Paper on the NPT, the Nuclear Ban Treaty and the CTBT

15 June – The following text is a paper prepared by the Secretary-General of Pugwash, Paolo Cotta-Ramusino, for three conferences in Moscow, Madrid, and Bergen between 6-15 June 2018. 

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, commonly known as the Non-Proliferation Treaty or NPT was signed almost exactly 50 years ago. The need for a NPT can certainly be traced back to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which showed how concrete the risk of a nuclear catastrophe was, and how close we came to the nuclear brink. The idea was (and still is) that if many countries had possessed nuclear weapons, then the probability of a nuclear holocaust would have been much higher.

It can be easily said that the NPT is a very imperfect and, on many accounts, problematic treaty. It distinguishes between nuclear and non-nuclear states, hence introducing a significant discrimination among member states; it does not require any time schedule for the commitment to nuclear disarmament (Art. 6), nor, in fact, does it impose any effective limitation on the quality and quantity of the nuclear arsenals of nuclear weapon states.

There is, on the one side, practically no possibility to amend and modify the treaty and, on the other (as in the case of many international treaties), no serious obstacle to withdrawal for member states (if a country decides to do so taking into account its “supreme national interests”). The NPT reiterates the “inalienable right” of access to nuclear civilian technology without requiring any properly updated international control of civilian nuclear activities, which we all know are very much related to nuclear military activities[1].

Still, with all its problems, the NPT is one of the most widely signed international agreements and, up to now, has been successful in keeping the limit to “five official nuclear weapons states”, while only four other states, not members of the NPT, possess nuclear weapons. If the present discussion on creating a de-facto nuclear-weapon-free zone in North East Asia makes some progress, then we will have a very significant strengthening of the NPT. This will require, obviously, the denuclearization of the DPRK.

However, there are serious threats to the NPT, the most recent, and important, connected to the JCPOA, namely, the agreement on the Iranian nuclear issue. The decision of the USA to abandon the agreement and reinstate heavy sanctions on Iran could generate serious problems for the NPT in the Middle East. If the other partners of the JCPOA (Russia, China, France, Germany, the UK and the European Union) do not oppose the demise of the JCPOA and do not fully commit to keeping the JCPOA alive,[2] then Iran may decide at some point to suspend its membership in the NPT, possibly creating a larger NPT problem in the Middle East,[3] and perhaps even a war in that region.

But there exist other problems in relation to the NPT. Every five years, the member states of the NPT are supposed to gather for a quinquennial NPT Review Conference. Since 2000, the quinquennial NPT Review Conferences have ended up with either no final document,[4] or with a final document whose recommendations have not been implemented.

In 2000, the final document mentioned 13 steps that have largely not been implemented. In 2010, it was agreed to convene a conference before 2012 on the creation of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East – a conference, as is well known, that was never convened.

In 2005 and 2015, no final document was produced by the NPT Review Conference. The entire setting of the NPT Review Conferences has revealed its weakness and, up to a point, its lack of relevance. The consequences for the credibility of the NPT itself should not be underestimated.

The final draft of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (in short NBT, or Nuclear Ban Treaty) was approved on July 7, 2017 by 122 States of the UN, and has been signed, as of May 2018, by 58 States and ratified by 10. When ratified by 50 States, it will enter into force.

The treaty prohibits the development, testing, production, stockpiling, stationing, transfer, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons, as well as assistance and encouragement to nuclear military activities. For states joining the treaty that possess, own or control nuclear weapons, there will be a deadline, determined by the member states of the treaty, for the verified and irreversible elimination of their nuclear weapon programs.

It has been claimed by some that there is possibly an incompatibility between the NPT and the NBT. This argument is hardly understandable. First, the NBT will just strengthen the NPT, by fixing a deadline for the removal-elimination of the nuclear weapons of member states. The NBT also strengthens, in principle, the relations between the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) and member states. Moreover, the NBT will explicitly forbid member states to host the nuclear weapons of other states, or to cooperate with the management or operations related to the nuclear weapons that belong to other states.

