"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
Daryl Kimball

CTBTO Begins Leadership Selection Process

October 2020
By Daryl G. Kimball

Divisions among states-parties to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) are creating uncertainty as nations work to select the next leader of the treaty’s implementing body. Lassina Zerbo of Burkina Faso is in the final nine months of his second four-year term at the helm of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), and treaty members intend to select the organization’s next executive secretary at their semiannual meeting on Nov. 25-27. Normally a delicate political undertaking, this year’s selection process is further complicated by questions over which states-parties are eligible to vote, given that many are behind in paying their CTBTO financial dues.

Robert Floyd, director-general of the Australian Safeguards and Nonproliferation Office, has been nominated to lead the CTBTO. (Photo: Dean Calma/IAEA)The process for formal nomination of candidates began Sept. 16 and will close Oct. 9. So far, one candidate, from Australia, has formally been nominated to lead the organization. Additional candidates are expected to come forward before the October deadline, according to diplomats in Vienna.

The executive secretary leads the 260-person organization’s work in building up and operating the treaty’s global verification regime in preparation for the treaty’s entry into force, as well as promoting its universality and entry into force. The Vienna-based organization has an annual budget of $128 million, which comes from member state contributions assessed on the UN dues scale.

More than a quarter-century after its conclusion, the CTBT has not entered into force due to the failure of eight holdout states that have failed to sign or ratify the treaty: China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, and the United States. But the CTBTO International Monitoring System (IMS) is more than 90 percent complete, and its International Data Center is fully operational.

In the run-up to the latest meeting of the CTBTO Preparatory Commission, which began on June 25, the commission chair, Faouzia Mebarki of Algeria, consulted with states-parties on the election process. On June 12, Mebarki sent a note to Zerbo asking about his “availability to serve for another term.” On June 24, Zerbo indicated he would be available “to serve for another term” if member states so chose.

When the chair announced this just two days later, some states were surprised by the announcement. Although it was not a formal proposal to do so, a few delegations were concerned this was an effort to bypass a more open process, according to diplomatic sources familiar with the proceedings.

The European Union, in a June 26 statement, noted that “nothing in the applicable rules prevents the current executive secretary…from running for a third term in a fair, transparent, and competitive process.”

Zerbo, a geophysicist by training, has a long history with the CTBTO. He first joined the organization in 2004 to head its International Data Center (IDC), and he was chosen to be executive secretary in 2013. Since then, he has led work to complete the monitoring and verification system, including by bringing key monitoring stations in China online, strengthening the connections between the CTBTO and the global scientific community. He has also overseen efforts to provide access to IMS data products for member states in real time to assist with tsunami early warnings, responses to North Korean nuclear tests, and other applications.

The potential for a third term was received positively by several delegations as a way to provide continuity during a challenging time for the CTBTO amid the COVID-19 pandemic and disagreements between major nuclear powers. In a July 6 statement posted online, Alexey Karpov, Russia’s deputy permanent representative in Vienna, said “it would be the most painless decision, oriented for consolidation rather than division of member states.”

Several other key member states, however, expressed different views. In a June 25 statement, the U.S. delegation, in understated terms, expressed its opposition to reappointing Zerbo. “The United States generally does not favor more than two terms for the head of an international organization,” the statement said, reiterating the U.S. accusation that Russia has engaged in activities inconsistent with the treaty’s zero-yield standard.

According to sources familiar with the Preparatory Commission discussions, some EU states, including Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands, also oppose a third term for Zerbo, as do other notable countries such as Australia, Japan, and the United Kingdom.

Australia, historically a strong supporter of the CTBT, has put forward Robert Floyd as its own candidate for the executive secretary position. He is currently the director-general of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO), which implements the CTBT, Australia’s nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty safeguards and physical security commitments, the Chemical Weapons Convention, the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, and Australia’s 25 bilateral nuclear cooperation agreements. As head of ANSO, Floyd oversees operation of Australia’s 23 IMS facilities.

