ORF: Why the CTBT remains an elusive goal


Observer Research Foundation, Rakeesh Sood

More than 20 years after the United Nations opened the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) for signature on 24 September 1996, it has still not entered into force. It is the only multilateral treaty to have met such an uncertain fate. Indeed, the call for a CTBT was made long ago in the early 1950s, as a first step towards nuclear disarmament.

The US supported the negotiations when these finally began in 1994, and then President Bill Clinton was the treaty’s first signatory; today, there are 183 countries that have signed up[i] and of these, 164 have ratified the treaty

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. Yet the CTBT’s entry into force remains an elusive goal. Why has the international community failed to see it through? The reason lies in the history and mechanics of the negotiations of the CTBT between 1995 and 1996, and the brazen attempts by some of the key countries to convert what had been a long-sought disarmament objective into a non-proliferation goal

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. Even today, the proponents of the CTBT are reluctant to face this uncomfortable reality.

Terminology often needs to be seen in its political context. During the 1950s and the early 1960s, the concepts of ‘disarmament’ and ‘non-proliferation’ were both seen as objectives that are not only desirable, but also to be achieved together. A distinction was established between the two with the coming into existence of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (or the Non-Proliferation Treaty, NPT) in 1968. For decades thereafter, ‘non-proliferation’ became the more urgent and easily achievable objective; and ‘disarmament’ has proved a more difficult goal, needing stronger political will
. Thus, efforts to promote disarmament in tandem were often criticised as diversions from the non-proliferation objective, which became priority.


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Observer Research Foundation (ORF) is a public policy think-tank that aims to influence the formulation of policies for building a strong and prosperous India. ORF pursues these goals by providing informed and productive inputs, in-depth research, and stimulating discussions. The Foundation is supported in its mission by a cross-section of India’s leading public figures, as well as academic and business leaders.

Ambassador Rakesh Sood is a Distinguished Fellow at ORF. He has over 38 years of experience in the field of foreign affairs, economic diplomacy and international security issues.