Rekindling the disarmament momentum

India’s resistance to the CTBT has lost relevance as it does not intend to conduct any more tests; signing the Treaty can be a bargaining chip in the new global nuclear order

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:05 pm IST

Published - September 21, 2015 01:16 am IST

“Given India’s long history of anti-nuclear activism, accession to the CTBT can be used as a bargaining chip to mainstream itself into the global nuclear order.” Picture shows a student at a peace rally in Mumbai to mark the 70th anniversaryof the U.S. nuclear attack on Japan. Photo: Vivek Bendre

“Given India’s long history of anti-nuclear activism, accession to the CTBT can be used as a bargaining chip to mainstream itself into the global nuclear order.” Picture shows a student at a peace rally in Mumbai to mark the 70th anniversaryof the U.S. nuclear attack on Japan. Photo: Vivek Bendre

India today has a unique opportunity to rekindle the global nuclear disarmament momentum, and to kick-start this ambitious but useful project, New Delhi should offer to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). This proposal may sound untimely and strategically unwise, but there are at least three reasons why India should accede to the CTBT, besides being able to tap into a wealth of data generated by the CTBTO’s International Monitoring Stations:

First, to respond to global developments in nuclear disarmament and arms control as a responsible stakeholder in the non-proliferation regime;

Second, to negotiate India’s entry into the global nuclear order and third, to revive India’s long-forgotten tradition of campaigning for global nuclear disarmament.

Global nuclear developments

Seventy years since the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945, and 45 years since the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) entered into force in 1970, the global non-proliferation regime is under unprecedented stress. The recently concluded 2015 NPT Review Conference (RevCon) was a failure of historic proportions and the international nuclear order will now find it hard to get back on its feet, both normatively and functionally. Indeed, most of the regime’s key pillars — non-proliferation, nuclear disarmament, and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy — are under immense stress, contributing to a systemic crisis.

Post the 2015 RevCon, both the nuclear-weapon states (NWS) — the U.S., U.K., France, Russia, and China — of the NPT and the disarmament enthusiasts among the non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS) seem to have run out of ideas on how to revive the global nuclear order.

While the NPT is staring at an uncertain future, the Conference on Disarmament (CD) has not even been able to begin negotiations on a fissile material cut off treaty (FMCT) thanks to Pakistan’s unhelpful decision to block the commencement of negotiations, and the CTBT seems to be losing steam due to the lack of enthusiasm shown by its one-time forceful supporter, the United States.

The primary reason behind this system failure is the unkept promises by the NWS on the issue of global nuclear disarmament. The lack of any progress on Article VI of the NPT, which deals with nuclear disarmament, remains a stark reminder of the lopsided and flawed nature of the global nuclear order. The so-called ‘13 Practical Steps on Non-Proliferation and Disarmament’, agreed to by the NWS at the 2000 NPT RevCon were regrettably ignored thereafter. The complete absence of any progress on the ‘grand bargain’ (that the NNWS would not make nuclear weapons and the NWS would eventually abolish the weapons they have) that lay at the heart of the NPT-led non-proliferation regime, has eroded the normative core of the global nuclear order.

Moreover, there is an unhealthy shift in the contemporary non-proliferation agenda. From the traditional concerns of non-proliferation, nuclear disarmament, and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, the focus today has shifted to counter-proliferation and nuclear security, primarily due to concerns about nuclear terrorism and the physical security of nuclear material. It is likely that future state-sponsored non-proliferation initiatives would eschew disarmament but deal with counter-proliferation, with an emphasis on the potential use of force.

Various counter-proliferation initiatives such as Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and Container Security Initiative (CSI), and the global nuclear security summit process essentially function outside the NPT framework, with states voluntarily participating in them; so they are hardly focused on questions of global nuclear disarmament.

Finally, the newly minted disarmament initiative called the ‘Humanitarian Initiative’, dealing with the ‘catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons’, and spearheaded by NNWS and European Non-proliferation enthusiasts, has further complicated the traditional non-proliferation agenda, especially for India. Many of the promoters of the Humanitarian Initiative view India’s exceptional treatment by the contemporary nuclear order as setting an unhealthy precedent and damaging to the normative framework of the nuclear order. Moreover, given the potential of the Humanitarian Initiative to drastically alter the traditional non-proliferation agenda, India’s desire to be accommodated in the global nuclear order is bound to hit major roadblocks.

