Interview with CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo

Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo at the offices of the Sidwaya newspaper in Burkina Faso. Image: Sidwaya

The Burkina Faso daily newspaper Sidwaya has conducted an in-depth interview with CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo on the challenges facing the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, the ongoing efforts to bring the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty into force, the Group of Eminent Persons, Africa's role in nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation and other issues.

Here are excerpts from the interview (working translation). See here for the original French version of the interview on Sigwaya's website.


Born in Bobo-Dioulasso in 1963, Lassina Zerbo now heads the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), a United Nations organization based in Vienna, Austria. A former student of geology at the University of Ouagadougou and geophysics in France, Mr. Zerbo has made an impact as the head of the UN organization to prevent all use of weapons of mass destruction and for world peace.

S. : What is the mission of the organization that you have been heading since the first of august 2013?

Lassina Zerbo (L.Z.): The Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization is charged with establishing the verification regime of the test ban treaty whose object is that nowhere in the oceans, nowhere underground and nowhere in the atmosphere can any group of individuals conduct a nuclear explosion with the aim of developing a nuclear weapon. The Treaty’s verification is based on an international monitoring system comprising over 300 stations that is spread over the oceans, underground and above ground and uses four monitoring technologies: seismology for the detection of events underground, hydroacoustic for events in the oceans and infrasound for events in the atmosphere. Also, radionuclide stations constantly analyze the surrounding air in search for particulates or noble gases whose characteristic signature would provide evidence of the existence of an announced or clandestine nuclear explosion to States Signatories. This verification system was established in order to cover the plant’s entire land mass, the oceans and the atmosphere to assure that no nuclear test conducted with the aim of contributing to the development of a weapon of mass destruction could remain undetected.

S.: What are the most difficult aspects of your mission?

L.Z.: I started at the CTBTO as scientist. As the science is an exact discipline, I thought it would be simple, but when you combine science and diplomacy, you need to make sure that the politics are in harmony with the exact science that we are developing and to make sure that we verify the Treaty in a precise way. The most difficult part is to convince the diplomats. One needs to keep in mind that the Treaty was the object of the most protracted negotiations in the history of multilateralism. It took more than 40 years of efforts before the Treaty was opened for signature in 1996. As of today, 183 States have already signed the Treaty, of which 164 have ratified. Nonetheless, the CTBT has not yet entered into force. This is why we are still a preparatory commission, but this term hardly reflects the operational maturity of our organization. While waiting, our role is to marry diplomacy and science in the service of the international community.

Could you explain what  a nuclear test is, technically speaking?

LZ: A nuclear test is an explosion in which fissile material is used to create a chain reaction to release an enormous amount of energy and to produce a detonation. In the process of developing a nuclear weapon, the objective of the test is to ensure that a detonation can be achieved with the fissile material that has been assembled and thus to have the chain reaction required to be able to create an explosion. If you develop a weapon which you haven’t tested, you don't know if it will work. It's necessary to conduct a series of tests to confirm that the weapon functions. It’s like all science: it takes experience to be able to actually carry out a test. So our role is to ensure that nobody is able to carry out this kind of test, to dissuade or stop any such initiative whose goal is to develop a weapon of mass destruction. You hear about the enrichment of uranium in Iran. You can enrich uranium for peaceful purposes to produce electricity and to use it for energy. But the enrichment of uranium does not lead directly to a nuclear weapon. It provides you with all of the elements that could help you create a chain reaction for a detonation and when you want to implement this chain reaction, you have to carry out nuclear tests. These are the tests that we are blocking.

S.: Is it possible to ban such nuclear tests completely?

LZ: Although the CTBT has not yet entered into force, there has already been a de facto ban on tests since 1996. With the exception of North Korea, no other State has conducted a nuclear test in the 21st century. India and Pakistan carried out tests in 1998 during their ‘Cold War’. Every other test took place before the CTBT opened for signature. France conducted its last nuclear test before signing and ratifying this Treaty. I can say today that it is possible to impose a total ban on nuclear tests because we have a verification system in place that serves as a deterrent and will not allow any test to go undetected.  

S.: Since assuming your position, what have been your achievements?

