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Lassina Zerbo

CTBT’s Possible Contribution to a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free-Zone in the Middle East in the Past 20 Years

: The Preparatory Commission was established with the mandate to carry out the necessary preparations for the effective implementation of the CTBT. This includes building the Treaty’s verification regime and putting in place an institutional framework to operate and sustain it.

To date, the International Monitoring System (IMS) has a truly global coverage and is 90% complete. The System has demonstrated its robustness and reliability by detecting and locating the five nuclear tests announced by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The CTBTO provided to Member States raw and reviewed data in a timely manner, well within Treaty deadlines. We can assert today that it is virtually impossible to have nuclear tests that will go undetected by the IMS.

With the 20th anniversary of the opening for signature of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), it is very timely to mark an important milestone in this global peace and security architecture and our past achievements.

A paper by:  Lassina Zerbo 

The Amman Security Colloquium and Nuclear Forum have become a major date on the global peace and security agenda. This success has certainly to do with the Colloquium’s innovative approach which sets a unique framework for a frank, open and constructive dialogue on the pressing challenges of our world. I am honoured to be here with you and eagerly look forward to having fruitful and inspiring exchanges with all participants.

The theme of this year, Prospects for Security, Stability and Inter-regional Cooperation is very topical because it is in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in September last year, as part of the universal, integrated and transformative 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It is also very timely because this year marks an important milestone in the global peace and security architecture with the 20th anniversary of the opening for signature of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and provides me with the opportunity to share with you some of key our achievements in the past 20 years.

1.     20 Years of CTBT

The Preparatory Commission was established with the mandate to carry out the necessary preparations for the effective implementation of the CTBT. This includes building the Treaty’s verification regime and putting in place an institutional framework to operate and sustain it.

Where do we stand 20 years after the CTBT was opened for signature? 

To date, the International Monitoring System (IMS) has a truly global coverage and is 90% complete. The System has demonstrated its robustness and reliability by detecting and locating the five nuclear tests announced by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The CTBTO provided to Member States raw and reviewed data in a timely manner, well within Treaty deadlines. We can assert today that it is virtually impossible to have nuclear tests that will go undetected by the IMS.

With its network of facilities, the International Data Centre (IDC) and the Global Communication Infrastructure (GCI), the IMS is only one leg of the Verification System and is to be combined with an effective on-site inspection (OSI) regime. Even though the OSI regime will only be effective once the Treaty enters into force, the CTBTO has already conducted two integrated field exercises, which are life-size tests of an on-site inspection. The second Integrated Field Exercise was hosted by Jordan in 2014. I seize this opportunity to reiterate my deep appreciation to the Kingdom of Jordan for its generous support, and for the outstanding cooperation and hospitality from the Government and the People of Jordan during that exercise. These two exercises demonstrated that we had mastered all components of the verification regime, and brought our on-site inspection capabilities to the same high level as the IMS. 

In short, we can state that, by all measures, we have built a global deterrent that gives countries' peace of mind by demonstrating that the Treaty is verifiable through a global monitoring system that is unique, reliable and efficient.

As you know technology keeps moving forward. And “once a new technology rolls over you, if you are not part of the steamroller, you are part of the road.” That is why while we are working on completing and maintaining the IMS network to improve its coverage and resilience, we are equally determined to keep up with the new advances in the CTBT verification-related fields in order to continuously improve the System’s reliability.

We also organize every two years the CTBT Science and Technology Conference series, which aim at providing a forum for scientists, industry leaders and policymakers from around the world to exchange knowledge and share advances in monitoring and verification technologies of relevance to the CTBT. Such interaction ensures that the Treaty’s global verification regime remains at the forefront of scientific and technological innovation.

Furthermore, we remain committed to assisting the relevant national institutions in building their capacities, so that they can fully play their role as effective tools for political decision-makers.

2.     20th Anniversary

Despite these achievements, the 20th anniversary is not a cause for celebration. While we should acknowledge, and be proud of, the great strides that have been made towards the Treaty’s entry into force, we should take full measure of the challenges that are still ahead of us: in spite of being nearly universal and one of the most adhered to international agreements in history (with 183 Signatory States and 166 Ratifying States), the Treaty has yet to enter into force. Even though it is up to each non-ratifying state to determine the value and contribution of the Treaty based on its own national interest, our organization can make a positive impact in this process by providing a constructive framework for that national debate; one which will contribute to the decision to ratify the Treaty. I assure that my team and I are diligently working to this end.

It is with this in mind, we have decided to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the CTBT with a series of activities, which included a Symposium on Science and Diplomacy for Peace and Security in January; a High-Level Panel Discussion in Vienna with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in April; and a Ministerial-Level Meeting on the margins of the session of our Policy-Making Organs in June.