“A successful candidature would build on Australia's continuing commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament and would be the first appointment from the Indo-Pacific, a region that was the scene of so much nuclear weapons testing in the past,” said Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne in a Sept. 18 press statement.

States-parties will resume consultations on Oct. 8. As of press time, Zerbo’s name has not been formally put forward into nomination.

One key factor that may affect decisions regarding additional candidates and the selection process itself will be which countries will have a vote on the matter.

As of July, some 73 CTBTO member states had not fully discharged their financial obligations to the CTBTO, which has resulted in the withholding of their voting rights. With this in mind, the Group of 77 and China said in their June 25 statement that “the inclusive participation of all state signatories in the election process is essential for the legitimacy of the entire process.”

Other states, primarily from Europe, countered that allowing voting by states-parties that have not fulfilled their financial obligations would set a bad precedent.

Unpaid dues are a chronic problem for many intergovernmental organizations that depend on a prorated system of contributions from member states. The problem has become more acute this year as many countries’ economies have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Several delegations, including Australia, the EU, Japan, and Russia have said the issue could affect the organization's financial stability and urged all states to fully pay their assessed dues.

After considerable debate and unable to reach agreement on the selection process or eligibility, the June commission meeting was suspended to allow for further consultations in July to try to resolve the matter. The Preparatory Commission meeting was reconvened on July 10, 20, and 24 to reach an agreement on procedures for the executive secretary election, including on how to decide whether states in arrears will be allowed to vote.

According to the final report of the June-July meeting, it was decided that states must meet their financial obligations to the CTBTO by Sept. 15 to be able to vote and put forward a candidate, but exceptions for certain circumstances will be allowed for “conditions beyond the control of the state signatory.” Consideration will be given to states who are making progress toward their annual assessed contribution or to states, such as Iran, who have negotiated a payment plan to meet their financial obligations.

As of Sept. 13, 17 states had made partial payments toward their current-year assessment, a group that includes smaller states such as Côte d'Ivoire and Niue and wealthier states including South Korea and the United States. A group of 65 states, including the Marshall Islands, which was subjected to atmospheric nuclear testing by the United States; Yemen; and even wealthier countries such as Brazil are in financial arrears with voting rights suspended. To date, only 79 of the treaty’s 184 states-parties have fully paid their assessed contributions.

Sources indicate that more than 30 states in arrears have filed for exceptions in order to be granted voting rights for the executive secretary selection process.

On Sept. 10, the African Group issued a joint statement calling on all state signatories to make efforts “within their means, to meet their financial obligations” and for the Preparatory Commission to grant voting rights to countries that are unable to pay their contributions due to factors outside their control.

As CTBTO member states wrangle over difficult procedural and financial matters, there are bigger issues looming on the horizon that may affect the broader CTBT regime: the slow pace of progress toward entry into force, the possibility that North Korea may soon decide to end its unilateral nuclear testing moratorium, the Trump administration’s discussions about the resumption of nuclear tests and possible withdrawal from the CTBT, and unresolved accusations from Washington about Russian violations of the treaty.


Financial difficulties among the nuclear test ban treaty’s states-parties are complicating efforts to select the next leader of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization.

U.S. Reinterprets MTCR Rules

September 2020
By Daryl G. Kimball

The Trump administration announced on July 24 that it would unilaterally reinterpret how the United States will implement the 35-nation Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in order to expedite sales of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to other countries. The move, which has been widely expected for some time, follows years of lobbying from major U.S. weapons manufacturers to allow more rapid export of large drones to a wider array of potential buyers. (See ACT, July/August 2020.)

A U.S. Air Force Predator drone armed with a Hellfire missile lands at a secret air base after flying a mission in the Persian Gulf region in January 2016. The Trump administration has announced a new interpretation of international export control guidelines to allow more U.S. sales of such weapons. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)The MTCR divides weapons into two categories. Exports of Category I systems, including cruise missiles and unmanned aircraft that have a range of at least 300 kilometers and the ability to carry a payload of at least 500 kilograms, are subject to a “strong presumption of denial.”

