Andreas PersboSimulating the Executive Council redux

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of serving my second term as the Director-General of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO). I played my role in a simulation set up by the CTBTO’s Capacity Development Initiative (CDI). As last year, the gameplay felt realistic, and the outcome vote fell within what one would expect if the simulated situation had been real.

I wrote about my first term experience last year (Simulating the CTBTO Executive Council, 2 August 2012). Back then, the Executive Council chose to resolve the question without a vote – an on-site inspection was not authorized. Instead, the CTBTO were to implement confidence-building measures in accordance with article IV.68 of the Treaty and Part III of its Protocol. This was a smart move, which respected the boundaries of the treaty. It also allowed for a resolution of the situation without resorting to an on-site inspection with all that that entails. However, the solution was not without its dangers. The reason why inspection times are detailed in the treaty, and why they are relatively short, is because some evidence evaporates quite quickly. A confidence building measure, hence, allows some isotopes to decay into quantities so small that they’re becoming virtually impossible to detect.

The events of 2013

This year’s scenario was skilfully drafted, and left less room for ambiguity. On 18 May 2013, a seismic event was detected in the Federal Democratic Republic of Azania—a fictional country loosely modelled on South Africa. Equilibria – modelled on Austria – requested consultation and clarification with Azania. The Azanians explained that the event had been a very large chemical explosion – approximately 2.5 kilotons – at the Potters River Weapons range. This range, co-incidentally, also happened to be a nuclear test site at the time when Azania had its own weapons. Unsurprisingly, the Equilibrians were not satisfied with the explanation, and requested an on-site inspection. When the Council met, however, they found the absence of radionuclide data troubling, and the request was voted down.

Of course, the story did not end there. On 12 July 2013, Xenon-131m and Xenon-133 were detected by an IMS monitoring station at Reunion. Later, on 16 July 2013, the same isotopes were detected again, this time by a station at Kerguelen. The Equilibrians therefore submitted another on-site inspection request on 17 July 2013. The Council convened the following day, and this is where this year’s simulation began.

One problem in the game was that Azania is a major radioisotope producer (so is South Africa). This production results in periodic releases, sometimes in large quantities, of Xenon-133. This background complicates drawing conclusions on whether a suspicious event originated from a release from a civilian process, or from a nuclear detonation. It does not mean that it becomes impossible, simply more difficult (as this paper clearly shows).

As would be expected, the game data did not hold up to closer scrutiny. It was a combination of the seismic signature of real earthquake that occurred in South Africa and ‘adopted’ radionuclide data, mostly taken from the most recent DPRK test. Both Pierce Corden, my in-game IDC director, and I quickly drilled some holes in the scenario. The data, however, was not the point of the exercise. One objective was to see how a political body would react to two pieces of information which were separately inconclusive, but which, taken together, would support an on-site inspection request. A very large explosive event, combined with the release of radionuclides, the absence of in-depth consultation and clarification, would point to the need to conduct an inspection, if nothing else simply to confirm that nothing untoward had happened.

Technical verification is slaved to political expediency

However, politics is not a slave to technical data, or objective legal argumentation. Politics have a life of its own, sometimes disregarding the most compelling technical or legal case. Several participants observed, as they did last year, that the simulation was unrealistic, as it did not involve technical expertise. They argued that in a real situation, the Executive Council would have an ample supply of technical advisors.

Well, don’t count on it. Some member states will not have the necessary technical knowledge, but they would still need to vote. If verification history teaches us anything, it is that evidence and data is often overlooked or cherry-picked. States see what is politically expedient to see. After all, we all know that global warming is not really happening, that Iraq did have weapons of mass destruction, and that Iran’s nuclear programme warrants no further investigation. It is, in other words, reasonable to ask whether technical input into the verification process is a deciding variable in all instances. Nancy Gallagher has devoted a large part of her life to this question, and her books ‪Arms Control‬: ‪New Approaches to Theory and Policy‬‬‬ and The Politics of Verification are, in my mind, must-read contributions to the debate.‬‬

After a request has been received by the CTBTO, the clock is ticking, and the vote is all but inevitable. The only way an on-site inspection can avoid being voted on is if the requesting state withdraws its request. In this scenario, the request was submitted by a European state against a non-aligned African threshold-state, under suspicion of having reconstituted its nuclear programme. But is this really the most conceivable non-compliance scenario under the CTBT?

