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PERSPECTIVE ON NUCLEAR ARMS

Test Ban Pact Saved From Stillbirth

Despite India's veto, the compact is ready for delivery to the United Nations after four decades' gestation.

September 08, 1996|PETER D. ZIMMERMAN | Peter D. Zimmerman is a nuclear physicist who works as a consultant on U.S. arms policy. The opinions here are his own

Since 1954, when India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, began urging the Soviet Union and the United States to end nuclear weapons testing, completion of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has been an elusive goal of all but two U.S. administrations. Now it seems likely that before the month is out, Bill Clinton will sign the treaty at the United Nations. Ironically, India will not be on board.

A resolution asking the General Assembly to accept the treaty negotiated in Geneva by the 61-nation Conference on Disarmament is to be introduced Monday by Australia and more than 100 nations, the "friends of the CTBT," including all five declared nuclear powers.

The treaty should not have reached the U.N. this roundabout way. The Conference on Disarmament had been expected to report it directly to the U.N. last month. But the Conference on Disarmament operates only when its members agree, with no open dissent. While almost all of the members were satisfied with the compromise treaty brokered by Ambassador Jaap Ramaker of the Netherlands, India blocked it at the end.

The treaty's terms are not perfect, not 100% satisfactory to any nation, as is always the case when nations bargain, but it was balanced and "good enough" for most. The United States wanted to strengthen the right to inspect suspicious activities on the basis of photos from military reconnaissance satellites; China objected. Indonesia once hoped that a test ban would forbid the use of computer simulations for maintaining the existing stockpiles of the nuclear powers, an impossible dream unless every computer were to contain a "nuke chip" to filter out suspicious computations. There are other areas of discontent but none should prove fatal.

The two major sticking points arose late in the negotiations. Russia, Britain and China demanded that the "nuclear threshold states"--India, Israel and Pakistan--ratify the treaty just as the five acknowledged nuclear powers must do. India demanded that the treaty, intended only to stop nuclear testing and slow weapons development, also commit the signatories to a nuclear-free world by a definite date.

Since nuclear weapons are small and easy to hide, no country could ever be certain that its foes really had destroyed all of their atomic arms, no matter what a treaty required. Nuclear weapons are also inexpensive and, if certain designs are used, reliable with little or no maintenance. In a nominally nuclear-free world, one aggressive country with a stockpile of a few dozen warheads could dominate the globe. India's insistence on a nuclear disarmament clause was impossible for the five nuclear powers to accept, and probably represented Indian nuclear hypocrisy, if we are to judge by Indian actions.

It soon became clear that India intended to maintain its nuclear capabilities out of distrust of Pakistan and China. When other participants pressed for ratification, India's ambassador, the chain-smoking Arundhati Ghose, reacted angrily. She declared that the test ban treaty, in its foreclosure of any nuclear capability, was an assault on Indian sovereignty. And she rejected pressure to sign as a threat of U.N. sanctions on India.

Since the Conference on Disarmament can act only by consensus, the treaty seemed dead until its group of "friends" found a way to bring it before the General Assembly.

If the Indian press is accurate, and if the statements of Indian officials can be taken at face value, India's real reason for trying to stop the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is that it harbors ambitions to be a great nuclear power and is preparing its old test site for a new shot. There is persuasive public evidence on that score from analysts at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who needed to use only unclassified satellite pictures and news reports to make their case.

Despite the failure of the Conference on Disarmament, and despite India's veto, an end to nuclear testing is in sight--unless India chooses to test. Even Israel and Pakistan are expected to sign the treaty, further isolating India not only from its Western economic partners but also from the nonaligned states that it claims to lead. However, the conference, the only negotiating field where great powers and the rest of the world could discuss issues of disarmament, war and peace on equal terms, is now worse than moribund. India's veto has so discredited it that it may never again serve as a forum where the powerful must listen to the concerns of the less powerful if either group wants progress. That, now, is India's legacy. Nehru would not be pleased.

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