CTBTO Science & Technology 2019: “A Bulwark Never Failing”

Stockholm (Ekonamik) – From June 24 to June 28, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) held its biannual Science & Technology (S&T) Conference at the Hofburg palace in Vienna, Austria. It was the 7th in a series of multidisciplinary conferences designed to enhance the relationship between the scientific and technological communities, policymakers, and the CTBTO. The organization works towards the entry-into-force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-ban Treaty (CTBT), a 1996 convention that outlaws nuclear test explosions, and, as such, organizes S&T to help ensure that the Treaty’s verification regime remains at the forefront of scientific and technical innovation. This year’s arrangement, the largest in its history, brought together in excess of 1,700 scientists, policymakers, industry leaders, academics, members of civil society and the media, and representatives of organisations involved in research and development related to all aspects of the Treaty’s verification provisions.

A Regime of Many Talents

The living, beating heart of the CTBTO is its International Monitoring System (IMS), a globally interwoven system of over 300 detection stations around the world that transmit data back to the International Data Centre (IDC) located at the United Nations in Vienna. This data allows scientists to detect and verify nuclear test explosions, such as those undertaken by North Korea over the past 15 years, but also other events of scientific consequence, such as natural disasters, changes in the atmosphere, or hydroacoustic discoveries in oceans. This means the verification system is used to furnish scientific data towards purposes that are also beyond nuclear test detection, and works towards other facets of global peace and security, such as combating the consequences of tsunamis and earthquakes, providing advance warning of e.g. the drift of radioactive contamination, and addressing climate action and poverty eradication. Data is sent from the IDC to member-states of the Treaty for their own assessment.

The panel sessions, special events and scientific presentations at S&T 2019 covered the CTBT nexus of science, technology and policy and were thus spread across five themes: 1) the earth as a complex system, 2) events and nuclear test sites, 3) verification technology and technique application, 4) performance optimization, and 5) the CTBT in a global context. They also focused on issues such as youth engagement, the gender parity of women in science, and getting nuclear non-proliferation back on track despite an increasingly challenging political environment internationally. As Iris Rauskala, Austria’s interim Federal Minister of Education, Science & Research suggested in a keynote address, “the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation community has not exactly been spoilt for good news [recently]. Nuclear power competition is increasing, established channels of communication are breaking down, [and] investment in arsenals is on the rise… Even existing disarmament progress is being reversed and questioned. The CTBTO should be at the forefront of this battle,” she said.

Dangerous Times for Arms Control

Heinz Fischer, the co-chair of the Ban Ki-moon Centre for Global Citizens and a former president of Austria, concurred, citing the “bittersweet moment” which could undo the valuable work the CTBTO and others have achieved. “We currently find ourselves at one of the most dangerous times for arms control efforts,” Mr Fischer said in a keynote address. “The bilateral arms control architecture developed between the U.S. and the Soviet Union is being rapidly unravelled through a combination of neglect, hubris and erroneous threat assessment. The risk of a catastrophic nuclear event, whether by accident or design, is increased by the paralysis in international bodies charged with upholding peace and security, most notably the UN Security Council.” Mr Fischer cited the imminent expiration of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in August, from which Russia and the U.S. have both withdrawn, the possible collapse of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement at the heart of rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran, and concern over whether the New START Treaty between the U.S. and Russia will be extended beyond its expiry in February 2021, as being among the major threats to arms control.

“Nuclear weapons are as big a threat as climate change,” Mr Fischer said. “Science must be mobilised in both nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation,” as well as deployed to analyse new technological developments that risk destabilising traditional practices of arms control, including Artificial Intelligence, cyber technology and space-based delivery and tracking systems. Total disarmament will require a new nuclear weapons convention in the longer term, Mr Fischer added, recommending that nuclear states must make progress in four areas: 1) doctrine (all states committing to a no-first use declaration), 2) alerting (taking all nuclear weapons off high alert status) 3) deployment (dramatically reducing the number of weapons deployed), and 4) decreased numbers (Russia and the U.S. must cut their stockpiles to a maximum of 500 each with no additional deployment of warheads).

Such concerns were reiterated in more depth at a panel discussion on the second day of the conference, “Getting the Non-proliferation and Disarmament Architecture Back on Track”, with a keynote introduction by Lord Desmond Browne of Ladyton, a former UK Secretary of State for Defence and a member of the CTBT Group of Eminent Persons. The risks of proliferation and nuclear terrorism continue to increase, he said, while the international community has become more divided than ever. Lord Browne himself identified four priorities, namely: 1) to end the decline of arms control, 2) to act collectively to address new threats, 3) to enhance dialogue and transparency among states, and 4) to expand and diversify the non-proliferation and disarmament community.

(Related: Getting Non-proliferation and Disarmament Back on Track)

Stay the Course

Nevertheless, CTBTO Executive Secretary Dr Lassina Zerbo cautioned against capitulating to cynicism, stressing some of the good news in his opening address: “The CTBTO already provides a level of nuclear test detection capability few thought would be possible when the Treaty was first negotiated. Over 90% of CTBT facilities have been built and transmit data allowing state signatories to draw an independent conclusion on the nature of the events picked up by the system… the CTBT [is] second to none when it comes to monitoring and better understanding the planet. [It] is not a theoretical treaty – it has real impact,” he underlined in his welcome address. Meanwhile, “[s]ignatures and ratifications continue to accrue… The Treaty has now reached 184 state signatories, of which 168 have ratified (most recently Zimbabwe – ed.)… Entry into force of the Treaty is within the grasp of the international community given the de facto global moratorium on nuclear testing,” he added (save for North Korea, there have been no nuclear tests since 1998, underscoring the Treaty’s centrality to the development of a global norm).

The recent opening of a new CTBTO Technology Support & Training Centre in Seibersdorf, Lower Austria, made possible by the support of state signatories, meanwhile, underlined Dr Zerbo’s point that the CTBT represents a bedrock of cooperative responsibility and trust in the increasingly challenging environment for disarmament and non-proliferation. But further to the point of S&T 2019, the conference suggested intensifying interest in the verification regime as a pillar of norms and laws-based stability (the CTBT is one of the most broadly supported arms control treaties), as well as pointing towards how the CTBT verification regime offers other opportunities beneficial to human well-being through science and technology.

For example, CTBT verification technologies and data collected by the IMS can be paired with emerging tools, such as geospatial imagery, machine learning or data visualization, paving the way to potentially high impact outcomes for sustainable development. To that end, the conference also featured an “Innovation Challenge” to the CTBTO Youth Group members, tasking them with investigating potential linkages between the CTBT and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and encouraging research proposals for how the Treaty and the organization can contribute to achieving one, or more, of the SDGs.

Both in terms of the size and diversity of its attendance, and in terms of the broad range of scientific presentations and panel discussions touching on every conceivable aspect of the verification regime itself, arms control and broader peace and security issues, the conference emphasized how the importance of both the Treaty and the organization continue to grow. An undercurrent could be felt that the more the world careens off course politically, the more a beacon of verifiable science and science diplomacy like the CTBT becomes to underpinning security at all levels of existence. Equally, the more isolationist national actors become, the more clearly the remedy the type of multilateralism and inclusiveness across disciplines so front and centre on display at the conference becomes. The CTBTO will, without doubt, remain at the forefront of the battle to prevent and mitigate future conflicts.

Image: (c) CTBTO

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