It has been 20 years since the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) was opened for signature by the United Nations General Assembly in 1996. Marking its 20th anniversary, 2016 offers an opportunity to gauge the successes and failures of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO). One of the greatest challenges facing the implementation of the CTBT is the non-ratification of the treaty by Annex II countries, namely, the United States, China, Israel, Iran, India, Egypt, Pakistan, and North Korea. The fact that many countries are still reluctant to sign the treaty reflect the dire need to adopt fresh approaches to achieve the goal of a world free of nuclear explosions.

Novel and innovative ideas are being championed by the Executive Secretary of the CTBTO, Lassina Zerbo, who has instilled greater momentum by including unprecedented participation from civil society, academia, and the media. One important effort is the CTBTO Youth Initiative, which was launched in January this year. As part of this initiative, 13 young professionals from seven Annex II countries worked together over a period of six weeks to seek ways to promote the CTBT’s entry into force. The proposals were then presented at the 46th Session of the CTBTO Preparatory Commission in Vienna in June.

Participants engaged in activities such as group discussions on research proposals, drafting the joint statement, training session for public speaking, and interactions with participants from different regions as well as the CTBTO personnel. As an active participant of this initiative, I observed some encouraging signs that may bode well  for future nuclear negotiations:

1. It is easy for youngsters to talk about and deliberate over issues, despite differences of opinion and perspective: Nuclear issues are not apolitical. They invite all types of reactions and discussions. Many states have tried and failed time and again to talk about contentious issues. However, the younger generation can discuss polarizing political issues relatively impartially. Unlike government representatives, they do not necessarily have to stick to the official positions of their countries. However, this does not imply that the younger population is not aware of their national positions or does not flaunt them openly. But they strive towards identifying areas where an agreement can be reached, instead of refraining from raising issues in the first place. Seeking clarification regarding a country or institution’s “talking points” becomes more of a possibility with impartial young leaders discussing key issues. The CTBTO Youth Initiative sessions resembled the proceedings of a think-tank, wherein the participants discussed contentious nuclear issues, and came to an acceptable understanding on potential areas where there could be deliberation and therefore, progress. One could see a healthy mix of regional perspectives, but informed by an international outlook. Differences of opinion and disagreements notwithstanding, the ensuing discussions did not dampen the spirit of the participants.

2. Organizations such as the CTBTO are now more open to listening to the “outliers”: Due to past experiences, people in South Asia and the Middle East generally feel that organizations such as the CTBTO are not open to listening to their concerns. However, participants from Annex II countries were offered a forum to openly discuss their reservations over ratification, and there were also detailed deliberations upon aspects such as notions of national pride, which rarely get featured during security-oriented discussions. There was a collective realization that the leadership was willing to listen to the “other” side, even if the views were overtly critical. Inclusive participation is indeed the need of the hour with the realization that “full mutual openness, only, can effectively promote confidence and guarantee common security.”

3. South Asian countries can collaborate on certain nuclear issues. India’s recent attempt at membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group predictably saw New Delhi and Islamabad in opposite camps. However, the discussions among Indian and Pakistani participants as part of the CTBTO Youth Initiative revealed something interesting—their positions somewhat overlapped. Both India and Pakistan expressed concern regarding the non-inclusion of sub-critical testing and computer simulation in the treaty, which both argued could mean that technologically advanced powers could still continue to enhance their nuclear weapons capability without resorting to nuclear explosion. They also had similar viewpoints on the ill-effect of western pressure on South Asia to sign the CTBT in the 1990s, which both sides felt proved counter-productive. Thus, the similarity of their arguments indicates that despite the seemingly unresolvable differences between the two nuclear powers in South Asia, there are some commonalities in how they perceive certain issues. This intersection of perceptions (no matter how insignificant they may seem) can be capitalized upon to work towards common goals.

4. Networks between young scholars prove helpful at various forums. The CTBTO Youth Initiative was an excellent forum to interact with participants from various regions across the world. It struck me time and again that the world is indeed a small place and a global village. Having worked with my Pakistani counterpart Hamzah Rifaat as part of the South Asia Visiting Fellowship at the Stimson Center in early 2016 made it easier for us to work effectively on our joint proposal. I realized that the networks built among young scholars belonging to countries with contradictory positions may slowly help bridge their differences.

Although the CTBTO Youth Initiative is the first step towards a larger goal, it allows young scholars from Annex II countries to speak their mind, and act as a bridge between the CTBTO and their countries. One hopes that the rapport built among the participants in Vienna is utilized to achieve greater understanding among their countries, to realize the common goals of peace and security.

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