For more than two years, delegates from 61 nations have labored in Geneva to negotiate a treaty banning nuclear weapons tests for all time. There appeared little chance, however, that they would succeed by today's deadline.
With the United Nations Conference on Disarmament required to approve all issues by consensus, India appeared determined on yesterday to use its veto to block the proposed Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) from being sent for approval to the UN General Assembly before it dissolves next month.
"The outlook is dim and growing dimmer," John Holum, head of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, told the Monitor in an interview yesterday after returning from Geneva.
The conference's failure to approve the CTBT would represent one of the gravest blows to international nuclear arms-control efforts dating back to the 1950s. It would also be regarded in some quarters as a serious diplomatic setback for the Clinton administration, which has expended enormous amounts of energy, time, and influence in trying to push the CTBT through.
The CTBT "is a long-sought goal in arms control, probably the most urgently desired arms-control treaty in the entire history of this process," said Mr. Holum. "What is under way is an assault on an institution."
He said India might pay a price for blocking the accord. "I would think the impact of preventing action on something the world clearly wants would undercut the country's influence and credibility on these issues," he said.
The CTBT is one of two far-reaching international arms-control agreements facing make-or-break tests. The second, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), is to go before the US Senate by Sept. 14 for a long-delayed vote. Although its prospects were far brighter that those of the CTBT, opponents, led by Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, are pursuing a last-ditch drive to rally votes against it.
Both accords would impose unprecedented global controls on the most destructive weaponry ever devised.
India, which detonated a "peaceful" nuclear blast in 1972 but denies having atomic weapons, objected to the CTBT's failure to bind the five declared nuclear powers - the United States, Britain, France, China, and Russia - to a specific timetable for full disarmament.
Furthermore, said Arundhati Ghose, India's UN ambassador, "Since the treaty doesn't ban computer-simulated testing, nuclear powers could update their stockpiles and leave countries such as India at an unfair military advantage."
India also complained about the draft's "entry into force" provision. For one, it said the provision impinged on its sovereign right to make foreign policy because it requires that 44 states, including India, ratify the treaty within two years before it can take effect. In addition, New Delhi argued that under the draft, it could be slapped with international sanctions for refusing to ratify the accord. India's rival, Pakistan, also believed to have nuclear weapons capability, said it would not sign the accord if India did not.
Most analysts attribute India's true motives to its turbulent domestic politics and its enmity with neighboring Pakistan.
CTBT proponents warned that unless a negotiating committee succeeded in forging a compromise that addressed India's concerns, the draft would not be submitted to the full disarmament conference for final approval by today's deadline.
"This is literally the last chance for a nuclear test ban treaty," warned Clement Tolusso, who monitors the Geneva negotiations for the Greenpeace environmental organization.
The prospects for the CWC appear far more promising. With the treaty backed by the US chemicals industry, moderate Republicans are expected to join minority Democrats to provide the two-thirds vote required in the Senate for ratification.
Critics contend the CWC will not work. They say compliance will be nearly impossible to verify and that states like Iran, Libya, and Syria will not be parties to it, leaving terrorists with potential suppliers of deadly chemicals. They also argue that thousands of US firms, from chemicalmakers to textile manufacturers, will be liable to expensive bureaucratic reporting requirements.
"I ... do not believe it advisable for the Senate to learn belatedly the far-reaching implications of the CWC for businesses throughout the US," Mr. Helms said in a June 4 letter to the Senate. Holum retorts that only "around" 140 US chemical firms would be subject to inspection and verification provisions, some of the most rigorous of any international arms- control agreement. The treaty was concluded in 1993 by 160 countries, but cannot go into force until it is ratified by 65 legislatures. Only 60 have done so.
*Cathryn J. Prince in Geneva contributed to this report.