Key Takeaways from the Senate Hearing on the CTBT UNSCR Initiative

By Alicia Sanders-Zakre

The first Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing dealing with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in over a decade took place on September 7th. Attendance was high, with Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) presiding, ranking Democrat Senator Cardin (D-Md.), and Senators Risch (R-Idaho), Rubio (R-Fla.), Flake (R-Ariz.), Perdue (R-Ga.), Menendez (D-N.J.), Shaheen (D-N.H.), Murphy (D-Conn.), Udall (D-N.M.), and Markey (D-Mass.) in attendance.

The hearing was convened to discuss the Barack Obama administration’s proposed United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) and P5 statement reaffirming support for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and its international monitoring system, which is under discussion and is expected to be finalized in mid-September.

The committee heard testimony from Stephen Rademaker, a former State Department official in the George W. Bush administration, and testimony from Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center.

The hearing provided several key takeaways on the UNSCR initiative and Senate views on the CTBT itself.

First, the hearing highlighted the value of a UNSCR reaffirming the global norm against nuclear testing in advancing United States' national security interests. Cardin noted in his opening statement that while the United States has no use for active nuclear testing due to the advanced state of its nuclear arsenal, less advanced nuclear states could benefit from lax international norms against nuclear testing. Among other elements, the proposed resolution and P5 statement would clarify that any nuclear test explosion would violate the object and purpose of the CTBT, which bans all nuclear weapon test explosions.

By reinforcing the global norm against testing and encouraging signature and ratification of the CTBT by key states, Cardin argued, the resolution would reduce the risk of renewed nuclear testing pending entry into force of the treaty.

In his opening statement, Cardin said:

“If nuclear tests could be verifiably ended worldwide, the United States would disproportionately benefit. We don’t need nuclear tests to ensure our weapons are effective or secure. Year after year our National Laboratory Directories have certified the Stockpile Stewardship Program provides us with 100% confidence that the United States’ nuclear weapons are reliable without nuclear testing. We do not need nuclear active testing to have our deterrent stockpile. It’s the countries that are trying to develop a stronger capacity in nuclear weapons that could benefit by active nuclear testing. It’s those countries that we don’t want to test. It is in our national security interest that they don’t test. Therefore, as I look at this, if we are capable of putting more pressure on those countries not to test, it’s in our national security interest.”

In response to questions from Shaheen, Krepon testified that strengthening norms against testing would not only make it more difficult for other countries to conduct further nuclear weapons tests, which can be used to develop their nuclear arsenals, but would also be seen favorably by non-nuclear allied states who rely on the United States' nuclear umbrella. Notably, Republican senators didn't voice disagreement with the substance or principles of the proposed UNSCR on the CTBT.

Second, although Risch and Rubio expressed alarm at the idea of the president committing the United States to an agreement that the Senate had rejected, the hearing provided clear evidence that the proposed UNSCR would have no such effect. As Shaheen astutely observed, no one at the hearing had advocated for a legally-binding resolution that would circumvent the constitutional rights of the Senate to weigh-in on treaty ratification. In fact, a September 7 letter from Secretary of State John Kerry to the committee members indicates precisely the opposite:

We are not proposing and will not support the adoption of a UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) imposing a legally binding prohibition on nuclear testing. Rather, we are pursuing a political statement of the NPT's nuclear-weapon states, all of whom are CTBT signatories, affirming their view that a nuclear test would defeat the object and purpose of a treaty, unless they make their intention clear not to become a party to the treaty. A future Administration could make clear that the United States no longer intends to become a party to the treaty, in which case the United States would no longer have such obligations. This is a well-established principle of treaty law and is constant with the constitutional role of the Senate in U.S. treaty practice.

Lastly, in his testimony, Krepon underscored the legal and symbolic significance of the signature of a treaty, amongst counter-arguments dismissing the United States' obligation to a treaty that had not been ratified by the Senate. Even without the legal obligations to signed treaties as defined by the Vienna Convention, we cannot, he argued, undertake actions that would defeat the object and purpose of the treaty following our signature and before its ratification and entry into force. For decades, he noted, the signature of a treaty has indicated an agreement to abide by the norms set forth within. The United States' international credibility rests on its commitment to the treaties it has signed, and it is tarnished when it wavers from those agreements.

In conclusion, the first Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing dealing with the CTBT in over a decade suggested there is broad agreement that efforts to reinforce the existing global norm against nuclear tests advance national and international security; underscored that the proposed UNSCR to reinforce the object and purpose of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty would not usurp the constitutional authority of the Senate regarding treaty ratification; and clarified that the United States, as a treaty signatory, does in fact have an obligation not to defy the “object and purpose” of the CTBT.

Alicia Sanders-Zakre is the 2016 Fall Research Intern at the Arms Control Association and a graduate of Tufts University.