For one, I believe that the most likely showdown in the Executive Council will be between the nuclear weapon states. A less likely scenario involves allegations levelled against a threshold state. Now imagine that the Russian Federation accuses the United States, or the United States accuses China, that they have unlawfully tested a nuclear device. This is an act that, if proven, would constitute a serious breach of law and trust, and something that could have far-reaching policy consequences. Does anyone reading this honestly envision a calm, scientifically rigorous, and legally consistent debate in a relaxed Executive Council? If so, I envy your belief in human rationality.

Politics is messy, and when superpowers clash, assume involvement on the very highest level. Expect presidents to make personal phone calls to cash in on every single favour listed in the book. The CTBTO Executive Council must call a vote within 96 hours. Those four days will be incredibly intense. With a UN Security Council in likely deadlock, all eyes will be on Vienna. Wagramerstrasse will be filled with TV vans and everyone leaving or entering the building will be pestered for information. The NGO community will be stacked up outside the closed Council doors, waiting to push their views on those delegations unlucky (or smart) enough to run into them. A lot of people will get grey hairs, and many careers and livelihoods will hang in the balance.

Play and showdown

Now, the simulation held two weeks ago in Vienna was less tense. There were also some amusing moments. The Iranian player, for instance, told me that the Israeli player had walked up wanting to coordinate the vote with her, to which she responded, “you got to be kidding!” Can’t blame the Israelis for trying, I suppose.

The questions and arguments circulating around the floor were both technical and political by nature. Had there been previous large releases of radionuclides from the region? How deep was the seismic event? If the event was a very large chemical explosion, why had not the Azanians notified the CTBTO in advance, in accordance with article IV.68 of the Treaty? Can the technical secretariat provide the Council with more information on the outcome of its consultation and clarification effort? Was the on-site inspection request properly formatted? If not, should the Director-General work with Azania to reformat the request (and what happens then with the decision deadline)? There were many others.

Two questions stood out as particularly interesting. The first related to the issue of ‘frivolous or abusive on-site inspection requests’ (article IV.67). This is a safeguard in the Treaty designed to make the requesting state party think twice before submitting a request. In the simulation, two requests had been submitted (and some noted that the same state requested a OSI last year, which was turned down). A few delegations moved to have the Council immediately consider whether the third OSI request had been abusive, and called for the expulsion of Equilibria from the Executive Council. Judging from the response in the room, I believe that this card will turn out to be an important one in a ‘live’ situation.

The second question was more topical. Some delegations pointed out that if Azania had, indeed, tested a nuclear device, they would need to see IAEA safeguards data. After all, the country had been implementing an Additional Protocol for years, and the Agency had not raised any concerns. The Azanian government must, therefore, have engaged on a very elaborate deception strategy to amass the required fissile material for the device. If the CTBTO could request safeguards confidential data from the IAEA, the Executive Council would have more to go on. However, article IV.44 of the Treaty does not enable the Director-General to reach out to the neighbouring Agency (note the word ‘within’ in the article).

State parties could table the information, but the Agency is not likely to release safeguards confidential information to anyone but the safeguarded state. Technically, the IAEA Board of Governors could convene, then request a report from the IAEA Director General. The BOG rules of procedure usually stipulate a 72-hour notice period before any meeting, although this can be waived in ‘exceptional circumstances’. The question then is whether the IAEA could put together a report within the CTBT 96-hour timeline? Probably, if they cancel all shore-leaves and lock the VIC doors.

In real life, the question whether the IAEA and the Provisional Technical Secretariat is free to exchange data is still largely unresolved, and was put to the test during the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

Returning to the simulation. As it happened, bloc politics and policy trumped technical considerations. The roll-call vote was scheduled with 45 minutes to go until the deadline. The chair drew the first country to place the vote randomly, and the honour fell on India. This is when things took a surprising turn.

The Iranian player told me over drinks later in the evening that their straw poll had indicated that the request would receive 25 affirmative votes. It would hence be defeated, leaving the option open to hit the Equilibrians hard with sanctions enumerated in article IV.67 in the Treaty. However, shortly after the red light on India’s microphone went on, those hopes were crushed. After a long statement, India changed its vote to a yes. As India changed, several other delegations changed with it. The on-site inspection request passed with a two-vote margin. Many players said that they had been following India’s lead, simply because it’s a powerful non-aligned player, not easily crossed. If the chair had not drawn India as the first to cast its vote, the situation might have played out differently.

Yet again, the CTBTO had put together a persuasive simulation of the Executive Council. It threw up many more aspects of treaty implementation than last year, and as such was a highly valuable learning experience. Of course, it would not been possible without the diligent work of Mr. Jean Du Preez and his team; Ms. Marcy Fowler, this year’s chair; Dr. Pierce Corden, the in-play IDC director; and Ms. Fanny Tonos Paniagua, the in-play CTBTO legal advisor. Many thanks to all of them for making my second, and most likely final, term as Director-General a treasured memory.


