Iran deal and spreading into other arms control issues. And we want to accompany this; and that’s our role, that’s our contribution. We don’t want to intervene domestically but want to give them the tools for them to make a case for the education, the debate, and when it’s time – the time is ripe to bring it for ratification at the Senate.

Does it bother you that despite the obvious technical capabilities of the CTBTO, the Obama administration kept your organisation out when it came to the Nuclear Security Summit –for example, there was a sense in which they did not want to associate with the CTBTO. What’s the politics there?

I don’t agree with that way of keeping the CTBT out of a discussion in arms control or proliferation, or security issues. You see, it’s unfortunate, they only see the CTBTO when there’s a crisis – where the CTBTO can have an input or contribution.

And let me move on into the Fukushima Daiichi accident. In less than 48 hours we were asked to share data with the IAEA, which wasn’t possible since 1998. What does it mean? It means that when the policy-maker wants – when it’s in their interest – it can make a decision. So we’ve proven through Fukushima how our contribution to nuclear security, not only the security of the power plant, but potentially in adapting our system – our verification system – we can contribute to the verification of nuclear material, should the international community or policy makers see fit and decide that we have to work closely with the IEA to creating those type of conditions.

But, the Nuclear Security Summit was, yes, after Fukushima, and history and the 21st century has shown us that we react to crisis, we don’t anticipate them, and we deal with crisis as they come, and then we don’t prepare for the next crisis – we wait until it’s happened. So, do we have to wait for another accident before we see the CTBT contribution – potential contribution – to nuclear security? No. I don’t believe that. And that’s why, instead of seeing us as a possible hindrance to what the Nuclear Security Summit would be, they should see us as part of it and as a platform, because it’s the only platform – in terms of security issue – where you bring Head of States to that level, and that number.

Why keep the CTBT out of it? If those policy makers could help make decisions, it would have been an opportunity to meet Indian policy makers, okay? And others, who are party to the Nuclear Security Summit but who we don’t see in platform or fora where we can discuss directly with them. And I’m convinced, if I were to meet Prime Minister Modi, I would make a difference in talking to him. Absolutely. If you want, you organize this meeting—

As they say: “it’s above my pay grade.”

Yes. I know, but it’s not above your pay grade: it’s within your responsibility as the media. You can propose that they should come and see what we’ve achieved, as an observer.

Now, we were all very – those of us who follow nuclear matters – interested and excited when it was announced that you would visit Delhi last year. And then at the last minute, your visit never took place. Can you tell us what happened? Why didn’t you come?

Because my secretary used my UN passport. I would have used my Burkina passport – because Delhi is a good friend to Burkina Faso – and then you would welcome me. What I hold against Delhi, and you can put that in writing, they stopped me from bringing my wife on Valentine’s Day at Taj Mahal. And that’s a disaster.

So you were not given a visa…

That’s what – I didn’t see it anywhere [in writing] but knew because the [time for the] visit had gone and then the visa was still not stamped on my passport.

Right – but was there any reason given for this? Was there some communication that “we don’t want to associate with the CTBT?”

No, no, no, no, there’s I mean–

The visit just never happened?

It never happened and I think that Indian diplomats are smart enough to not put that as a reason for not inviting – for not having the visa on my passport.

If I could just shift the topic slightly, do you have an understanding of what the Chinese position on accession is – are we correct in assuming it’s strictly tied to whatever Washington does?


Have you had interactions with them on this?

All the time. I mean, I had lunch with the Chinese ambassador [the other day] and China participates in our working and they never say that China has to ratify – or that US has to before them.


The only person who says that is Sha Zukang [the former Chinese ambassador to the UN at Geneva] but he says he’s talking in his personal capacity. He was a former negotiator of the treaty. But having said this, look: the best bet would have been to have China and US ratify, then we’ll have all the P-5 countries under the NPT would’ve ratified the CTBT. That could change the dynamics.

But why I don’t like this domino effect – to say “China and US should do before India does”— because in the current context, India could help the US. Because Obama has his hands tied – because he doesn’t have the numbers. But Israel, Iran, under the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action], could consider the CTBT ratification and help create the condition within the Republicans to think or re-think the CTBT ratification. This is where I tried to shift, a little bit from the logical viewpoint – that is, if the US does, it will create a momentum for others – in saying: anyone can take leadership in helping the US…

This means you’re hopeful the Israelis – who have been so critical of the Iranian deal – may at some point, be willing to embrace, the CTBT as part of a wider settlement?

