Nuclear-weapon-free zones: advantages shortcomings and prospects

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In March 1960 a committee of ten nations convened in Geneva. The task of this newly created international body was to consider the Soviet and US proposals for general and complete disarmament, as recommended by the UN General Assembly. Three months later, following a dramatic walkout of the delegates of the Warsaw Pact countries, the committee collapsed. I witnessed that event. It was widely commented by the world press. The failure of the bloc-to-bloc talks, conducted in the Ten-Nation Committee on Disarmament, was inevitable in the atmosphere of high political tension. No one was able to provide a satisfactory answer to such a fundamental question as what would be the political order governing international relations in a completely disarmed world. Or which mechanisms and procedures would be used to settle disputes among states and maintain peace. The more immediate obstacle to an agreement was that the negotiators were unable to agree on how much disarmament should be undertaken in the first stage of a disarmament process. The Soviet Union insisted that one should start with a very substantial reduction in military power and eliminate the danger of nuclear war. The Western powers argued that they could not accept radical first-stage measures and give up their nuclear deterrent until confidence was established between East and West, and until an international peace force was created to replace national forces. After it had ceased to be a Cold War propaganda issue for the Soviet Union and the United States, general and complete disarmament became a mantra “ritually” included in UN resolutions or preambles to multilateral arms control agreements. The attention of the world community turned to specific partial arms control measures. This is when the prevention of the spread of nuclear weapons became the subject of negotiations that led to the conclusion, in 1968, of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). At the same time, there was a revival of proposals for regional approaches to nuclear disarmament, harking back to the 1957 Rapacki Plan for the denuclearization of Central Europe. In the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, efforts began to be made to establish a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Latin America.


In 1999 the UN Disarmament Commission formulated a set of principles to guide states in setting up nuclear-weapon-free zones. The main principles are as follows. Nuclear-weapon-free zones should be established on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at among the states of the region concerned. The status of a nuclear-weapon-free zone should be respected by all states parties to the treaty establishing the zone, as well as by states outside the region, including the nuclear-weapon states and states responsible for territories situated within the zone. States parties to a nuclear-weapon-free zone remain free to decide for themselves whether to allow visits by foreign ships and aircraft to their ports and airfields, transit of their airspace by foreign aircraft and navigation by foreign ships in or over their territorial sea, archipelagic waters or straits. States parties to the current nuclear-weapon-free zones should ensure that their adherence to other international agreements does not entail any obligation contrary to their obligations under the zone treaties. A nuclear-weapon-free zone should provide for an effective prohibition of the development, manufacturing, control, possession, testing, stationing or transporting by the states parties to the treaty of any type of nuclear explosive device for any purpose, and should stipulate that states parties to the treaty do not permit the stationing of any nuclear explosive devices by any other state within the zone. A nuclear-weapon-free zone should provide for effective verification of compliance with the commitments made by the parties to the treaty. A nuclear-weapon-free zone should not prevent the use of nuclear science and technology for peaceful purposes. The above guidelines are mere recommendations. They may be observed or ignored. Indeed, given the dissimilar geographical circumstances, as well as different political, cultural, economic and strategic considerations of the states concerned, there can be no uniform pattern of denuclearized zones. The differences may relate to the scope of the obligations assumed by the parties; the responsibilities of extra-zonal states; the geographical area subject to denuclearization; the verification arrangements; and the conditions for the entry into force of the zonal agreement as well as for its denunciation. During the past forty years the nuclear-weapon-free area of the world has considerably expanded. By now, four regional denuclearization agreements have entered into force: the Treaty of Tlatelolco regarding Latin America, the Treaty of Rarotonga regarding the South Pacific, the Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula (which is not operational) and the Treaty of Bangkok regarding South-East Asia. The Treaty of Pelindaba regarding Africa has been signed but is not yet in force, whereas the latest version of the treaty regarding Central Asia has not yet been definitively agreed upon. (Certain uninhabited areas of the globe have also been formally denuclearized. They include Antarctica, outer space, the moon and other celestial bodies, as well as the seabed, the ocean floor and the subsoil thereof.) Nuclear-weapon-free zones are part and parcel of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Not only do the treaties, which established the zones, prohibit the possession of nuclear weapons, but they also have in certain respects the advantage of going further than the Non-Proliferation Treaty. At the same time they suffer from some important shortcomings.


Non-stationing. Unlike the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the zonal denuclearization treaties forbid the stationing of any nuclear explosive device on the territory of the zonal states. “Stationing” is defined as emplacement, transportation on land or inland waters, stockpiling, installation and deployment. Security assurances. The protocols attached to the zonal treaties provide for the so-called positive and negative security assurances. The positive assurances contain a promise to assist a state party to the treaty, which is a victim of an act of nuclear aggression, or an object of a threat of nuclear aggression. The negative assurances contain a pledge not to use nuclear weapons against a state party to the treaty. Wastes. One zonal treaty, namely, the Treaty of Rarotonga, bans dumping radioactive matter at sea.


