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World: Senate Set To Reject Test Ban Treaty

  • Frank Csongos

Washington, 11 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Barring a last-minute agreement or parliamentary maneuvers to postpone the vote, the U.S. Senate appears set to reject this week an international treaty banning the testing of nuclear weapons.

The 100-seat upper chamber is scheduled to continue debating the accord on Tuesday, and a ratification vote could take place that day or Wednesday. Proponents and critics both agree the treaty now lacks the necessary two-thirds vote to pass.

Senate Republican leader Trent Lott says: "We have the votes (to kill it.) We're either going to vote when the time (allotted for debate) expires, or we're going to get an agreement that this bill is not going to come up again in this Congress, period."

U.S. President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, has repeatedly urged the Republican-controlled Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. He has argued that it would slow the spread of nuclear weapons worldwide by prohibiting nations from developing and exploding such weapons. At the same time, Clinton says the U.S. would be in a position to upgrade its huge arsenal, if necessary, by using sophisticated computer simulations and other methods.

But facing what appears to be a near certain defeat, Clinton has called on the Senate to put off the vote and take a closer look at the issues at stake.

Clinton is backed by all 45 Democrats and a few Republican supporters in the Senate. But they still lack the necessary 67 votes to pass the treaty.

U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen renewed his push for the test ban treaty on Sunday in an interview with an American television network (NBC-TV).

Cohen said: "If the treaty is rejected, then it sends a signal that we are prepared to go back to, perhaps, to nuclear testing ourselves, that we will have a more difficult time persuading India, Pakistan, (and) other countries not to test."

In addition to the United States, China, Russia, India and Pakistan also have not ratified the treaty and neither have such future potential nuclear countries as Iran, Iraq and North Korea.

But Army General Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - the top American military official - says these facts are not valid arguments for rejecting the treaty.

Shelton told a television interviewer: "I think that from the Joint Chiefs perspective, we should go first because we want to retain the leadership role that the United States has in the world. We are a global power. We have worldwide commitments. This sends a very clear signal that we are concerned about proliferation - in this case, counter-proliferation - and that bodes well for the United States in terms of our long-term national security, as well as maintaining a safe and reliable stockpile, which the treaty would allow us to do."

The New York Times observed on Sunday that in debating the treaty, the U.S. Senate is set to relive a fundamental argument of the Cold War: Do global arms control accords help or hurt U.S. national security?

Jeane Kirpatrick, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Ronald Reagan, is an opponent of the treaty.

Kirpatrick says the U.S. nuclear deterrent "has never been as important to the security of Americans as it is today, with rouge states developing the capacity to attack our cities and our population."

The United States has not conducted underground nuclear explosions since 1992, a step which has complemented a worldwide treaty banning atmospheric testing adopted in 1963.

The U.S. nuclear weapons inventory has been reduced from 12,000 strategic warheads in the late 1980s, to about 6,000 warheads now. Under the START Two treaty - still awaiting ratification by the Russian state Duma - the U.S. arsenal would drop to between 3,000 to 3,500 warheads. It would still leave America with the most powerful nuclear force in the world.

Republican Senate leaders say they are concerned that some lawmakers could block consideration of the test ban treaty through various maneuvers such as insisting that the entire document be read on the Senate floor.

To bolster their arguments, opponents point to a recent assessment by the Central Intelligence Agency - leaked on the eve of the ratification vote - that suggests low-level nuclear explosions can not be detected with an absolute certainty. Proponents, however, argue that no treaty is 100 percent verifiable and that the accord would mandate safeguards currently unavailable, such as global on-site monitoring stations to watch for possible cheating.