Encouraging signs

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 September, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 September, 1996, 12:00am

The apparent readiness in the United Nations General Assembly to sign a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty is a welcome sign of a genuine desire to curb the spread and increasing sophistication of atomic weapons. Those nations that have the bomb claim it is a political deterrent. It prevents war, they say, because they know it can never be used.

Yet their military doctrines - particularly those without a 'no first strike' policy, hardly reflect that position. At least by committing themselves to stop testing and gradually reduce their armouries, they may begin to match actions with words. But signing a treaty knowing it will not come into force is like signing a cheque on an empty account. The treaty has been blocked by India - and so also its old enemy, Pakistan - because India wants the freedom to test. Without their signatures, the treaty has no legal force. Other states might feel honour-bound to abide by the treaty, as one might be bound to cover one's cheque, but they might not. The best hope is that diplomatic and moral pressure over the next three years will persuade India to change its mind before the deadline for ratification.

Meanwhile, perhaps India's call for a treaty committing existing nuclear powers (including its other rival, China) to a set timetable for disarmament, may begin to exert its own moral pressure on the nuclear 'haves' to join the 'have nots'.