Nuclear-Weapon Free Zones: Delegitimizing Nuclear Weapons at a Regional Level


René Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

As we prepare to participate as non-governmental organization representatives in the 9th Non-proliferation Nuclear Weapons Treaty Review (NPT Review Conference) at the United Nations in New York, 27 April -22 May 2015, we recall as a major step forward the 14 February signing in 1967 of the Treaty of Tlatelolco and the leadership of Ambassador Alfonso Garcia-Robles. I had chaired the NGO representatives at the first 1975 and the second 1980 Review Conferences then held in Geneva and worked closely with Garcia-Robles, Ambassador of Mexico and Laureate of the Nobel Prize for Peace for his disarmament-related efforts.

The concept of nuclear-weapon-free zones has been an important concept in disarmament and regional conflict-reduction efforts and as a possible approach to a nuclear-weapon-free world. A nuclear-weapon-free zone was first proposed for the Korean Peninsula by Soviet Chairman Nikita Khrushchev in 1957. However, the first detailed proposal with an outline of the necessary steps was put forward by the Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rapacki at the United Nations General Assembly in October 1957 -just a year after the crushing of the uprising in Hungary.

The crushing of the Hungarian revolt by Soviet troops and the unrest among Polish workers at the same time showed that the East-West equilibrium in Central Europe was unstable with both the Soviet Union and the USA in possession of nuclear weapons, and perhaps a willingness to use them if the political situation became radically unstable. The Rapacki Plan, as it became known, called for the denuclearization of East and West Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland. The Plan went through several variants which included its extension to cover the reduction of armed forces and armaments, and as a preliminary step, a freeze on nuclear weapons in the area. The Rapacki Plan was opposed by the NATO powers, in part because it recognized the legitimacy of the East German state. It was not until 1970 and the start of what became the 1975 Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe that serious negotiations on troop levels and weapons in Europe began. While the Rapacki Plan never led to negotiations on nuclear-weapon policies in Europe, it had the merit of re-starting East-West discussions which were then at a dead point.

The first nuclear-weapon-free zone to be negotiated — the Treaty of Tlatelolco — was a direct aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. It is hard to know how close to a nuclear exchange between the USA and the USSR was the Cuban missile crisis. It was close enough so that Latin American leaders were moved to action. While Latin America was not an area in which military confrontation was as stark as in Europe, the Cuban missile crisis was a warning that you did not need to have standing armies facing each other for there to be danger.

Mexico under the leadership of Ambassador Alfonso Garcia-Robles at the UN began immediately to call for a denuclearization of Latin America. There were a series of conferences, and in February 1967 the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America was signed at Tlatelolco, Mexico. For a major arms control treaty, the Tlatelolco was negotiated in a short time, due partly to the fear inspired by the Cuban missile crisis but especially to the energy and persistence of Garcia-Robles and the expert advice of William Epstein, then the U.N.’s Director of Disarmament Affairs. The Treaty established a permanent and effective system of control which contains a number of novel and pioneering elements as well as a body to supervise the Treaty.

On 8 September 2006, the five states of Central Asia − Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan − signed the treaty establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone. The treaty aimed at reducing the risk of nuclear proliferation and nuclear-armed terrorism. The treaty bans the production, acquisition, deployment of nuclear weapons and their components as well as nuclear explosives. Importantly, the treaty bans the hosting or transport of nuclear weapons as both Russia and the USA have established military airbases in Central Asia where nuclear weapons could have been placed in times of crisis in Asia.

The treaty was signed at Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan which was the main testing site for Soviet nuclear tests. Between 1949 and 1989, some 500 nuclear tests took place at Semipalatinsk leaving a heritage of radioactivity and health problems. A non-governmental organization “Nevada-Semipalatinsk” was formed in the 1980s of persons in the USA and the USSR who had lived in the nuclear-weapon test areas. Its aim was to work to abolish nuclear weapons and to push compensation for the persons suffering from the medical consequences of the tests. Thus, Rusten Tursunbaev, the vice-President of “Nevada-Semipalatinsk “ could say “The signing of the agreement on a nuclear-weapon -free zone in Central Asia is a remarkable, unbelievable moment and event – not just for Central Asia but for the whole world”

It is an unfortunate aspect of world politics that constructive, institution-building action is usually undertaken only because of a crisis. However, the Treaty of Tlatelolco is also a fine example of the necessary team work between political advocacy and expert knowledge. Ambassador Garcia-Robles was a dynamic personality who had a free hand because there were few in Mexico who cared about arms control or who followed what was being proposed in Geneva. William Epstein, with whom I worked closely after he retired from the UN, was an expert but also a determined personality. I recall that we were in Moscow together in 1975 just after the end of the NPT review to discuss the results with high-level Soviet specialists of arms control. They wanted us to accept a joint statement which they had largely drafted and which was unacceptable to us. Epstein said to me “At every meeting someone has to be a bastard, and I am willing that it be me.” He argued forcefully and we ended with an acceptable joint statement. Leadership and expertise is a crucial part of all advances; alas, not always available.


René Wadlow, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and of its Task Force on the Middle East, is president and U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens and editor of Transnational Perspectives. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 16 Feb 2015.

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