In the same vein, the international community has manifested its support to the need for the Treaty’s entry into force, including through the authoritative voice of the United Nation Security Council which adopted its first-ever resolution on the CTBT. UNSC Resolution 2310 calls upon States to refrain from conducting nuclear tests and urges the remaining Annex-2 States – with an emphasis on the five Nuclear-Weapons States – to ratify the CTBT. Equally important is the resolution’s recognition of the value of the Treaty and its monitoring system as an important contributor to stability and as a confidence-building mechanism. Although the resolution was not adopted under Chapter VII with legally mandatory language to establish a universal ban on nuclear weapons testing, it serves as a strong reminder to non-Ratifying Annex-2 States by expressing its strong support for the CTBT and its verification system and setting a reporting mechanism. In this respect, this Resolution is much welcome as it keeps the momentum alive.

This brings me to my next point which is the CTBT’s possible contribution to a regional security, particularly in the Middle East. Before that, I would like to share with you my views of the current situation.

3.     WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East

The pursuit of a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East has been at the centre of the non-proliferation and disarmament debate for the past four decades. Indeed, the idea of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East was first proposed at the United Nations General Assembly by Iran. Later on, Egypt broadened the Iranian proposal to a Weapons-of-Mass-Destruction free zone – including a ban on chemical and biological weapons.

Yet, more than four decades later, we are still here today talking about its establishment. In the meantime, nuclear weapon free zones have been established in five regions: Latin America and the Caribbean (in force since 2002), the South Pacific (1986), South-East Asia (1997), Africa (2009) and Central Asia (2009) making the entire Southern hemisphere, more than half of the international community, nuclear free.

Also in the meantime, the Middle East has been at the heart of alleged nuclear proliferation with Israel’s alleged nuclear arsenal, clandestine nuclear-weapon programmes in Iraq in 1991 and in Syria in 2007, and undeclared uranium enrichment research and development programme as well as a reactor under construction that could potentially be used for plutonium production for weapons in Iran. As you can see, I believe that it is essential to call a spade a spade.

And as we all know, the absence of progress on the establishment of a WMDFZ in the Middle-East was one of the main obstacles – if not the main obstacle – to reaching agreement on an Outcome Document at the last Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in 2015. And we can see that the disappointment generated by the outcome – or rather the lack of outcome – of the last NPT Review Conference is being translated into policy initiatives; for example, the discussions outside the NPT framework on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, and the Open-ended Working Group meeting in Geneva and most recently the Draft Resolution of the General Assembly’s First Committee calling for a conference in 2017 to develop a legally binding ban on nuclear weapons. While these initiatives might give a new impetus to global disarmament and non-proliferation efforts, we must take great care to maintain the integrity of the NPT and its entire web of responsibilities.

I think that the lack of progress on this question requires a different approach to it. Before coming to that, I would like to recall some of the main challenges inherent in the establishment of such a zone.

4. Why is the Middle East different from the other regions? (Challenges)

As I said earlier, there are a host of suspicions – grounded or not – over the intentions of many regional states. Therefore, targeting and blaming one country or a couple of countries will not bring much progress on the issue. Instead, what is needed is to clearly recognize the challenges specific to the region. For time’s sake, I will only elaborate on two of the most daunting ones.

A first major challenge to establishing a zone free of nuclear weapons/WMDs consists in bridging the conceptual gap among the countries in the region. Some countries view the establishment of such a zone as a prerequisite for improved regional security while others believe that it should be the opposite way.

Second challenge, or rather set of challenges, is at the political-strategical level. Some aspects that might be obvious or minor in other regions can have very significant weights in the Middle East context. Without going through the host of complex security issues (both intra- and inter-state), I will just mention a few examples. For instance, while defining the territory that should be covered by such a zone may be obvious to most of us, it may be more complicated in the region when it will come to naming the countries since that would imply that any country in the region should be officially recognized and accepted as an integral part thereof. Besides, there is a tendency to resort to international pressure rather than direct engagement among regional States.

Despite these challenges, progress is possible if all parties work in a genuinely fair and collaborative manner.

5.     Current Regional Environment 

Prospects for a WMD-free zone in the region remain dim at present. However, let us focus for the moment on opportunities in the region. As a matter of fact, there are good reasons to be optimistic given the current situation in the region. And for once, two encouraging signs come from multilateral cooperation frameworks. The first one is the Agreement between the Russian Federation and the United States, with the support of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the UN Security Council, which brought Syria to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and declare and surrender its chemical weapons stocks for dismantlement by 30 June 2014.

The second encouraging sign is the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Actions (JCPOA) on 14 July 2015 between Iran and the EU3+3. Although many countries in the region still have some reservations concerning the implementation of the JCPOA by some degree of support – at least officially. While the scope of discussions with Iran did not leave room for the CTBT, I think that the Agreement could be utilized as a model to bring the CTBT back into focus.

