Banning Nuclear Tests - It's Bush's Move

By Philip G. Schrag. Philip G. Schrag is a professor of law at Georgetown University. From 1977 to 1981, he was the deputy general counsel of the Us Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. | The Christian Science Monitor, April 24, 1989 | Go to article overview

Banning Nuclear Tests - It's Bush's Move


Philip G. Schrag. Philip G. Schrag is a professor of law at Georgetown University. From 1977 to 1981, he was the deputy general counsel of the Us Arms Control and Disarmament Agency., The Christian Science Monitor


FORTY countries, including Egypt, India, Iran, and Iraq, have recently proposed an amendment to the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits tests of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. They want to turn it into a treaty banning all nuclear weapons testing. This initiative presents the Bush administration with a diplomatic challenge and a national security opportunity.

More than 100 countries have joined the treaty over its 26-year life. But nuclear weapons testing by the United States and the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent by Britain, France, and China, continues at a vigorous pace underground.

Such testing has been vigorously criticized by most countries. In 1987, 128 countries voted for a United Nations resolution advocating the amendment that has just been formally proposed. Only the US, France, and Britain opposed the resolution.

The Limited Test Ban Treaty's amendment clause specifies that a conference to consider amendments must be convened if requested by one-third of the parties. The US, Britain, and the USSR - the three countries that drafted the treaty - are responsible for convening such a conference. Those countries will each have only one vote at the conference, but under the treaty each of them can veto any amendments.

The 40 countries that have now called for an amendment conference are more than a third of the parties. These countries want an end to underground as well as atmospheric testing. What should the US do?

In large part, the answer to this question depends on whether the Bush administration thinks that continued testing is necessary, and, if so, for how long. Until 1981, every American president since Dwight Eisenhower had endorsed efforts to negotiate a comprehensive test ban agreement. Reagan administration officials reversed this longstanding policy, believing that nuclear weapons testing would be necessary indefinitely to develop new types of nuclear weapons and to make sure that the nuclear weapons already in the US stockpile will work. President Reagan also canceled ongoing comprehensive test ban negotiations. But President Bush may take a fresh look at this issue.

There is reason to think that a ban on nuclear testing at this time would enhance American national security. If the US and the USSR stop testing, it will be more difficult for hard-liners in third-world states to argue that their countries needed to test nuclear weapons to acquire international prestige. …

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