LZ: Since taking up my post, my main motivation has been my passion and the progress that we have made. You can never do anything all alone. It’s therefore necessary to be passionate about what you do but also to inspire other people to share that passion. That’s what inspired me to create the Group of Eminent Persons. It consists of former prime ministers, foreign ministers and high-ranking personalities. The current High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, is a member of this group. I’ve ‘co-opted’ former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, and two former British ministers of defence. Also amongst the dignitaries are two former United Nations Under-Secretaries for Disarmament  Affairs  - one from Brazil and one from Japan. I’ve created a group of around 20 people who work with me to raise awareness in the eight countries whose ratification is necessary for the CTBT to enter into force. Why? My duties as Executive Secretary don’t allow me sufficient space or time to devote all my energy to this particular task. I just want to extend the scope of my efforts and use the experience of these eminent personalities to help me move forward, to help me secure the entry into force of this Treaty. This is what is important. Even if the former ministers or diplomats are not currently holding such positions, their connections and their experience in international affairs and specialized skills in the field of security and disarmament and non-proliferation, as well as their continued collaboration plays a key role in promoting the CTBT’s entry into force.

S: What are the geopolitical and strategic stakes?

LZ: This treaty exists to deal with these political and strategic issues. You know today, if we take the tension zones in the Middle East for example, you have Egypt, Iran and Israel that have not ratified the treaty. There is also India and Pakistan. Pakistan will probably not sign the treaty as India will not do so and vice versa. India has been testing, Pakistan has everything to develop nuclear weapons. India has conducted tests to prove that it had nuclear weapons and Pakistan responded by doing the same. India makes 2500 km range warheads and this covers the Indian Peninsula to Pakistan. People wonder today why India wants to go up to 5000 km, 10000 km? Assuming that today on the geopolitical chessboard, the adversary of India is not Pakistan anymore, but China, then as part of building a nuclear deterrent India will be tempted to show that it has nuclear warheads that can reach its potential adversaries. This is a source of tension that must be managed because what we want is to create a better world for our children. And a better world for our children is to ensure that people do not have weapons of destruction in their hands. You should visit Hiroshima to understand what nuclear weapons can do. We do not need to be in Ouagadougou to destroy Ouagadougou. One can stay in Hollywood and send a nuclear weapon in Ouagadougou. That's the danger. When that happens, it will not kill a group, it burns and destroys everything in its path. But do we need this? Consider the Korean Peninsula, South Korea and North Korea, they are separated for 55 years, they are brothers who have fought and are no longer together. Developing nuclear weapons requires huge financial resources. How can we understand that in the 21st century, in a country where people are hungry, as many resources are devoted to the development of weapons of mass destruction that are powerful as well as destructive. North Korea can do it today, because it believes that it is so isolated by the international community that it must give priority to deter any potential attack. She acts therefore as a matter of survival. Personally, I find the world too civilized so that we can only give ourselves weapons of mass destruction as the only guarantee of safety or survival. And this is my personal conviction. I think we need to talk and work together. I explained to students that when I was in elementary school, if you did something wrong, those who were stronger would tell you they waited until 5pm to hit you. Today this is no longer the case, they will now send a text to threaten you. There is less physical fighting. This means that we are evolving and the world is changing in the same way. For me, the weapons of mass destruction are of another era. We are now in a time in which we need dialogue, but dialogue to disarm. However, to disarm, you must first stop the proliferation. We should not immediately be held up on issues of discrimination and say that only 5 countries have the formal right to possess nuclear weapons, so why not us? It is essential to stop the spread in order to create the conditions for effective disarmament.

S.: Is the fact that the US, the first power, does not ratify this treaty, an acknowledgment of failure or rather a source of motivation to convince them in the case of dialogue that you mentioned?

LZ: A very small note, the United States has signed the Treaty. President Clinton was the first head of state in the world to have signed the Treaty and President Obama has made it his priority when he took office. It is at the end of his term and we are in a democracy. In many countries, ratifications are passed by parliament. In others, the President can ratify a Treaty. In the US, Obama does not have the majority in Congress. There are internal and domestic issues that go beyond what we do. Today, any success Obama has achieved will be frowned upon by the other side. All that he might present today will not be favoured by the other side, the Republicans, who are the majority. That is why not only the Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, but also any treaty nowadays in the United States which will not pass through Congress. Do you know that they showed on television a handicapped who voted against ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This simply means that he is in a camp that does not give success to another camp. Yet this treaty is for him. We made a treaty to help the disabled and there are disabled people who refuse to vote for what will help them! This is to give you an idea of the context in which we are. It is not that the United States does not believe in our treaty, anyway, they are the largest contributors to our organization. I visited the United States at least two or three times a year, more than any country since I took office and since I have returned to the organization 11 years ago. It is not that, because the treaty is not ratified by the United States, they do not contribute. They are actively involved, they finance up to 20% of the organization's budget. The scale of contributions is distributed as in the UN system. It is not, because the Treaty has not yet been ratified, that the president does not make it his priority. Nowadays, the issue is not to believe in the verification system that we have implemented. The only blockages in the US remain domestic policy issues on which we have little influence.