In short, therefore, the recent RevCon failure and the decaying global nuclear architecture would have adverse implications for India’s desire for an enhanced role. New Delhi has been seeking the membership of various strategic export control cartels such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). But it will now be harder for it to convince the European non-proliferation supporters to continue to treat India as an exception, without making a substantive normative offer in return. In this rather indeterminate structural context, New Delhi should be able to think and act creatively to make its case look attractive to the gate-keepers of the system.

To do that India should put forward two proposals: First, propose and push, with like-minded countries, for the adoption of a global ‘No first use’ agreement on nuclear weapons, and; second, sign the CTBT, if not immediately ratify the same. This will clearly reinstate the lost global enthusiasm for nuclear disarmament and clarify India’s ‘benign’ nuclear intentions to the international community.

India should offer to sign the CTBT as a quid pro quo for admission into the institutions governing the global nuclear order, which essentially means membership of strategic export control cartels such as NSG, MTCR, Australia Group and the Wassenaar Arrangement. Although they are private initiatives functioning outside the NPT-centric treaty framework, they form an important cog in the non-proliferation regime. New Delhi has been pursuing membership of these organisations for years now without much headway. Indeed, New Delhi has not even formally applied to the NSG for membership precisely because it has not been able to garner enough support from the 48 member countries of the cartel, some of which remain unconvinced about India’s credentials. It is time for New Delhi to think creatively and out of the box about securing membership of these organisations. In the run up to the accession to the CTBT, India should seek admittance into them, and the promise of signing the CTBT will clearly work in India’s favour.

India’s inability to reach an accord with Tokyo has been yet another roadblock in its pursuit of producing more nuclear energy as this deal is key to further operationlising its deals with France and even the U.S. The current dispensation in Tokyo is not averse to a deal but has been insistent on a guarantee from New Delhi that the latter would not conduct any more nuclear tests. While doing so in writing would infringe on India’s sovereignty, offering to sign the CTBT could assuage the Japanese anti-nuclear sensibilities.

Phased nuclear disarmament

Finally, signing the CTBT would also make India’s claim for a UNSC seat stronger.

By signing the CTBT, India could signal its intent to help revive the global arms control and disarmament momentum, despite being a nuclear weapon state, thereby once again becoming part of the global disarmament movement which it once was.

Let us not forget India’s remarkable history of anti-nuclear activism, from proposing an end to nuclear testing in 1954 after the U.S. nuclear testing in Bikini Atoll to signing the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) in 1963 to Rajiv Gandhi’s impassioned plea to the U.N. General Assembly in 1988 for phased nuclear disarmament.

India played a key role in the negotiations to establish the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and actively participated in the negotiations on the NPT, but decided not to sign when it became clear that it would become an unequal treaty. Let us also remind ourselves of the fact that India had also for long advocated for a CTBT, although the eventual treaty was not accepted. However, resistance to CTBT does not need to continue anymore given that India does not intend to conduct any more tests (as declared in its unilateral moratorium on nuclear tests). Hence accession to the CTBT can be used as a bargaining chip to mainstream itself into the nuclear order.

India’s current engagement with the international nuclear order can be described as its second coming, after its anti-nuclear activism from the 1950s to the 1980s. From being vehemently opposed to nuclear weapons and any less-than perfect nuclear treaty, India today is open to negotiating a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) and is no longer as opposed to signing the CTBT as it was in the mid 1990s. The then Foreign Secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon, said in 2009 that India “won’t stand in the way’ of the CTBT if it ‘actively contributes to nuclear disarmament”. Various statements by Indian officials have since hinted India’s reduced opposition to signing the treaty. In any case, India was one of the co-sponsors of the CTBT resolution at the 1993 session of the UN General Assembly.

Once India signs the CTBT, some of the other hold-out states are likely to follow, such as Pakistan. Others like the U.S. (whose Senate is blocking the ratification though the U.S. government has signed it) and China would also come under pressure to accede to it. Thus India will be able to reverse the current non-proliferation pressure which makes sense not only from a strategic point of view but also from a normative perspective. Signing the CTBT, then, is in India’s enlightened self-interest.

(Happymon Jacob teaches disarmament and national security at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. E-mail:

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