In Praise of the Non-Nuclear World

By Joanne Dufour

During the 2019 UN General Assembly, speakers representing multiple state organizations opened a meeting of the UN First Committee, which has focused on the range of disarmament issues since the start of the United Nations. The first speaker represented the members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)—a forum of 120 world states that are not formally aligned with or against any major power bloc—and following them were a range of speakers representing the nuclear-free zones of the world. A consistent message from these speakers was strong support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and encouragement of their memberships to sign and ratify this treaty as soon as possible.

This message prompted two questions:

  1. What exactly are nuclear-free zones?

  2. How many countries are we talking about who want to outlaw the production, transportation, storage, stockpiling, and possible use of this classification of weaponry?

The establishment of Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones (NWFZ) is “a regional approach to strengthen global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament norms and consolidate international efforts towards peace and security.” To fully answer the first question however, we need some history: How did this concept of a zone without nuclear weapons begin? Following the end of World War II, Poland offered the first proposal: the Rapacki Plan, named after the Polish foreign minister who introduced the plan to the UN General Assembly in 1958.

Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rapacki speaks before the United Nations on the denuclearization of Central Europe.

Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rapacki speaks before the United Nations on the denuclearization of Central Europe. Source: UN Audiovisual Library, #2232383.

According to a history of Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones, “The Rapacki Plan sought to initially keep nuclear weapons from being deployed in Poland, Czechoslovakia, West Germany, and East Germany, while reserving the right for other European countries to follow suit.” A September 2019 article from the Wilson Center’s blog on history and public policy describes that: “For Poland, the Rapacki Plan offered enormous benefits. It would remove U.S. tactical nuclear weapons stationed in West Germany and ensure that West Germany did not receive intermediate range nuclear weapons under potential North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) sharing agreements… Overall, the West believed that the Rapacki Plan could destroy NATO and imperil the foundations of Western security. Western states officially rejected the Rapacki Plan by mid-1958.”

As noted in the history of Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones cited above, “The Soviet Union, Sweden, Finland, Romania, and Bulgaria also floated similar proposals. All these early efforts, however, floundered amidst the U.S.-Soviet superpower conflict,” despite support by persons like Charles deGaulle, the Canadian government, and individuals in the Eisenhower government, “although the Rapacki Plan would serve as a model to the nuclear-weapon-free zones that were eventually set up in other regions of the globe.”

As time went on, the concept of a zone with no nuclear weapons gained acceptance. Article VII of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1970 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.” The UN General Assembly reaffirmed that right in 1975 and outlined the criteria for such zones. However, within these nuclear-weapon-free zones, countries were permitted the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

The following treaties form the basis for the existing NWFZs and will help in addressing the second question:

Treaty of Tlatelolco — Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean was the first such treaty to establish an NWFZ. It opened for signature on February 14, 1967 and entered into force October 23, 2002, with 21 ratifications in the first year and 33 countries participating by 2002. (The treaty specified that the full zone would not enter into force until it was ratified by all states within the zone. That did not occur until Cuba ratified the treaty in 2002. However, the treaty permitted individual states to waive that provision and declare themselves bound by the treaty, which many did beginning in 1968.)

Treaty of Rarotonga — South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty opened for signature on August 6, 1985 and entered into force on December 11, 1986. Ten countries including Australia and New Zealand ratified the Treaty that first year and a total of 13 countries are now participating.

Treaty of Bangkok — Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone opened for signature on December 15, 1995 and entered into force on March 27, 1997. All 10 nations signed this treaty in 1995 and soon thereafter ratified it.

Treaty of Pelindaba — African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty opened for signature on April 11, 1996 and entered into force on July 15, 2009. Fifty nations out of 52 signed onto this treaty within two years, with enough ratifications to validate the Treaty by 2009.

Treaty on a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in Central Asia — opened for signature on September 8, 2006 and entered into force on March 21, 2009. Five states signed on in the first year and in less than three years all had ratified the Treaty.

See the list of countries involved in each treaty.

Map depicting nuclear-weapon-free zones which encompass Latin America, Africa, and much of the South Pacific as well as parts of Southeast Asia and Central Asia.

Depiction of countries covered by existing NWFZ treaties.

That makes 108 states involved in the nuclear free zones so far. Some of these overlap with the 120 members of the non-aligned movement. But this shows that a substantial portion of this planet is composed of countries that have already indicated their non-nuclear status and their willingness to maintain it.

Efforts began and have continually been undertaken, without success,to form a Middle East Nuclear-Free Zone. Members at the UN First Committee meeting in October 2019 supported an upcoming conference to discuss creating a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (ME WMDFZ). This November conference is funded by the European Union and is considered critical for the 2020 Review Conference of the UN Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. There are obvious obstacles to creating the Middle East Nuclear-Free Zone: the open secret of Israel’s nuclear arsenal, and the nuclear weapon aspirations—and possible achievements—of Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.

Nevertheless, the objectives for the current undertaking, to be carried out over three years, are as follows:

  • To fill an important research gap related to how the issue of the ME WMDFZ evolved, including lessons for current and future prospects;

  • To build analytic capacity to support new thinking on regional security issues in the zone including drawing on lessons from the establishment of other nuclear free zones;

  • To collect ideas and develop new proposals on how to move forward on this issue;

  • And to foster inclusive dialogue among experts and policymakers on regional issues and the zone, which in turn could contribute to ongoing multilateral processes.

As far as enforcement of NWFZs, the International Atomic Energy Agency has the authority to ensure that no country within the nuclear free zone has any illegal weapons. All nations within the zone must agree to inspections under comprehensive safeguards administered by the Agency.

Generally the duration of entry into a zone is unlimited, however if a country wishes to withdraw, a 12-month notice is required. The nuclear weapon states are encouraged to sign a protocol, specifying their respect of the terms of the NWFZ treaty. However, some countries have refused to sign such a protocol and instead have indicated that they will use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear country in the cases of special circumstances, like their use of chemical or biological weapons against the nuclear country.

The United Nations has recommendations and guidelines for Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones which can be found near the bottom of this webpage that also describes NWFZ treaties pertaining to the Antarctic, Outer Space, the Moon, and Seabeds.

There are many aspects to helping our planet disarm meaningfully. The countries indicated in this blog show how these nations as a whole are deliberately making a concerted effort to create a nuclear free planet and that alone needs to be applauded and the trend encouraged. It is the dream that the supporters of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons envision