Waiting for the CTBTO along the banks of Austrian Danube

  • Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Hindustan Times, Vienna, Austria
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  • Updated: Jun 20, 2013 23:31 IST

Vienna this summer is suitably sultry, the mélange drinkers in the pavement cafes are outnumbered by the gelato-eaters. Austrian newspapers devote their front pages to Alpine, a local subsidiary of a Spanish construction firm, that is going under – one of the smaller ripple effects of the continuing eurozone crisis.

For most Viennese, however, and the thousands of tourists on the road the main interest is Austria’s greatest cultural attribute: music. Every other garten in the city centre has a band playing.

Opera houses are celebrating Giuseppe Verdi’s 200th birth anniversary.Trivial pursuit: Vienna was where the Italian composer first experienced an orchestra where the violas and cellos were grouped together, rather than scattered.
Network Treaty

Vienna is also home to a zillion international organisations, officially because of Austria’s neutral status but unofficially simply because it’s a great place to hang out.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation is among the more curious of these bodies. It represents a billion-dollar investment and has installations spanning the globe, but the treaty it is supposed to enforce has yet to officially come into being.

The CTBTO runs four different monitoring networks to detect a nuclear test — 170 seismic stations, 80 atmospheric stations which look out for the tell-tale emissions of an A-bomb blast, 60 infrasound stations and 11 hydroacoustic stations.

When North Korea carried out its last nuclear bomb blast, it woke up 96 CTBTO monitoring stations.
Imperial Strategy

Discrete signs in and around the huge Hofburg Palace complex, home of the Habsburgs, point you to the CTBTO’s annual science and tech conference this week.

The Hofburg is impressively large, even more so when you realise it isn’t even finished. A Nigerian journalist, noting how it dwarfed Buckingham Palace whose monarchs had ruled a much larger empire, wondered if this hadn’t been a colossal waste of “taxpayer’s money.” But it’s getting Austria revenue from conferences and tourists, I noted.

Vienna is historically and physically outsize for a country like Austria. The Habsburgs built an empire on a very small base. An Austrian diplomat once explained the dynasty’s secret sauce: not force of arms, but a judicious strategy of marrying their princesses into other royal families. “We produced lots of hot chicks,” he said, half-seriously.

Domino Effect

The CTBTO is looking for its own secret sauce. Though 183 countries have signed, eight countries whose signatures are necessary to bring the treaty into force are holding out.

But these are all nuclear biggies. The problem is not that any one actually believes they need to carry out a nuclear detonation — for example, India’s nuclear establishment largely believe it can scabbard its sword forever. It’s just a post-Cold War leadership deficit in the world.

Washington is gridlocked, so the US Senate is holding up CTBT ratification. Because the US is stalled, China is holding its pen back. “Everyone knows that if Washington ratifies in the morning, Beijing will follow the same night,” said one frustrated CTBTO official.

If the US and China go ahead, India is likely to follow with Pakistan in tow. The dominoes are lined up, but no one wants to be the first player.
Whales and Icebergs

The success of the international monitoring system that the CTBTO has set up is now giving the agency another carrot to attract membership. Besides nuclear testing, the system has proven remarkable in tracking everything from blue whales to volcanoes, earthquakes to radioactivity leaks by nuclear medicine factories.

The gigabytes of data its stations collect are becoming a remarkable tool for the treaty members who use it for predicting natural disasters and other nifty activities. Asked during a panel whether a country could carry out a surreptitious underwater nuke test beneath the Antarctic icepack, a hydroacoustics expert noted the CTBTO can pick up “the sound of icebergs cracking and fishermen using dynamite on the high seas.”

A US think-tank representative of Indian origin noted that five years ago the CTBTO would have frowned at the promotion of all this non-core activity. “But the treaty’s been hanging fire since 1996 and there’s just a bit of anxiety creeping in,” he said.
Missing India
Anti-nuclear weapons activists are fervent believers in their cause. And with reason: if their fears ever come true, then its goodbye world, hello Dr Strangelove.

The conference showed a condensed reading of “Reykjavik”, a play about the Ronald Reagan - Mikhail Gorbachev summit where the two discussed the abolition of all nuclear weapons. Nothing came of it, but the summit was retrospectively seen as marking the end of the Cold War.

Afterwards, more than a few people asked why India had lost its own appetite for moral leadership in the world. I rattled off a few answers: Terrorism, China, electoral fragmentation.

Whatever the reason, there was a price for India’s inactivity in the international arena. As someone noted, many speakers ascribed the call for a nuclear test ban to John F Kennedy when, in truth, the copyright lay with Jawaharlal Nehru, almost a decade earlier.




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