New Delhi: As US President Barack Obama counts down his days in office, efforts to burnish his legacy with a re-look at the nuclear test ban treaty could have implications for India.
Two suggestions emanating from the White House – the adoption of a no-first use position in the US’s nuclear posture and a UN Security Council resolution calling for the early entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) – have stirred fierce emotions among Republicans. But while the first looks like a non-starter, the plan for a UNSC resolution in time for the 20th anniversary of the CTBT in September may have more legs. The treaty opened for signature on September 24, 1996.
US national security council spokesperson Ned Price told the Washington Post that the Obama administration is “looking at possible action in the UN Security Council that would call on states not to test and support the CTBT’s objectives”.
“This is an idea that has been discussed in diplomatic circles for several months and is just now, in recent days, being informally discussed among UN Security Council members,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based advocacy group Arms Control Association (ACA), told The Wire.
South Block sources indicated that New Delhi is aware of the proposal, but until a draft resolution is actually on the table, it will not start framing a position.
As per media reports, the draft resolution will “reinforce norm[s] against nuclear testing”, underscore the value of the 1996 CTBT and and also the international monitoring system to detect clandestine testing”. There will, however, be “no legally binding obligations”.
Seeking a lasting legacy
India never signed onto the CTBT, with Arundhati Ghose, who was its permanent representative to the UN in Geneva in 1996, famously stating the country’s decision by saying, “not now, not later”. Nevertheless, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to adopt the treaty and it was opened for signatures on September 24, 1996.
Twenty years and 164 signatories later, the treaty has yet to take effect formally. The key wrinkle has been Article 14, which India vehemently opposed during negotiations in 1995-96, stating that it couldn’t be coerced into signing an international pact and that the article was thus against international law. The language in question stipulates that the treaty will only enter into force after 44 nuclear-capable countries – listed in an annexe to the treaty – sign and ratify the pact.
Among the Annexe 2 countries, India, North Korea and Pakistan have all refrained from signing the CTBT. Five others – the US, China, Egypt, Iran, and Israel – have signed but not ratified the treaty.
In October 1999, the US Senate rejected the treaty, voting largely along partisan lines. At the time, Republicans expressed concerns over the integrity of maintaining stewardship of the proposed nuclear weapon stockpile without any explosive testing and verification of the weapons.
Ten years later, Obama, while in Prague in 2009, said his administration would “immediately and aggressively pursue US ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty”.
With the Republican-majority Senate in no mood to indulge Obama, however, the president’s White House team has now cast its eye on the UN to procure a farewell present for him and get closer to his aim of non-proliferation.
In his first public reaction to the move by the US, the executive secretary of Vienna-based Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), Lassina Zerbo, welcomed the American decision by saying “any step” that reinforces the global norm against nuclear test explosions “is a step in the right direction”.
“A resolution by the Security Council would clearly send a strong signal, particularly during this year in which we are commemorating the CTBT’s 20th anniversary,” Zerbo said in a statement issued to The Wire.
A geo-physicist from Burkina Faso, Zerbo noted that the resolution will call upon all states to maintain the CTBTO’s global monitoring network, the “International Monitoring System”, which has shown that it can “deter and detect nuclear tests with great reliability”.
“The network is 90% complete, comprising 300 stations, some in the most remote and inaccessible areas of the Earth and sea. The system swiftly and precisely detected all four of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s declared nuclear tests. The maintenance and completion of the monitoring system is of utmost importance in order not to lose the huge technical and financial investment made throughout the last 20 years,” he told The Wire.
However, he added that the resolution should “not divert our attention from the real unfinished business: the fact that we have a treaty which is operational, yet still not in force, after 20 years”.
“A Security Council resolution is a positive step, but what really counts is the ratification of the remaining eight countries to bring the CTBT into force”.
In Washington, the UNSC resolution plan got a predictably furious reception in Republican circles, with the chair for the Senate foreign relations committee, Bob Corker terming it “an affront to Congress… an affront to the American people”.
“Should we ever decide we may wish to test, we could be sued in international courts over violating a United Nations Security Council resolution that Congress played no role in,” he said.