The revised U.S. policy will reinterpret how the MTCR applies to drones that travel at speeds under 800 kilometers per hour, such as the Predator and Reaper drones, which are made by General Atomics, and the Global Hawk drone, which is made by Northrop Grumman. “The U.S. government will treat a carefully selected subset of MTCR Category I [unmanned aerial systems (UAS)] with maximum airspeed less than 800 kilometers per hour as Category II,” according to a State Department fact sheet on the new policy.

In a statement, R. Clarke Cooper, the assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, said, “We think this kind of reform is necessary in order to respond to a rapidly changing technological environment. With the growing proliferation of [the] technology, particularly by China, coupled with a growing demand for UAS for both military and commercial applications, we need to adjust U.S. policies to address U.S. national security concerns.”

“Not only do these outdated standards give an unfair advantage to countries outside of the MTCR and hurt United States industry, they also hinder our deterrence capability abroad by handicapping our partners and allies with subpar technology,” according to a White House statement on July 24.

The controversial move has been anticipated for weeks and has drawn criticism from several quarters. A chief concern is that the new U.S. interpretation of the MTCR, which depends on voluntary compliance, will prompt other missile- and drone-producing states to sidestep MTCR guidelines and weaken their value.

“This decision undermines a global regime, allows others to ignore international restraints, and focuses on economic benefits over U.S. national security, foreign policy and human rights concerns,” Rachel Stohl, a managing director at the Stimson Center and a member of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors, told Reuters on July 24.

“The policy change will not give the United States more access to markets that the Chinese or Israelis already dominate,” Stohl told GovExec the same day. “The global market is increasingly focused on smaller UAVs, where Category I restraints do not apply. The decision further complicates U.S. relationships with multilateral regimes and further isolates the United States from its closest allies.”

“This reckless decision once again makes it more likely that we will export some of our most deadly weaponry to human rights abusers across the world,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, charged in a press statement.

Congressional Republicans and Democrats have bitterly complained that the Trump administration has sought to bypass congressional oversight of weapons transfers, and they have tried to block some major arms sales to states with subpar human rights records.

Among the states that could benefit from the new Trump policy on the MTCR are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both of which have been denied requests to acquire U.S.-built drones capable of carrying large payloads. These two countries have also been found to be guilty of air strikes against civilian targets in their proxy war in Yemen, which has led to tens of thousands of civilian deaths and famine in that country.

The MTCR has been a key element for decades in U.S. and international efforts to try to constrain global exports of missile technology to nations considered to be nuclear proliferation threats, such as Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea.


Seeking to export more drones, the Trump administration has loosened export restrictions.

Nuclear Ban Treaty Nears 50th Ratification

September 2020

Four nations used the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to announce their ratification of the 2017 Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). The ratifications by Ireland, Nigeria, and Niue, announced on Aug. 6, and Saint Kitts and Nevis, announced on Aug. 9, bring the number of states ratifying the accord to 44. The treaty will enter into force 90 days after the 50th state deposits its instrument of ratification. To date, 82 states have signed the treaty.

The TPNW is the first international instrument to comprehensively ban the development, testing, production, stockpiling, stationing, transfer, use, and threat of use of nuclear weapons. All states-parties engaging in these activities are bound to submit and implement a plan to divest themselves completely of nuclear weapons upon ratification.

At an Aug. 6 event to mark the new ratifications, Elayne Whyte Gomez of Costa Rica, who presided over the negotiations on the treaty, called for renewed determination to ensure that no other city suffers the same as Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She noted that “the presence in the room of the hibakusha ensured that we wouldn’t leave the room without completing the task.”

Tijjani Muhammad-Bande of Nigeria, the current president of the UN General Assembly, called on “all member states to sign and ratify [the TPNW]. We must prevent such destruction from ever happening again.”