This last point is very important. For the first time, there is a provision that will forbid the hosting of nuclear weapons and the “nuclear sharing” practice of countries that are allies of nuclear weapon states. The NPT was signed at a time when the nuclear sharing practice of countries allied with the US was de facto not deemed incompatible with the NPT rules – a compromise that was set in order to avoid the more compelling and risky project of a NATO multilateral force.

But the question of whether nuclear hosting and nuclear sharing practices are incompatible or not with the NPT remains open. And moreover, we must all grasp that these nuclear hosting and nuclear sharing practices can, in the future, be a way to circumvent the NPT itself. Think about nuclear countries, even non-members of the NPT, deploying nuclear weapons on the territory of non-nuclear states members of the NPT. Would this be considered acceptable from the point of view of the NPT? For example, the Middle East could, in principle, be filled with nuclear weapons belonging to other states. The NBT explicitly forbids this possibility for its member states.

It is very clear, given the present international environment, that the path to a large-scale membership in the NBT will be a far from easy one. But we must stress that the NBT is the right step in the right direction. Countries that are seriously interested in nuclear disarmament should do whatever possible to strengthen the NBT, and to promote its membership. And even short of full membership in the NBT, countries should whenever possible promote some of its significant goals, like the elimination of the nuclear sharing/nuclear hosting practice.

Finally, let us mention the CTBT, which forbids all nuclear weapons tests. As is well known, the CTBT has not yet entered into force, as there are still five countries that have not ratified the treaty (US, China, Egypt, Iran, Israel), and three countries that have not even signed the treaty (DPRK, India, Pakistan) – and these 8 countries belong to the group of 44 countries whose ratification is required, according to Annex II of the CTBT, for entry into force of the CTBT itself. The only country that has carried out nuclear tests since 2000 is the DPRK. And the DPRK has just destroyed its nuclear test facility. So there is some progress.

But why have those eight countries not yet ratified the treaty? With the possible exception of the DPRK, the reason probably has nothing to do with the need to perform nuclear tests for the creation or maintenance of an “efficient” nuclear arsenal. The US, Israel, China, India and Pakistan do not need further nuclear tests. They have not signed or ratified the CTBT because they want to emphatically preserve their role of nuclear weapon states, and resist further impositions from the international community. It is a kind of “nuclear hubris”, that is, a politically dangerous signal to the international community, and to non-nuclear weapon states in particular. It is a signal that goes, in reality, against the NPT.

Iran, a member of the NPT, has been under pressure for its civilian nuclear program. With the JCPOA in force, it was very easy to forecast an Iranian ratification of the CTBT. But now that the JCPOA is in a critically difficult situation, the outlook is difficult. Egypt, also a member of the NPT, awaits some movement toward the creation of a NW (or WMD)-free zone in the Middle East and thus is not taking any further step in the direction of “nuclear arms control”. Despite the fact that the CTBT is not yet in force, theCTBTO is providing an enormous wealth of data, covering the planet with seismic test sites that are able to detect, very efficiently, possible nuclear tests.

In conclusion, the strengthening of the NPT (and now, the preservation of the JCPOA), the creation and consolidation of NW (or WMD)-free zones, the improvement of NPT-related mechanisms (making the NPT Review Conferences more efficient, enforcing control by the IAEA of civilian nuclear activities), the widening of membership in the NBT, and progress towards the entry into force of the CTBT – are all parts of a global effort to reduce the role of nuclear weapons, to highlight the dangers for mankind represented by these weapons, and to move towards a more secure global environment.


[1] Remember that the IAEA Additional Protocol, which is a significant improvement over the standard safeguards agreements, is not at all compulsory.

[2] This, in particular, will require resisting effectively the so-called “secondary sanctions”, namely, the sanctions that the US plans to impose on foreign entities that do not respect the (new) US sanctions on Iran.

[3] Note that there is already some talk of US and Saudi Arabia cooperating on nuclear technologies, and Saudi Arabia has not signed any Additional Protocol.

[4] In fact, as it has been pointed out to me, out of 9 quinquennial Review Conferences, five did not produce a final document.

A version of this paper was published by InDepthNews as “The Alphabet Soup NPT, CTBT, NBT” on 8 June 2018.