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JCPOA Shows the Power of Persistent Multilateral Diplomacy

Friday, July 29, 2016

Exclusive Interview with Lassina Zerbo
By: Sara Massoumi

The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) is a multilateral treaty by which states agree to ban all nuclear explosions in all environments, for military or civilian purposes. It was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 September 1996 but has not entered into force as eight specific states have not ratified the treaty yet. The Vienna-based Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO), founded in 1996 alongside the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), with the aim of independently monitoring compliance. With 183 signatories and 164 ratifications, the treaty represents a milestone in international efforts to ban nuclear testing. Still, the CTBTO has made tremendous strides in the past 20 years to set the stage for full ratification. In an interview with Etemad Persian daily journalist, Sara Massoumi, CTBTO Executive Secretary Dr. Lassina Zerbo spoke about hope for CTBT enforcement, political and technical aspects of the treaty, the Group of Eminent Persons, ratification of CTBT, India and Pakistan's previous nuclear tests, US’ failure to ratify the treaty, Annex 2 States, Israel’s ratification of CTBT, ratification of the Treaty by Iran, North Korea's nuclear tests in the 21st century, and…

Lassina Zerbo is the Executive Secretary of the CTBTO, a position which he assumed on 1 August 2013. He previously served as Director of the organization’s International Data Centre (IDC). He is a national of Burkina Faso. Zerbo has been instrumental in cementing the CTBTO’s position as the world’s center of excellence for nuclear test-ban verification, as well as in driving forward efforts towards the entry into force and universalization of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). Soon after assuming his current post, Zerbo initiated the establishment of the Group of Eminent Persons (GEM), comprising internationally recognized personalities and experts to promote the Treaty’s entry into force and to reinvigorate international endeavors to achieve this goal. The following is the text of the interview.

Q: The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty opened for signature in 1996 while it had taken forty years to make premises for the treaty to be signed. Despite being signed by 183 and ratified by 164 countries, the treaty has is not in force yet. Is there any hope for its enforcement after such a long time?

A: Former IAEA Director General Hans Blix, who is a member of our Group of Eminent Persons, often refers to the CTBT as a treaty that not yet in force but already effective, which is better than vice-versa. The figures are impressive: compare over 2,000 nuclear tests before the adoption of the Treaty in 1996 to only a handful after.

And yes, I have hope that we can achieve entry into force in the foreseeable future and otherwise strengthen the taboo against nuclear testing; otherwise I would not be doing this job. Recent history shows that the political landscape can change overnight – take Syria’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013. If the international community had put the CTBT on the table at that time as well, I am confident that Syria’s leadership could not have refused it. We need political leadership to take advantage of opportunities such as these when they arise.

Q: The nuclear test ban is known as a technical issue but nuclear military power has been basically a political issue since it emerged, in a way that political alliances among those possessing the power have overshadowed its technical nature. How do you think you will be able to balance the political and technical aspects of the treaty?

A: It’s true that our Organization is mainly a technical one – and therein lies its strength and its value to the international community. We have put in place a robust unrivaled verification regime, which U.S. Secretary of State called “one of the greatest achievements of the modern world” which is far more capable than envisioned when Iran and many other countries concluded its negotiation and opened it for signature back in 1996.

The CTBT is a fundamentally democratic treaty: Its strength lies in providing the same rights and obligations to all. This means that under the Treaty’s provisions, no country is allowed to conduct nuclear explosive testing. Without such nuclear detonations, even the most advanced nuclear-armed states cannot, with confidence, perfect new nuclear warhead designs. At the same time, the Organization provides the same data to all its Member States to verify compliance. My home country Burkina Faso, for example, has the right to receive the same monitoring data as the most developed countries. The CTBT levels the playing field.

Q: During your term in the post, you founded the Group of Eminent Persons. What was your motivation for the initiative and what do you expect from the group? How is the group supposed to help move the treaty closer to taking effect?

A: I launched the Group of Eminent Persons upon taking office in 2013. The group comprises eminent personalities and internationally recognized experts. Through their standing and contacts, the group can open doors otherwise closed to us and help raise the Treaty’s profile, in particular with the Annex 2 States. They are also actively promoting the CTBT in the media. This year, we launched the CTBTO Youth Group to complement the efforts of the GEM. By harnessing the energy and creativity of the new generation in promoting the Treaty, we are able to keep the conversation alive, and reach new target audiences, including through Social Media.

Q: You have recently visited Israel and had intensive negotiations with the regime’s authorities. You said in an interview afterwards that a five-year time frame for the ratification of CTBT by Israel was likely. Where did the five-year time frame come from?

A: Already during my previous visits, I was told that Israel’s ratification is not a matter of “if” but “when”. The fact that I was received by Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu shows that the discussion has moved to a higher level. Israel is also the most forthcoming country in the region in helping us to build and operate the monitoring stations hosted – all three IMS facilities in Israel are certified and operational.

I would add that many states around the world see the CTBT as important step toward the realization of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East – which is a goal shared by all states in the region. As EU High Representative Frederica Mogherini said on 13 June in Vienna at a ministerial-level meeting on the CTBT: "As a stepping-stone towards this long-term objective, a ‘nuclear-test-free zone’ could be created in the Middle East, by way of CTBT ratifications by the remaining states of the region.”

