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Bickering at the Nuclear Test-Ban Organization Reflects Global Hardening


An exhibition for the International Day Against Nuclear Tests displayed at the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization, based in Vienna, Aug. 29, 2019. The treaty, which has not been entered into force, bans nuclear explosions by everyone everywhere.

VIENNA — For the first time in its 24-year history, state parties to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a multilateral agreement that bans all nuclear testing worldwide, have taken a controversial decision by a two-thirds majority. Decisions in the treaty’s body are usually taken by consensus.

The majority decision on Oct. 19 was focused on whether countries with unpaid dues could vote in the election of the next executive secretary of the Preparatory Commission to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization. (The body is not part of the United Nations but has a cooperative agreement with it.)

The decision occurred after several months of negotiations failed to produce agreement on the matter. The election is scheduled to take place at the Vienna-based organization from Nov. 25 to 27.

The lack of consensus reflects the hardening attitudes in international relations, where multilateralism has become more precarious amid intensifying competition among the world’s great powers, worsened in the pandemic. The disunity also shows that multilateral bodies like the CTBTO, as it is known, have become highly politicized, with decisions on such basics as voting methods taking longer to be finalized because of global squabbling.

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The executive secretary oversees a secretariat in Vienna with 260 staff members and an annual budget of around $130 million. It leads efforts on the treaty’s verification system by installing monitoring stations worldwide. The position also ensures that all member states of the organization receive the data from the monitoring system, particularly when a nuclear test or even a tsunami is detected.

The post has been held by Lassina Zerbo of Burkina Faso for seven years. Besides decisions on who can vote for the executive secretary position, there are also tensions about Zerbo’s plan to run for a third term.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has 184 signatories but has not been entered into force, as numerous countries, including China, Egypt, Iran, Israel and the United States, have not ratified it. The Preparatory Commission originated in 1996 as an interim body to build the treaty’s verification regime.

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In the controversial vote on Oct. 19, member states restored the voting rights of just nine countries out of a total of 25 countries that applied for reinstatement. Diplomats in Vienna say that the list of nine countries was presented by Canada and supported by numerous other Western nations, such as the US and Britain. (The organization’s meetings on the matter were held behind closed doors.)

Two other proposals on restoring voting rights did not meet the necessary two-thirds majority. One proposal suggested reinstating the rights of all 25 countries; the other one, submitted by Russia, offered to restore the rights of 15 countries.

Many of the countries that applied for restoring their rights are financially pressed because of the coronavirus pandemic; some are also hit by conflict or war and therefore lagging in payments.

These countries are mostly developing nations from the Southern Hemisphere, such as Africa, South America, parts of the Middle East, South Asia and a few small island nations, diplomats say, though they would not specify the nine countries that had their voting rights reinstated.

Yet a number of mostly Western countries countered that automatically granting voting rights to those that have not paid their dues would set a bad precedent.

In several statements, the European Union made it clear that timely payment was “crucial for the operation of the verification regime of the Treaty, and for the organization’s financial health.”

But according to diplomatic sources in Vienna, the European Union was not united in its stance. Several important European countries, such as Austria, France, Germany and Greece, had voted for the Russian list, which included Iran, and not for the list of nine countries that was adopted.

Mikhail Ulyanov, the permanent representative of Russia to the International Organizations in Vienna, told PassBlue that the decision on restoring the voting rights of just nine countries was “politically motivated.” Russia, he said, tried to ensure a selection process that was “as credible, transparent and inclusive as possible.” He noted that the Russian list of 15 countries was the one that applied criteria agreed on at a Preparatory Commission meeting in July.

Ulyanov conceded, however, that the agreement to reinstate nine countries will “bring back a normal situation” and that it was “time to move forward with the consultation process and candidate hearings.”

The candidate-nomination process has also caused friction among the organization’s member states.

The process for formal nominations was opened from Sept. 16 to Oct. 9. Australia, which has both signed and ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, submitted the candidacy of Robert Floyd, a scientist and well-known arms control expert who leads the government’s Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office.

“Dr Floyd is a passionate advocate for advancing non-proliferation and arms control, having held numerous leadership roles across these fields,” said Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne in a statement on Sept. 18.

Strictly speaking, there were no other formal nominations besides the one from the Indo-Pacific region.

The incumbent, Lassina Zerbo of Burkina Faso, however, indicated in a June letter to the chair of the Preparatory Commission, Faouzia Mebarki of Algeria, that he would be available to serve another term if member states wished, sources in Vienna say. His letter was a response to a question about his further availability, from Mebarki.

Yet numerous countries, including Australia, Britain, Germany and the US, oppose a third term. They contend that the process should be open and transparent and do not want to set a precedent for other UN organizations and related entities that mostly stick to two-term limits.

Nevertheless, it is understood that Zerbo will run in the election. He declined to provide a comment to PassBlue.

In an exclusive interview, Robert Floyd explained his motivation for running for the post, saying: “There are two main reasons why Australia decided to nominate me. First, the CTBTO has a strong history of geographic rotation of the Executive Secretary position. There has never been an Executive Secretary from the Indo Pacific part of the world.”

In an apparent jab at Zerbo’s candidacy for a third term, Floyd added: “The second reason is based on organizational health. I believe that the negotiators of the CTBT had in mind organizational health when they decided on a two-year term limit. Because a new head brings a renewal to an organization as well as a fresh perspective.”

Floyd also stressed the importance of the treaty to Australia, given that nuclear testing in the Pacific region has caused enormous damage to the environment and to indigenous people in his country. “A global ban on nuclear testing is a benefit to all humanity.”

Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, echoed those comments, telling PassBlue that “the CTBT has succeeded in making nuclear testing taboo.”

Before the treaty was adopted in 1996, more than 2,000 nuclear tests were carried out by the US, the Soviet Union at the time, France, Britain and China. Since the adoption, the frequency has dropped significantly, with just three countries having broken the testing moratorium in the past: mostly North Korea as well as India and Pakistan. (None are a party to the treaty.)

The nuclear testing ban has been successful despite the treaty not having entered into force yet. That requires ratification by eight more countries.

Kimball thinks that the CTBTO needs to closely watch developments in North Korea, which could soon resume nuclear testing. But he also emphasized recent news of leaked discussions in the Trump administration about a possible resumption of nuclear testing or even unsigning of the treaty by the US.

“Instead of quarrelling over procedural and financial matters, there are other, more important issues that should be at the center of attention of the CTBTO,” Kimball said.


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Stephanie Liechtenstein is a freelance journalist based in Vienna, covering diplomacy and international organizations for more than 15 years. Her articles have appeared in Foreign Policy, the EU Observer, The Washington Post and Austrian daily newspapers such as Die Presse and Wiener Zeitung.

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