Transit. Visits and transits through zonal states of ships and aircraft carrying nuclear weapons may take place if allowed, but their frequency and duration are not limited. It is, therefore, not clear to what extent they differ from the stationing, which is prohibited. Since the great powers refuse, as a matter of policy, to disclose the whereabouts of their nuclear weapons, they are unlikely to request permission for a visit or transit by a nuclear-weapon-carrying ship or aircraft. They would rather enter the zone without asking for permission. This has already happened. The right of the zonal states to deny permission is thus purely hypothetical. In any event, introduction of nuclear weapons into the zone, even for a short time, whether in time of peace or in time of war, would defeat the sought goal of total regional denuclearization. Scope of the obligations. To make a nuclear attack against the parties to a zonal treaty militarily unjustifiable and, consequently, less likely, all potential targets of a nuclear strike would have to be removed from the denuclerized areas. In addition to nuclear weapons themselves, such targets include nuclear-weapon-related support facilities. such as communication, surveillance and intelligence-gathering facilities. They also include navigation installations serving the nuclear strategic systems of the great powers. The nuclear-weapon-free-zone treaties do not, however, ban such facilities. Verification. Whereas compliance with the non-proliferation obligations is monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency, there is no provision for checking whether the nuclear-weapon states respect the status of the denuclearized zones. Withdrawal. Each party to a nuclear-weapon-free zone treaty may withdraw from it, if some extraordinary events have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country. The party itself decides whether such events have occurred. However, abrogation of a denuclearization treaty by one party may affect the security of other, especially neighbouring, parties. Consequently, states should either give up the right to resort to the withdrawal clause (as they have given up the right to make reservations), and thereby render their obligations irreversible, or have recourse to a withdrawal clause exclusively under some very restrictive conditions. Negative security assurances. The pledge made by France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States not to use nuclear weapons against the members of the denuclearized zones is conditional. It will cease to be valid in case of an attack on the nuclear-weapon powers or their allies, carried out or sustained by a non-nuclear-weapon state in association or alliance with a nuclear-weapon state. This convoluted exception weakens the negative security assurances of the nuclear powers. Hence the demands repeatedly made in different disarmament fora to make these assurances unconditional.


Middle East. In the Middle East–one of the most explosive regions in the world–the concept of a nuclear-weapon-free zone was advanced by Iran and Egypt in 1974. Since then, the UN General Assembly has adopted several resolutions supporting this concept, often by consensus. The UN Security Council cease-fire resolution 687, adopted after the 1991 Gulf War, also emphasized the need for a denuclearized Middle East. The zone in the Middle East, as envisaged, overlaps to a large extent the nuclear-weapon-free zone in Africa, but it is aimed in the first place at Israel. Israel acknowledges having nuclear-weapon capabilities but has neither confirmed nor denied the possession of nuclear weapons. It has repeatedly made ambiguous statements to the effect that it will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East. In 1990 Egyptian President Mubarak proposed the establishment in the Middle East of a zone free of all types of weapons of mass destruction. Thus, not only nuclear weapons would be banned in the area concerned, but also chemical and biological weapons, and probably certain categories of ballistic missiles. However, the prospect of creating such a zone is not good. In June 2005 a symposium, to which I was invited, was held at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to consider the advisability for Israel to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty. An overwhelming majority of the Israeli scholars was in favour of maintaining Israel’s nuclear ambiguity. Some suggested formalizing the nuclear status of Israel, India and Pakistan. That would be achieved by creating a new category of parties to the NPT, those possessing nuclear weapons but refraining from developing them further. Others saw the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone under international control, stricter than the control carried out by the International Atomic Energy Agency, as the best, if not the only option for Israel to join the non-proliferation regime. They believe that confidence-building measures would facilitate negotiations for the establishment of the envisaged zone and would positively affect the peace process in the region. North Korea. The avowed acquisition of nuclear weapons by North Korea gave rise to a debate, at the non-governmental level, about the advisability of setting up a nuclear-weapon-free zone in North-East Asia. According to the proponents of this idea, the zone would have to cover not only the two Korean states and Japan, but also Mongolia, Taiwan and, possibly, parts of the territories of some nuclear-weapon states. Central Asia. Negotiations for the creation of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Central Asia, started in 1997. A few years later, experts from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, assisted by UN-appointed experts (including myself), produced a treaty text for signature by the countries concerned. However, the signing was delayed for an indefinite period of time, mainly because of a sharp controversy over the validity of the security arrangements already in force in the region. Some states insist on making a proviso in the nuclear-weapon-free zone treaty to the effect that the rights and obligations under other treaties signed by the parties must not be affected. They refer to the collective security arrangements under the 1992 Tashkent Treaty, concluded within the framework of the Commonwealth of Independent States, and binding several Central Asian states. Those opposed to such a proviso argue that, in entering a nuclear-weapon-free zone treaty prohibiting the deployment of nuclear weapons on its territory, a state renders invalid any previous agreement (open or secret) which may allow such deployment. The Gulf A proposal has been made by the Gulf Research Centre (GRC) of Dubai to form a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Gulf. The planned zone is intended to cover Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Iran an Yemen. The first meetings of an international group of experts, which I also attended, examined the desirability as well as the feasibility of the proposed undertaking. The GRC’s initiative was received with interest and was welcomed as a significant complement to the network of denuclearized zones.


To the extent that the incentive to acquire nuclear weapons may emerge from regional considerations, the establishment of areas free of nuclear weapons is an important asset for the cause of nuclear non-proliferation. Countries confident that their enemies in the region do not possess nuclear weapons may not be inclined to acquire such weapons themselves. The zones, which have been established so far, meet other non-proliferation postulates as well: the stationing of nuclear weapons on their territory has been prohibited and the states of the zone have obtained some security assurances. The described deficiencies of the existing zones could be removed by using the amendment clause of the treaties or, preferably, by concluding relevant additional protocols. Such deficiencies should be avoided in the drafting of new treaties.