Q: India and Pakistan are the two signatories that have done nuclear tests after Treaty’s conclusions. What solution(s) have you considered to convince the two countries to work within the framework of CTBT? How do you want to eliminate the political rivalry between the two for having nuclear arms and showing off their nuclear power?

A: It is correct that India and Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in 1998, but since then they have observed a moratorium. No serious political actor in either country is suggesting a resumption of nuclear testing. India and Pakistan have yet to sign the CTBT. Pakistan, however, already participates in the CTBTO Member States’ discussions as observer. India, on the other hand, has repeatedly stated that it would not “stand in the way” of the CTBT’s entry into force.

The only country to continue nuclear testing this century is North Korea – to universal condemnation every time.

Q: You once noted in an interview that Barack Obama failed to get CTBT ratified because he did not have the party majority in Congress. Of course, in his first years in the Oval Office, he had the majority of congress and his tagline had been to work toward a world without nuclear arms. Did you make efforts to ratify the treaty in the US during your tenure? You visit the country several times each year and about 20 percent of the organization’s budget is provided by the US. Did you have Congress meetings to encourage Senators to ratify the treaty?

A: The U.S. administration is engaging the U.S. Senate and the public in an outreach and education campaign on the Treaty’s security benefits. In this, we support the U.S. administration where we can. For example, I had the opportunity to brief senior staff members at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2015. The administration is also planning an exhibition on the CTBT and its verification regime on Capitol Hill, which we are supporting.

We have many supporters in the U.S. on both sides of the political spectrum. This is not a partisan issue, or at least it should not be. Rose Gottemoeller, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control regularly explains how the ratification of the CTBT is in the national security interest of the United States. Secretary of State Kerry noted the importance of U.S. CTBT ratification earlier this week in his remarks on the anniversary of the conclusion of the JCPOA.

Q: You have called US’ failure to ratify the treaty as the result of domestic differences and interior policies over which an organization like CTBT has no influence. With this being the situation, do you think there is any chance US ratifies the treaty?

A: Domestic situations can change. What remains is the strong case for the CTBT from a national security standpoint: the two concerns that U.S. Senators raised when the Treaty was first discussed in 1999 – verification and viability of the Stockpile Stewardship Programme – have now been addressed. Former Secretary of State George Shultz (under President Ronald Reagan) once said that his fellow Republicans “might have been right voting against it some years ago, but they would be right voting for it now, based on these new facts.”

Q: Given the hesitation of the remaining Annex 2 countries to ratify the Treaty, is there a possibility for some modifications so that enforcement does not require ratification by all Annex 2 States?

A: The entry into force clause in Article XIV is an integral part of the Treaty as adopted 20 years ago. To re-negotiate this clause would open the entire Treaty including its far-reaching verification regime to discussion. We should keep in mind that the CTBT was adopted in a unique positive political climate after the end of the Cold War. It is doubtful that in today’s tense international security situation, a consensus for a similarly complex treaty could be achieved.

Q: Some sources say the main obstacle for Israel’s ratification of CTBT is not the treaty itself but regional context. Do you agree with such speculations and what does Israel mean with regional context?

A: In my view, the CTBT can help promote trust and stability in the Middle East. Egypt, Iran and Israel have all signed the Treaty, so ratification does not require any policy U-turns. These ratifications would go a long way in establishing a nuclear test-free Middle East and constitute a foundation for a nuclear weapon free zone in the region.

Q: Iran is one of the Annex 2 States whose ratification is required for the entry into force. Have you had any discussion with the Iranian authorities about the country's ratification? What is your assessment? What are the chances for ratification of the Treaty by Iran?

A: Iran signed the CTBT on the first day it opened (24 September 1996) and has shown support for the Treaty. Iran also actively participates in the Member States discussions in Vienna. In this context, the JCPOA was a big step in the right direction, as it showed the power of persistent multilateral diplomacy and also brought Iran closer to its partners in the region and globally. Ratification of the CTBT would be a powerful and definitive response to skeptics who worry about Iran’s nuclear ambitions after the deal expires.

One thing Iran may consider as a first step is to resume sending data from the certified station on its territory (Tehran) and to complete construction and certification of the remaining five. Let’s also not forget that data from the seismic stations can be very useful in detecting earthquakes in the region, and can help with disaster risk reduction efforts.

I have already held discussions with Iranian authorities on the issue and would be more than happy to travel to Iran to explain further.

Q: North Korea is the only country to have conducted nuclear tests in the 21st century. Given the fact that it has already withdrawn from a more prevalent treaty like NPT, have you included the country in your list of countries to negotiate with?

A: I am convinced that ending nuclear testing would be a first step towards peace and stability on the Korean peninsula. I believe in dialogue. The international community needs to engage North Korea to work towards its accession to the CTBT. Also here, I am ready to do my part and board the next plane to Pyongyang, if invited.

*Photo Credit: CTBTO Official Photostream

*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.

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