  1. Cthippo (History)

    Thanks for sharing. It’s interesting to see how this stuff plays out in the “real” world.

  2. A Complete Stranger (History)

    Thanks for writing up your experience with this politico-exercise. There is much to think about in your experience. However, your question on what would happen if the US accused Russia or China (or, for that matter, vise versa) wouldnt happen that way. The major powers will never directly accuse each other since that–as I understand it–rules their inspectors out of taking part in any subsequent on-site inspection. Instead, they will coordinate with another country, like Equilibria, to bring the matter up. Politics will, as you imply, be many layered. I dont know if this will ease the political tensions or not (ok, probably not)but it will add a layer of complexity.

  3. Andreas (History)

    Thanks Cthippo and Mr. Stranger.

    On the last point: it would take a steadfast ally to cross, say, China. If I were Swedish Foreign Minister, I would think twice even if the US President knocked on our door.

    But you’re right: It would make sense to coordinate the request through a proxy.

  4. Moti (History)

    Thank you Andreas for your revealing presentation of the exercise. This very important simulation exposes again the shortcoming of such games, although it is the best option we have in studying what may be the real thing. Your point about the political aspects of the EC work are important to recognize. It stresses again the issue of the difficulty in creating a technical verification regime by political negotiation. This is a root problem in more than one treaty or agreement.

    Although some interpretations of the treaty provisions mentioned in the text may be debated (especially the paragraph regarding the ‘frivolous or abusive OSI requests’ and the possible expulsion of the requesting state from the EC), it does not reduce the importance of the exercise, and I fully agree with your praise for the organizers of the event.

    It is important to note that we are playing in the dark here, not only for the reasons you have mentioned (lack of national experts , media interference, NGOs, etc) but mainly because the treaty does not define the modality of work of the EC and leaves it to the first EC to define (Article II.32:”The Executive Council shall elaborate its rules of procedure and submit them to the Conference for approval.”); this will be a major political exercise and will strongly depend on the composition of the first EC. It may be possible to moderate this by preparation of a suggested rules of procedures to be prepared by the PreCom in advance of EIF.

    And last but not least: The optimism of the game creators is shown in the fact that an Israeli member is part of the EC! as you know, at the present, with MESA region activity being blocked no such situation is expected. Here is again a case of regional politics coming into play in a, mainly technical, international Treaty organization.

  5. andreas (History)

    Moti. Very good to hear from you again. And thanks for writing about your CTBTO experience in the latest edition of Trust & Verify too (if you’re the Moti I think you are, that is!). (Edit: how embarrasing to confuse Moti with Itshak – mea culpa!).

    Your point about rules and procedures for the Executive Council is absolutely valid. I remember asking friends at the CTBTO for at least a draft set around the time of the first exercise. However, I was informed that while a set of rules exists – drafted internally by the PTS ages ago – they haven’t been circulated to the WGs. And this is, as you know, fully understandable. There are many more things that needs to be done before one puts effort into the rules.

    Having gone through two of these exercises now – a fully recognising their limitations – I’ve started to reflect a bit on what the rules what need to look like. Given the 96-hour time limit, they would need to be quite hard on procedural matters, such as right of reply and calling of votes on other matters than the OSI. It’s doubtful that all member states would sign up on something that would “bind their hands” so severely.

    On Israel – the scenario assumed that all Annex IIs had ratified. I think my main observation on the Israeli play is that it’s very isolated in its regional group, and that it finds it difficult to reach out to other players. That it would coordinate anything with Iran, however, was quite amusing – a misplay… Such things happen.

    I know that people in Israel’s MFA is constantly struggling with this in real life as well – i.e Israel’s isolation in its regional group. I doubt anyone in TA have gamed out future gameplay in a CTBT context – but if they were, they’d have a lot to think about.

  6. Cthippo (History)

    Science magazine is reporting that China is going to start sharing seismic and radionuclide data with CTBO.

    Is that only data going forward or do they have data from the prior NK tests?

  7. andreas (History)

    I got this little item from the CTBTO this morning:

    “Over 600 people registered for the course worldwide, with over 100 present in Vienna and hundreds more following online. This experience is indicative of the notion that e-learning enables education and outreach on a global scale – overcoming boundaries of distance, time differences and costs of participation. During the week, over 600 unique visitors watched the live stream, generating over 1000 visits. There were a further 4000 visits to the Education Portal, with an average duration on 15.35 minutes per visit.”

    I hope that few doubts the value of these exercises.

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