In an angry editorial, the Wall Street Journal denounced the proposal for attempting to “usurp the Senate’s constitutional treaty powers with an end-run to the UN”.
“Mr. Obama has already entered brave new worlds of executive overreach by ignoring Congress on immigration and sending the Iran deal to the UN before submitting it (as a non-treaty) to the Senate. This would be a new low, undermining America’s nuclear deterrent while showing contempt for constitutional bounds,” the editorial said.
Zerbo, however, asserted that the UNSC resolution will only be exhortatory in nature, and would not supplant the US legislative system. “In order for the US to ratify the CTBT, the US Senate would have to provide its advice and consent to ratification. In my view, this resolution cannot supersede or circumvent that process,” he said.
Proposal draws scepticism
The polarised political atmosphere in the US, however, may not have much time for the claims of Congress’s supremacy over the ratification procedure to be debated.
“A Security Council resolution might help Obama’s image but would enhance polarisation with the Senate,” said Rakesh Sood, the special envoy on disarmament and non-proliferation of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. “Since it doesn’t change the entry into force provisions, the resolution will still require Senate ratification which will be now more unlikely. This will make it impossible for the CTBT to ever see the light of the day,” he added.
Drawing parallels with the Obama administration’s Iran deal – which bypassed Congress – is “misplaced”, said Sheel Kant Sharma, a former Indian ambassador to the UN in Geneva and a former SAARC secretary general. The UNSC became the arbiter as the International Atomic Energy Agency had transmitted to it a resolution noting the non-implementation of Iran’s treaty obligations under the NPT and its safeguards agreement, he said.
“In case of [the] CTBT, it’s [a] well worked out treaty with 164 countries as treaty parties. Though not in force, it has been there for 20 years. You cannot completely supplant the treaty process with a Security Council resolution. It will undermine the CTBT no end,” Sharma asserted.
He pointed out that among the countries who still have to ratify the CTBT, North Korea and Iran have “individually rejected UNSC dadagiri (bullying). So to expect the UNSC resolution to lead to the signing of CTBT is not realistic”.
Manpreet Sethi, senior fellow at Centre for Air Power Studies, said that the “last ditch effort by an embattled president who couldn’t live up to most of his nuclear promises in Prague” is not likely to meet much success. Not only will he face heavy opposition from Congress, “more importantly, [the] time is not ripe for engendering a consensus within the UNSC on this issue”, she said.
Among the P-5, only the US and China have not ratified the treaty. “To force Chinese ratification by going to the UNSC is very political… You might put China on the mat, but that’s a small gain for the treaty… After all, if China doesn’t veto, then they have a responsibility as a permanent member to ratify,” said Sharma.
David Santoro, senior fellow, nuclear policy at CSIS Pacific Forum, is also sceptical of the UNSC proposal, but only because it may eat into precious diplomatic capital that the US cannot afford to lose right now.
“Taken in the abstract”, the UNSC resolution would be a “good development”, he said, adding for good measure that “it will not in any way bypass the Senate”.
“We, however, do not live in the abstract. At this very moment, I believe that the Obama administration has more urgent priorities. Strengthening the norm against nuclear tests may be important, but it is less essential than, for instance, investing time and efforts to maintain and increase strategic stability with Russia (and China),” he told The Wire in an emailed response.
With Washington’s relationship with Russia having “deteriorated considerably”, keeping an eye on the East should be “the number one priority”, he claimed. “Some will say that doing both [pushing for the UN resolution and focusing on Russia] is possible and that these are not mutually exclusive goals. That may be true, but more often than not, focusing on one order of business means relegating another to the bench,” said Santoro.
Sharma pointed out that the electoral campaign may also put a road-block in the way of Obama’s UNSC resolution. “Hillary Clinton was going out of her way to tap conservative Republicans who are completely upset at Trump’s follies. Republicans will be put off if any high handed manner is used by the president,” he noted, adding that Clinton may herself ask Obama to put off such a resolution.