Treaty supporters hope to secure the additional ratifications necessary to bring the treaty into force by the end of 2020. More states are expected to ratify the treaty next month as the United Nations on Sept. 26 marks the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.—DARYL G. KIMBALL

Nuclear Ban Treaty Nears 50th Ratification

Getting Back on Course

September 2020
By Daryl G. Kimball

Seventy-five years after the horrific atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we all still live under the existential threat of a catastrophic nuclear war. Although citizen pressure and hard-nosed U.S. diplomacy have yielded agreements that have cut the number of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons, prevented their proliferation, and banned nuclear testing, there are still far too many nuclear weapons, and the risk of nuclear war is growing.

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)As the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki recently warned “We are badly off course in efforts to honor the plea of the hibakusha, the survivors of the 1945 atomic bombings, and end the nuclear threat.”

Tensions among many of the world’s nine nuclear-armed states are rising, and each is working on costly upgrades of their deadly arsenals. Leaders in Washington and Moscow cling to Cold War-era “launch under attack” postures and the option to use nuclear weapons first. Both are seeking new nuclear capabilities, including “more usable,” lower-yield warheads.

Unfortunately, U.S. President Donald Trump came into office without a clear plan for reducing the nuclear danger. In one breath, he will threaten to “win” a new arms race; in the next, he will declare his hope for arms control deals that more effectively constrain U.S. adversaries.

Under Trump, no new nuclear deals have been struck. After threatening North Korea with nuclear “fire and fury” in 2017, he squandered chances to negotiate peace and denuclearization with its leader, Kim Jong Un. As a result, Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities are expanding.

Ignoring the value of the hard-won 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Trump pulled out of the agreement and reimposed U.S. sanctions. Predictably, this led Iran to retaliate rather than negotiate a new deal. Although the United States no longer has the legal standing to do so, Trump is seeking to reimpose UN sanctions on Iran. Nearly all other UN Security Council members reject the ploy and remain determined to preserve the nuclear deal.

Trump has also discarded key agreements, including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty, that have kept U.S.-Russian nuclear competition in check. Worse yet, Trump has so far refused to take up Russia’s offer to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

Events and decisions in the coming weeks will determine our nuclear future for years to come. It is highly unlikely that Trump, if elected for a second term, is capable of a course shift. On the other hand, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, who has a long history of support for effective arms control, could be expected to try to address many but not all of Trump’s missteps.

No matter who occupies the White House in 2021, unrelenting and focused pressure from civil society, Congress, and responsible governments around the globe will be needed to correct U.S. nuclear policy. Key elements of an action plan should start with

  • reaffirming the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev declaration that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought;”
  • extending New START by five years and pursuing a deal for deeper cuts, although if New START is lost, Congress should bar funding for U.S. nuclear deployments above the treaty’s limits, as long as Russia does not exceed them;
  • engaging with other nuclear-armed states to create a framework for further progress, including pledges to halt the development of new types of nuclear warheads and destabilizing missile systems;
  • declaring that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons and phase out Cold War-era launch-on- warning policies, which would significantly decrease the risk of miscalculation;
  • reinforcing the global taboo against nuclear weapons testing, negotiating transparency measures to address compliance concerns, and pursuing entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty;
  • renewing serious, sustained diplomacy with North Korea on a step-for-step plan on peace and denuclearization, starting with a nuclear and missile flight-test freeze and the dismantlement of bomb production facilities;
  • waiving sanctions reimposed on Iran since 2018 in exchange for Iran returning to full compliance with its nuclear obligations under the nuclear deal; and
  • radically revising Trump’s $1.5 trillion, 30-year plan to replace and upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which is unaffordable and exceeds any plausible deterrence requirements, and redirecting the savings to programs that address real human needs, including the long-term cleanup of nuclear weapons sites and expanding and renewing the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

The historic 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which will soon enter into force, is an important step toward the delegitimization of nuclear weapons possession and use. Even if the United States cannot join the treaty yet, Washington should welcome its arrival as a part of the legal framework for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.

Today’s dizzying array of nuclear dangers requires bold action. Getting the world back on the road toward a world without nuclear weapons will not be easy, but it can be done.

Seventy-five years after the horrific atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we all still live under the existential threat of a catastrophic nuclear war.

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