Advancing Nuclear Disarmament through the CTBT: Lassina Zerbo Discusses a Verifiable and Enforceable Prohibition on Nuclear Testing 60 Years in the Making

By Zerbo, Lassina | New Zealand International Review, March-April 2019 | Go to article overview

Advancing Nuclear Disarmament through the CTBT: Lassina Zerbo Discusses a Verifiable and Enforceable Prohibition on Nuclear Testing 60 Years in the Making


Zerbo, Lassina, New Zealand International Review


A nuclear test ban is one of the oldest items on the international nuclear disarmament agenda. The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty is a practical and effective nuclear threat reduction measure that is a necessary step toward the broader vision of a nuclear weapons free world. A legally binding instrument with strict verification requirements and measures to redress possible non-compliance, it constitutes the most practical and achievable way of advancing multilateral nuclear disarmament in the current geopolitical context. Dealing with North Korea, the only state to have tested nuclear weapons this century, is one of the biggest challenges facing CTBT Organisation today.

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New Zealand has been an ardent supporter of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation throughout the years. It has also played, and continues to play, a key role in making true the promise of a comprehensive, verifiable, legally binding, and universalised prohibition on nuclear testing.

There are several implicit assertions that are contained in the tide of this article. The first is that the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) not only contributes to nuclear disarmament but also is in fact perhaps the most practical and achievable step that can be taken to advance multilateral nuclear disarmament in the current geopolitical context.

The second is that while the CTBT underpins the international norm against nuclear testing, the treaty is not simply a norm enforcing measure. It is a legally binding instrument with strict verification requirements and measures to redress possible noncompliance. The CTBT imposes substantial responsibilities equally upon all states parties relating to both its basic obligations and verification protocols.

And third, the promise of a legally binding, effectively verifiable and credibly enforceable nuclear test ban did not spring up at the end of the Cold War. A nuclear test ban is one of the oldest items on the international nuclear disarmament agenda. This article will focus on the following points:

* the history of nuclear testing;

* the contribution of the CTBT and its verification regime to peace and security;

* finding a way forward in nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament and the role of the CTBT.

Although only one state has conducted a nuclear test in this century--North Korea--more than 2000 nuclear test explosions have been carried out since 1945. Between 1945 and 1980, the total energy yield of nuclear explosions carried out in the atmosphere alone was more than 500 megatons. This is roughly equivalent to a Hiroshima-sized nuclear bomb being set off every eleven hours.

This should come as no surprise to New Zealanders, as New Zealand has been at the forefront of international efforts to bring an end to nuclear testing. Wellington walked the talk, as they say, bringing cases to the International Court of Justice over the legality of nuclear testing in the South Pacific and sending naval vessels to nuclear test zones in protest. New Zealand also played a substantial role in the establishment of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone, which banned nuclear testing outright.

First-hand accounts of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from survivors--the Hibakusha--have helped to cement in our minds the horrors of the use of nuclear weapons in warfare. But the consequences of nuclear testing are also quite clear.

Risk awareness

After the establishment by the United Nations General Assembly of the Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (1955), awareness spread about the risks connected to the fallout from nuclear explosions. Concerns about the radionuclide strontium-90 and its effect on mother's milk and babies' teeth helped marshall public support for the conclusion in 1963 of the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT), which banned nuclear tests in the atmosphere, underwater and in outer space. …

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