< Back to news

WINS Executive Director Lars van Dassen speaks at CTBTO Science and Diplomacy Symposium

WINS Executive Director Lars van Dassen speaks at CTBTO Science and Diplomacy Symposium

WINS Executive Director Lars van Dassen spoke at the CTBTO Science and Diplomacy Symposium 8 December 2022. You may read his speech, titled “Setting the Scene: Some Reflections and Deflections on the CTBTO’s Achievements and Challenges in a Time of Change and Uncertainty” below.

Dear friends of the CTBTO and of a safer, better world.

It is an honour for me to speak here today. I have been asked to set the scene for the panel in front of you. I will do so by making things difficult and making us speak about some challenges we need to address or at least be cognisant of.

When I think about the CTBT and the CTBTO’s main achievement, I will start in Washington, DC, in Spring 1997. I participated in the Carnegie Endowment’s nuclear non-proliferation conference. There was a session on the CTBT and the formation of its International Monitoring System, IMS. It was in the very early days of PowerPoints, so the screens had a hard time showing the globe with all the detection systems and wires in a dynamic and plausible manner. The screens also hooked up a couple of times. It is here that I start when I think of the achievements of the CTBT.

The main question in the room that afternoon almost 25 years ago was “yes, but what is it worth if the Treaty is not in force?”. And here… the riddle and the miracle start: The CTBT is a treaty that has not entered into force and the Preparatory Commission is still Preparatory—yet they both work! This is a remarkable fact and feature—the CTBT has not entered into force, yet it works and operates because of the CTBTO. It operates, first of all, by keeping a watchful eye on the world out there, by being able to calculate and calibrate if there is a nuclear weapons test somewhere, and also by being able to identify where it is. But beyond that, the IMS of the CTBTO also identifies earthquakes and other seismic events, which has probably already saved a lot of lives. The other means through which the CTBT works is through the creation of norms and the spread of these norms. When you put the two issues—(a) the norm-making functions and the (b) technical detection—together, then you actually have a very, very strong measure. Some will say that the CTBTO and the CTBT work because there is little interest in nuclear testing. That may be true, but it is also true the other way around: There is little interest in testing because of the work of the CTBTO and the CTBT.

It may, however, be relevant to reflect on the fact that other treaties have not been equally fortunate. Other treaties and internationally binding mechanisms have entered into force but are not being adhered to. The violations can be large or small scale, temporary or permanent. The fact is that many international agreements are not respected as they should be.

It is the same for norms that have developed and that we take for granted. They can be depleted and erode. Also technical infrastructure for a common good can suddenly become the victim of violence and destruction, and at the end of it, we are worse off than before. Even some of our concepts can be—and are—under pressure and I will try to address this.

Let me mention a couple of examples and then we can maybe reflect on them further. The Budapest Memorandum was signed 28 years ago and was meant to square a delicate circle. Ukraine would give up former Soviet nuclear weapons, missiles and bomber aircraft in return for guarantees for its territorial, economic and political integrity. It was already devastating for the sanctity of international agreements when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 and in February of this year, blowing this agreement apart. But it is an additional layer of violation of the agreement when some of the bomber aircraft transferred to Russia were later used to attack Ukraine. And when some of the missiles transferred decades ago have been tipped with conventional explosives and used to attack Ukraine.

If we look at the erosion of norms, then it is important to address how the occupation by one country of another country’s nuclear infrastructure is a violation of very fundamental principles in international law. But it is also something more. We usually think very highly of peaceful uses of nuclear energy and other civilian applications. But how peaceful and civilian are things when there is suddenly a military force that occupies another country’s nuclear infrastructure? It is fair to say that this, from many angles, is a weaponisation of an otherwise civilian infrastructure. With this, the distinction between military and civilian uses become blurred and the blackmail that is inherent in threatening to cause damage to a nuclear facility is simply unacceptable and despicable.

Technical infrastructure is tremendously important for nuclear materials accounting, for instance, and thus safeguards purposes. But when the safeguards equipment as well as the installations for physical protection and radiation protection are smashed, it creates enormous safety and security risks and room for accusations about intent related to proliferation. The way equipment and installations critical for the upkeep of security and safety have been wrecked at Chornobyl and Zaporizhzhia NPP deserves only our deepest condemnation.

Our concepts are also under stress. There had been institutions from Russia that participated in international research and cooperation projects at Chornobyl, and that is fine. But it is making a mockery of peaceful nuclear cooperation when the same institutions and the same persons return as part of the Russian occupying forces at Chornobyl. This is a grave issue. All in this room will appreciate the significance of peaceful nuclear cooperation but it will haunt us all that peaceful nuclear cooperation cannot be trusted and is being misused for other purposes.

It is also a problem when the boundaries shift quickly and may no longer be recognisable. There is a good realisation that nuclear security and safety are important and that they are related. At WINS we’re working on a project to collect testimony from people in the nuclear sector in Ukraine. Various issues that used to be purely safety matters, such as making sure that water flows to the cooling ponds for spent nuclear fuel, become security issues—avoiding the sabotage of safety functions by Russian occupiers. Moreover, it becomes a personal security measure as the Ukrainian safety staff might be shot for no or some reason by a soldier from the occupying force.

But why would all these issues be of significance for the CTBTO and the CTBT? Or, why would this be significant for anyone? Well, the answer is very, very clear to me:
• If we would all start wrecking each other’s nuclear facilities;
• If we would all break international rules and agreements;
• If we would all attack each other’s nuclear installations and weaponise them; and
• If we all would vandalise the salience of safety, security, good governance, safeguards, radiation protection;
Then the use of nuclear technologies becomes impossible and the prospects for disarmament and non-proliferation would most like cease to exist.

In correcting this I think that we all have a responsibility. As much as possible, we have to turn away from those who are ruining the nuclear order. This will make life harder for them. If Russia is a smaller exporter of nuclear services and goods, then they have fewer arenas and money at which and with which they can create havoc. And on the other hand, the more there is interaction with them, the more the trading partners will become silent and serve as passive or even active supporters of the attempts to create havoc. No one is free of responsibility, and all States and organisations have a responsibility beyond their own most narrow needs if the non-proliferation regime, disarmament aspirations and peaceful uses of nuclear technologies for the good of humankind are to have a fair chance.

I hope that the CTBTO and the CTBT can be the sanctuary for a way forward for the whole world. That it can be the place where civility, pragmatism, norm adherence and benign interaction can survive and be used to build back elsewhere. And that some of your ways of being and doing will spread. If all domains become “more like the CTBTO”, then there is a way forward. Because what is it ultimately that the CTBT and the CTBTO do? They are means that change something that started as a military activity and ambition into a civilian undertaking of disarming the bomb. That is worth building on.

I thank you for your attention.

Other News