Both Syria’s adherence to the CWC and the conclusion of the JCPOA are good indicators that multilateralism can effectively work where there is unequivocal political commitment supported by a strong and clear leadership. They also provide fresh impetus for progress on a WMDFZ in the Middle-East.

In addition to these factors, the region is currently plagued by ever-growing activities non-State actors with very divergent goals. Those activities and their security and humanitarian consequences have no respect for national borders. It is therefore difficult – if not self-defeating – for any regional or international actor to claim their exclusive, undisputed loyalty. On the contrary, the region needs a unified front built on high principles, clearly defined mechanisms and, above all, a cooperative spirit. To take full measure of these threats, consider – for a second – the current fear that different groups in Syria could have access to and use WMDs in the region and elsewhere. I am sure that we all agree that the best and indeed the only guarantee that this will not happen is by putting in place a regional arrangement that is binding to all regional actors.

6. The question is HOW to get there? (CTBT’s potential contribution)

The CTBT could be instrumental in answering that question – both politically and technically.

At the political level, my conviction is that establishing a WMDFZ in the Middle-East requires a building-block approach with a set of parallel and/or sequential commitments to sign and ratify existing treaties such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). These instruments could be reinforced by other regional confidence-building measures as relevant; such as a highly-enriched-uranium-free zone, separate agreements on non-attack of nuclear facilities (including cyber-attacks), prior notifications of activities such as missile launches, nuclear security assurances and other transparency measures.

Among all the above measures, the CTBT is the one that gathers wider and stronger support and the easiest to implement. It gathers more support because the CTBT was the lowest common denominator for virtually all Member States at the last NPT RevCon. As a matter of fact, the principal regional actors – Egypt, Iran and Israel – have all signed the CTBT. By doing so, they have already said no to nuclear testing. They only need to turn this “no” into a “never” with their ratification. Collective ratification of the CTBT by all States in the region would establish a de-facto nuclear-test-free zone in the Middle East and constitute a significant catalyst for a WMDFZ in the Middle-East because:
1- it would lay the foundation for a WMDFZ by effectively addressing one of the three pillars of such an arrangement – namely, ban on nuclear weapons, no misuse of fissile material and no nuclear testing; and

2- it would also help build the necessary trust among the key actors in moving forward on discussions relating to the WMDFZ in the Middle-East. Why not push a non-test agreement as a means to build confidence among the parties pending their ratification of the CTBT?

At the technical level, the CTBT Verification System has demonstrated its effectiveness and reliability through its improved performance in detecting the nuclear tests announced by North Korea. You can judge for yourselves: in 2006, the identified test area was 880 km², whereas in 2013 the increased accuracy of our system allowed us to narrow the test area down to 181 km², well within the 1000 km² that the Treaty mandates for an on-site inspection. We deliver on our promises! And what is equally remarkable with the CTBT is that all States are on equal footing: same obligations, same rights!

To ensure equality, the CTBTO Commission provides, as I mentioned earlier, assistance to States in order to promote the full utilization of data collected by the monitoring stations around the globe and transmitted by the International Data Centre. The Organization’s integrated capacity-building and training programmes help States acquire the necessary hardware, software and expertise, including the establishment of an appropriate communications infrastructure.

The five-week long full-scale On-Site-Inspection Integrated Field Exercise  (IFE14) held in 2014 in Jordan was the largest of its kind, requiring 150 tons of equipment worth 100 million USD, covering an inspection area of nearly 1,000 square kilometres.  IFE14 mobilized 200 international experts from more than 50 countries. It was followed by a Lessons-Learned Workshop held in Israel from 12 to 16 April 2015. However, beyond those lessons learned, the key lesson is that the Treaty can act as a conduit for technical engagement and cooperation among States in the Middle East. During both events, experts and officials from the region and beyond came together and displayed outstanding collaborative spirit, mutual respect and trust in the Verification System.

To summarize, I believe that a confidence-building measure that could be introduced in the interim is the establishment of a nuclear-test-free zone. In this way, a nuclear test free zone in the Middle East would be the “nearest shore”. The “CTBT shore” is all the nearer as the conclusion of the JCPOA has de facto eliminated one of the main obstacles to ratification of the CTBT by some regional players and, thus, created opportunities for further engagement. We should build upon the trust generated by the JCPOA and engage all regional actors on the establishment of a nuclear-test-free Middle East through CTBT’s ratification.

To those who think that a more comprehensive agreement should be pursued instead, we should remind them that the experience of creating nuclear-free-zones suggests that progress on perceived smaller issues, such as a regional ban on nuclear testing, often contributes to confidence building and improved relations among states and may serve as the impetus for wider regional rapprochement and helps overcoming any prevailing mistrust. This is exactly what the CTBT offers.

Of course, what is also needed here is strong regional leadership on the issue because the drive should also emanate from regional States themselves. To all regional actors, my ultimate message is the following: optimism driven by goodwill shall prevail over pessimism dictated by defensiveness.

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