Exercising the CTBTO Executive Council

Aug 02 2012
VERTIC Blog >> Arms Control and Disarmament

Andreas Persbo, London and Vienna

On Friday, 20 July 2012, I was appointed Director-General of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Organization (CTBTO). At least I was in the simulated universe of the latest CTBTO Intensive Policy Course: Multilateral Verification, Collective Security: The Contribution of the CTBT. The course, which is part of the organization’s Capacity Development Initiative (or CDI for short), had over 450 participants. A fair number of those took part in the first-ever simulation of the prospective Executive Council in action.
When the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty enters into force, this Council will respond to member state requests, for inspection of another state’s territory, following some kind of detection event, and will decide whether an on-site inspection should go ahead. It will do so on the basis of data supplied by the CTBTO itself, but also by member states. In order for an inspection to be approved, the council needs 30 out of 51 votes in the affirmative.
The scenario played out in our simulation was anything but straightforward. On 18 July 2012 a seismic event was detected in the fictional state of Forestia. Pursuant to Article IV.29 of the Treaty, the fictional state of Equilibria requested clarification on the nature of the alleged event and also requested that the Director General provide additional information to the CTBTO pursuant to Article IV.31. In response to the request, Forestia explained that the event was a shallow natural earthquake and that it had never conducted a nuclear explosive test. That clarification was deemed unsatisfactory by Equilibria. It chose not to seek additional clarification and instead requested an on-site inspection pursuant to Article IV.34.
The underlying assumption was that the  event could be one of four possibilities: a seismic event as claimed by Forestia, a low-yield nuclear explosion, a failed nuclear test, or an explosive test without nuclear yield.
The simulation ran on a very compressed timeline. Three plenary meetings, each lasting an hour and a half, were to represent the 96 hours that the Executive Council has to reach an agreement. At the end of this a vote had to be taken, unless Equilibria decided to withdraw its request.
As the deliberations of the council got underway, technical briefings were supplied by  the CTBTO secretariat and by a member state.  Each briefing gave rise to more questions, and more uncertainty. The briefing from the member state in particular was almost scorned  by some council members, as it was based on inconclusive satellite imagery.
Guided by the chair from “Algeria”, state parties presented their arguments. There was no shortage of interventions, and he had to cut the list short in each session. I had to introduce each technical briefing, and give an account of the state of preparations within the CTBTO. The real role of the Director-General, though, was to offer concrete technical advice to the chair. It was essential that both the DG and the chair worked together, attempting to solve the underlying issues, and bring clarity to the discussion unfolding before us. It was clear for us on the bench, by the second session, that the Equilibrians would not get the required 30 votes.
Radionuclide data could only be presented in the final session, and it was largely inconclusive. Xenon-133m, associated with nuclear fission, was detected by the CTBTO sensor-network, but the release could not be back-tracked to Forestria. By that time, “Hungary” had admitted to a release of some radionuclides from its territory, and Forestria had stated that the explosion was, in fact, a very large conventional explosion. In an emotional statement, Forestria explained that a large ammunitions depot had exploded, claiming more than 100 lives.
As the clock ticked on, and the deadline loomed, the situation became complicated. Would the Equilibrians be satisfied with the explanation and withdraw its request, or would we have to go to a vote? An inspection is costly, and ought to be avoided if there are other solutions available. The tension in the room was palpable as the chair, Mr. Stein, called recess after recess for consultations. At first, the Equilibrian government would not budge.
In the end, the DG and the chair negotiated a solution under the treaty’s confidence-building measures provisions. According to article IV.68 of the treaty, state parties undertake to cooperate with the CTBTO in resolving compliance concerns arising from the possible misinterpretation of verification data relating to chemical explosions. Mr. Stein suggested that the CTBTO send in a team of specialists to visit the explosion site, and  take radiological measurements. Equilibrian personnel would supplement this team. Forestria pledged to cooperate. There was concern, both within the CTBTO and by some state parties, that Forestria could use this opportunity to cover up after an explosion. Given the inconclusive information, however, we judged this risk as small. On balance, Forestria’s explanation made a better fit with the data.
Equilibria agreed to withdraw its OSI request if the Executive Council were to affirm this arrangement by consensus. With 15 minutes to go, Mr. Stein read out the arrangement and asked if the council could decide on this. As there were no objections, the gavel went down. The meeting was closed by thunderous applause and a great noise from those delegations which were not fully involved in the last minute consultations. Our  chairman leaned over and whispered that that was the single most stressful experience of his life. I was inclined to agree.
Many lessons were learned during this exercise, the vast majority procedural. However, one lesson came out above all others. It is essential that data is explained clearly and unambiguously if state parties are expected to reach a decision. More work can be done here, preferable through more exercises of this kind. One thing is certain, after all: practice makes perfect.

Last changed: Aug 02 2012 at 1:58 PM




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