Yeah, the experts in Israel – whom we all respect – say that the Iran deal is a solid deal. And who drives policy in this type of context: in the Iran dilemma and the CTBT? Science. And experts are the one saying that it’s a solid deal. The politics can say: “yes, it’s not” you know, for sometime, but at the end of the day, facts will prevail, and facts are what the experts are showing, that this deal, scientifically, is fine. And this is what I believe in. I think, it’s a matter of time: Israel would acknowledge the validity and solidity of this deal, and then if they acknowledge this, I think it will create a condition where they say: “we’ve all signed the CTBT, why don’t we ratify? What do we have to lose?”

I assume the E3+3 kept the CTBT out of the JCPOA for a good reason, but if we move to a JCPOA Part-II, you are suggesting that ratification of the CTBT by these three Annex 2 countries in the–


Middle East could actually be a possibility.

In line with what the EU high representative [Federica Mogherini] said: she said the next big item under this framework is entry to enforce the CTBT, and it starts by doing something in that region.

And this regional ratification could also, then – you believe – hold the key to unlocking the internal – the domestic US debate on the CTBT?

Absolutely. Because everyone knows the ties between Israel and the US. And then it could serve as, as a tipping point for some of the reluctant senators to say: “hey by the way if they did it, it means they believe in something” because the point is educating those people to know exactly what the CTBT is for. And not many people know. And this – with all due respect to Senators – not many of them knew exactly what this treaty is about. They only know that it was rejected in ’99, few of them, some don’t even know that it hasn’t yet been ratified by the US. Trust me, in my discussion in Washington, some don’t even know.

So rather than the accession domino starting from Washington, you’re suggesting that it could actually be Tehran, Tel Aviv, and Cairo.

Tel Aviv, Tehran, Cairo. Or Tel Aviv-Tehran, will trigger somewhere else, and then Cairo will join.

And then Washington, China, and then of course–


But that still leaves the Big Question – and I’ll end on this – DPRK. What are the prospects of – its clear that sanctions are not the way, because the UN has had sanctions; it hasn’t had any effect… what process of engagement is likely that can bring about the DPRK’s commitment to accession to the CTBT?

Immediately I would say: dialogue. A different form of dialogue. And even Ambassador Sha Zukang has said: with mutual respect. Let me take something that, you know, some would say, “off the record” but I would say, “on the record” okay? Look: a great expert of North Korea is Sig Hecker. [Siegfried S. Hecker] He’s a friend of mine. Former director of Los Alamos [nuclear laboratory].

One of the few Westerners to visit North Korea.

He has visited seven times! He said, “sanctions would not work with North Korea.” You’re asking me as Lassina Zerbo. I’m saying: if sanctions were working; they wouldn’t be doing the fourth test. Okay? So what is the issue now that we have to look into? What we have to look into: what do they want? They say: “we want to be considered as a nuclear weapon country.” If it takes them to be considered, for them to reverse the principle: what’s the issue? If you sit in front of me, and then you say, “look you know Lassina I want you to consider me as black or white,” I don’t care, I say, “okay.”

Especially if I’m going to threaten a nuclear test…

Yes! Exactly! I say, “why not? Let’s sit and talk.” If that pleases you, I’ll do it, and then let’s go for it. Because what do I want? It’s a platform to sit around a table with you. If you need my smile to sit around a table: I’ll give you the smile! As long as I know that that smile will help us finding a solution with you, I would do it. We should get away with our respective egos, okay, and sit around a table and face the reality and say: “hey guys if this is confirmed, it will be the fourth, if we let them go for a fifth, it will be uncontrollable. And if you can’t control you never know who will be the next.” Or, if they remain as a delinquent country, they say, “okay why they don’t share the technology with someone else”—that’s the next risk if we let them continue with testing. As it was the case with the media at some point with Pakistanis sharing the technology and whatever. But that’s the next element – that’s what we should look up to in the long run! Because this question is not on the table right now; we’re basically jumping on the H-Bomb, whatever. The issue is not whether it’s an H-Bomb or an A-Bomb, or whatever, or Z-Bomb, or whatever you name it. The issue is why is there testing to develop a nuclear weapon? That’s the issue. Regardless of what type it is. That’s why I’m not speculating about the type of bomb. Because that’s not my issue.

On that note, Dr. Zerbo, thank you so much for your time.

Thank you!

Interview transcribed by Pallavi Rao.