Kimball believes that with the US Senate being polarised over the issue for so many years, a UNSC resolution at this juncture, when Clinton looks set to win, could kick-start the ratification process in Senate. “I believe that it is possible that if Hillary Clinton wins the White House and the Democrats retake the Senate, we could see the kind of serious debate and consideration of the CTBT that would make it obvious that it is in the United States’ interests to finally ratify the treaty”.
Kimball said that even if the US were to ratify tomorrow, seven other states must also ratify the treaty, “a process that will take years”. “It is possible that over time the taboo against nuclear testing might erode and it is therefore responsible and prudent to reaffirm that the key states that have conducted nuclear tests in the past remain committed to the CTBT and to their unilateral moratoria pending its entry into force and to reaffirm the value of completing and maintaining support for the international test monitoring system,” he underlined.
The Indian stance
A UNSC resolution, with no legally binding obligation, certainly cannot force India to adhere to the CTBT, officials say.
In the afterglow of Prague in 2009, Obama chaired a special session of the UNSC at the level of heads of governments that adopted Resolution 1887, which called on non-signatories of the NPT to accede to the treaty. Seven years later, India, Pakistan and Israel have yet to fall in line.
But, if the resolution on the CTBT does come to pass, India may have to take a public stance – balancing its traditional position as it conducts a campaign to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) after a failed attempt in June.
The Stimson Centre’s Michael Krepon has argued in favour of the UNSC resolution on the basis that it will allow for reaffirmation of national moratoria. “This resolution provides an opportunity for the permanent five members of the Security Council to reaffirm a global ban on testing. It also provides an opportunity for India, Pakistan, and Israel to reaffirm their national moratoria on testing,” he wrote.
Kimball, who in the past has not favoured India getting a key to the NSG, felt that it will be “useful” if India’s leadership “would not only reaffirm their commitment not to resume nuclear testing but to take part in the international monitoring system and to commit to considering ratification of the CTBT at a future time”.
“[The] Indian government [has] not provided a coherent explanation for why it considers the CTBT to be discriminatory or why it is opposed to a global, legally binding prohibition on nuclear test explosions. If India expressed active opposition to the CTBT at this time, it would not help its ambition to become a member of the NSG,” he added.
Echoing such views, Santoro also noted, “I believe that it would be in Indian interests to support the resolution if it wants to be a responsible international citizen”.
Zerbo also weighed in that India has been an “ardent supporter of non-testing”. “India took part in the negotiations of the CTBT, and has reaffirmed that it would not stand in the way of the entry into force of the treaty,” he said.
After the 1998 Pokhran-II nuclear tests, at a UN General Assembly session, former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee indicated that India was prepared to bring discussions on the CTBT “to a successful conclusion, so that [the coming] into force of the CTBT is not delayed beyond September 1999”. That deadline wasn’t met, but Vajpayee reiterated on various occasions that “India will not stand in the way of entry into force of the CTBT”.
Even one-and-half years after the new government took over in 2004, Manmohan Singh’s administration was still stating Vajpayee’s position on the CTBT.
But, references to Vajpayee’s line have reduced since then. Only Japan continues to raise the issue of adhering to the CTBT at all its bilateral meetings with India; to which the standard Indian response is to reiterate its commitment to a “unilateral and voluntary moratorium on nuclear explosive testing”.
Zerbo also reasserted that “UN action on the CTBT in commemoration of its 20th anniversary would provide India (and all other states) with the opportunity to reaffirm its national moratorium on testing”.
During the 1996 talks on the CTBT in Vienna, Sood was the director in the foreign ministry’s disarmament and internal security division, coordinating with Ghose, who was representing India in Geneva at the time, to stop the rail-roading of India’s objections.
“We should use this opportunity to once again point out the flaw in the CTBT pertaining to its entry into force provisions. We should also point out that Obama has authorised [the] modernisation of [the] US [nuclear] arsenal at a cost of $1 trillion over three decades,” Sood said in reply to a query on how India should frame a position on the UNSC resolution.
With India highly unlikely to give any firm commitment to sign the CTBT and China keeping mum on ratification, Sharma said that during the NSG process India should highlight the fact that it has tested only twice in the last 42 years. “For most of the time, we have not tested. In the same period, others have conducted thousands of tests”.