Watching over the planet from Vienna

Watching over the planet from Vienna

Thirty years ago, on 23 August 1979, Vienna became one of the four headquarters of the United Nations. Commonly known as “UNO City”, the large complex just across the Danube from the city centre houses many UN organizations.

In March 1997, a new organization opened its doors at the UN in Vienna: the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO). It had been established the previous autumn, only two months after the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) opened for signature on 24 September 1996. The CTBT bans all nuclear explosions on Earth, and the CTBTO makes sure that no nuclear test explosion goes unnoticed.

Keeping a watchful eye

Today, every staff member and every visitor is greeted by the watchful eye of the CTBTO logo when approaching the buildings. The CTBTO is a watch dog indeed.  Its 260 staff from over 70 countries are mandated to build a global alarm system to monitor the planet for any sign of a nuclear explosion.

The CTBTO has come a long way since 1997. Its unique global alarm system is already fully functional although it is not yet fully established. Roughly 250 of the planned 337 facilities of the International Monitoring System are operational and send data to the International Data Centre in Vienna for analysis. On-site inspections have been tested in several exercises over the years.

Put to the test

The CTBT verification regime has been put to the test twice in recent years. In October 2006 and again in May 2009, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea announced that it had exploded underground nuclear devices. On both occasions, the CTBTO showed that it is capable of doing what it is mandated to do, namely to detect such explosions in a fast and reliable manner. Within a few hours, Member States around the world received information on the location, time and magnitude of these explosions. A significantly higher number of monitoring stations detected the event in 2009. This was partly due to the higher magnitude of the explosion. But, it also illustrated the remarkable progress in the build-up of the CTBT verification regime over the last years.

Great political momentum

On 24 September 2009, the CTBT and its entry into force will be one topic at a special meeting of the UN Security Council on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, convened at the Heads of State level. The meeting will be chaired by U.S. President Barrack Obama who, in April in Prague, had announced that he would pursue U.S. ratification of the Treaty “immediately and aggressively.” It can be expected that this gathering will give a strong impetus to a conference promoting the entry into force of the Treaty, the so-called Article XIV Conference, which will start on the same day. Taken together, these two meetings illustrate the current political momentum in support for the CTBT and its indispensable place in the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime.

Close to universality

With 181 signatures and 148 ratifications the CTBT is close to universality. For it to enter into force the ratifications of 44 specific States are required. These States participated in Treaty negotiations in the mid-1990s in Geneva and possessed nuclear capabilities at the time. 35 of the 44 States have ratified the Treaty, including the three nuclear weapon States France, Russian Federation and the United Kingdom. The nine hold-out States are: China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, Pakistan and the United States. The DPRK, India and Pakistan still have to sign the Treaty. At the Article XIV Conference in September 2009 in New York, ratifying States will examine how to bring these remaining States on board in order for the Treaty to enter into force.

For more information on the 30th anniversary of the Vienna International Centre please click here.