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Commentary | 1 July 2024

How to bolster nuclear-weapon-free zones

According to the UN, the establishment of nuclear-weapon-free zones (NWFZ) is a regional approach to strengthening global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament norms and consolidating international efforts towards peace and security. NWFZs are also a key element in underpinning and strengthening the NPT.

General Assembly resolution 3472 B (XXX) defines a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone:

“as any zone recognized as such by the General Assembly of the United Nations, which any group of States, in the free exercises of their sovereignty, has established by virtue of a treaty or convention whereby:(a) The statute of total absence of nuclear weapons to which the zone shall be subject, including the procedure for the delimitation of the zone, is defined;(b) An international system of verification and control is established to guarantee compliance with the obligations deriving from that statute.”

Article VII of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) states:

Nothing in this Treaty affects the right of any group of States to conclude regional treaties in order to assure the total absence of nuclear weapons in their respective territories”.

NWFZ can be seen as stepping stones to a nuclear-weapon-free world. For example, former US Ambassador Thomas Graham argued, “An alternative route to nuclear disarmament is needed. The NWFZ movement, little heralded in conferences on nuclear policy around the world, might be such an alternative”.

Nuclear-weapon-free zones can be seen as stepping stones to a nuclear-weapon-free world. Tarja Cronberg

Today, there are five regional NWFZ with 118 member states covering a third of the World´s population. In addition, Mongolia is a one-state zone. These zones are comprised of states that have voluntarily committed to abstinence and renounced nuclear deterrence in all forms. No member state has ever withdrawn from a zone, and there are no examples of suspicious nuclear weapon programs by any state party to a zone treaty. All NWFZ members have fulfilled their International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards obligations.

So far, proposals for new zones in Europe, the Middle East, and North-East Asia have not materialised. There are two main reasons for this.

The lack of unconditional and legally based negative security guarantees

First, NWFZ treaties include annexed protocols for the P5 to sign and ratify. According to these protocols, each party undertakes not to use or threaten to use a nuclear weapon or other nuclear devices against any state of the treaty. The Latin American and the Caribbean Treaty is the only one where all the P5 states have ratified the protocol. In the case of the South Pacific, African, and Central Asian treaties, all the P5 states except the United States have ratified these protocols. The Southeast Asia treaty has neither been signed nor ratified by any of the P5. The legal status of these assurances has also not been clarified. In theory, if the zone treaty is in force and a P5 state has ratified it, it is binding for the state in question. However, it is claimed that these statements only express an intention and are not legally binding. For example, the United States does not consider these guarantees as international agreements, nor have they been approved domestically according to the procedures of the US Congress.

The final decision to use or not use nuclear weapons in any crisis of fundamental national interest will be made ad hoc. It will not be constrained by published doctrines and public statements. An example of how agreements related to nuclear weapons may be disregarded is the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. Furthermore, during the lifetime of the NPT, nuclear weapon states (NWS) have expanded the possible circumstances under which they might use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) and the NWFZs. Some NWS reserve the option to use nuclear weapons against NNWS acting in alliance with a NWS, to deter chemical or biological weapons attacks, to prevent non-nuclear strategic attacks, and even to limit damage by a nuclear attack. The latest US conditions are even linked to the evolution of technologies, the US Nuclear Posture Review states that the US reserves the right “to make any adjustments in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of non-nuclear strategic attack technologies and the US capability to counter these”.

The existence of a nuclear weapon state in the region

Second, the process related to WMD-Free Zones in the Middle East is the most obvious example of the difficulties of strengthening NWFZs, although the proposed North-East Asia NWFZ faces similar problems as do the potential zones in Europe and South Asia.

The creation of a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East has intimately been tied to the negotiations of the NPT.  Adopting the resolution on the Middle East was a necessary condition for regional states to agree to the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995. The resolution calls upon all states in the Middle East to take practical steps towards the establishment of an effectively verifiable Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems. It further calls on these states to refrain from taking any measures that preclude the achievement of this objective.

The 1995 resolution has been followed by a number of failed efforts to proceed with a regional treaty. Seen from the NPT process, these are:

  • In 2010, the NPT Review Conference, in its final document, called for a conference to be held on the zone. Although a number of consultative meetings took place, plans for the conference were cancelled in November 2012.
  • At the 2015 NPT Review Conference, Egypt proposed a conference on the WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East, but the proposal was rejected. The Egyptian delegation walked out of the meeting.
  • At the August 2022 RevCom, all Arab states demanded the implementation of the 1995 resolution on a WMD free Middle East.

To solve this impasse in 2018, the UN General Assembly decided to hold yearly conferences on a Middle East WMD-Free Zone until this would become a reality.

A way forward

The annexed protocols to the NWFZ treaties are not enough. This is not only because they have not been signed by all of the P5, but their legality is also in doubt, and four NWS have not even been asked to sign. At the 10th NPT Review Conference in August 2022, a proposal was made to make the negative security assurance to NNWS binding to guarantee their legality.

While a general law applying to all the NNWS may be difficult to achieve, negative security assurances to the NWFZ states should be considered as the first step to making NWFZ more meaningful. Parties to NWFZs states have a double commitment to their nuclear-free status (both through the NPT and the respective regional treaty). They are thus less prone to proliferation, in comparison, for example, with other NNWS that are on the threshold of accessing nuclear weapons should they decide to do so.

Negative security assurances to the NWFZ states should be considered as the first step to making NWFZ more meaningful. Tarja Cronberg

As for the second hindrance, new innovative approaches are needed. It is unlikely that countries like France, North Korea or Israel will abolish their nuclear weapons to enable the EU, North-East Asia or the Middle East to become NWFZs. Nevertheless, several approaches have been proposed. One is to limit the zone’s territory to start with partial NWFZs. This approach has already been applied in some existing zones. For example, although the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean was signed in 1967, Cuba didn’t join the zone until 2002. Partial European zones have also been suggested to start the process.

In North-East Asia, the proposal of an NWFZ would allow the security of three non-nuclear countries (Japan, South Korea, and North Korea) to be guaranteed by the US, Russia, and China. Given the experience with the Budapest memorandum, these guarantees would have to be legally binding. To be sure, the three guarantors of such a zone would have to engage in serious trust-building before their guarantees would likely be perceived as credible.

The question of the Middle East is extremely sensitive not only in the region itself but also for the survival of the NPT. The lack of progress in the zone, 50 years underway, is already undermining trust in the NPT and promoting future proliferation in the Middle East. Unconditional and legal guarantees could provide a solution during a transfer period before all member states can or are willing to join the zone.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.

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