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Towards Global Abolition: Nuclear Weapon Free Zones and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

The following analysis is from Volume 3, Issue 4 of the Peace Science Digest
Citation: Hamel-Green, M. (2018). The implications of the 2017 UN Nuclear Prohibition Treaty for existing and proposed nuclear-weapon-free zones. Global Change, Peace & Security, 1-24.

Weapons of mass destruction are a contentious subject within the international community. While most countries believe they should never be developed, tested, or used, others insist they are necessary to maintain security. In 2017, a majority of United Nations member states voted to pass the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), a comprehensive ban on nuclear weapons. Those countries with nuclear weapons, therefore, maintain their arsenals despite the majority opinion of the international community. Decades before the signing of this treaty, however, regional nuclear weapon bans successfully eliminated nuclear weapons possession in large areas all across the world. In this article, through an in-depth analysis of the TPNW and the five existing Nuclear Weapon Free Zones (NWFZs), the author identifies key treaty components that should be included in current and future nuclear weapon free zones in order to strengthen these and enhance global implementation of the TPNW.

Regional nuclear weapon free zones predate most global, multilateral treaties related to nuclear weapons—beginning with the 1967 Latin American Tlateloco Treaty and followed by the 1985 South Pacific Rarotonga Treaty, the 1995 Southeast Asian Bangkok Treaty, the 1996 African Pelindaba Treaty, and the 2006 Central Asian Semipalatinsk Treaty. These nuclear weapon free zones arose due to each region’s desire to ban nuclear weapons—and its unwillingness to wait for the rest of the international community to act—and they have advanced nuclear nonproliferation in important ways. First, at least one NWFZ charter has been successful in securing guarantees from nuclear-armed countries that their weapons will not be used, stored, or tested in that region. Such guarantees are similar to the protection norms of the chemical and biological weapons ban agreements. Second, the unique characteristics, culture, and political environment specific to each NWFZ makes nuclear nonproliferation easier to maintain. Participating countries within a NWFZ are able to identify and address nuclear threats against their region—whether in the form of a neighboring country looking to develop nuclear weapons or in the case of an outside nuclear-armed state interested in testing or stationing its weapons within the region. Lastly, NWFZs have been successful in creating a “nuclear taboo” that has changed international opinion and norms attributed to the role, legitimacy, and use of nuclear weapons.

Noting these advancements made by NWFZs towards the goal of nuclear nonproliferation, the author is interested in whether NWFZs can be improved by incorporating aspects of the 2017 (TPNW). By borrowing from the comprehensive provisions of the TPNW, the author argues that the existing NWFZs can strengthen their individual treaties and motivate global implementation of the TPNW. The author suggests five specific areas NWFZs should focus on:

  1. All current and future NWFZs should acknowledge the significance and applicability of the TPNW. By doing so, they highlight the important relationship between regional and global agreements working to change the norms of reliance on nuclear weapons.
  2. NWFZs should include provisions making it mandatory for their members to sign and ratify the TPNW.
  3. Four of the existing NWFZs (Latin America, South Pacific, Central Asia, and Africa) should follow the example of the Bangkok Treaty and specifically prohibit external nuclear-armed countries from using, testing, or storing their nuclear weapons within their NWFZ.
  4. In all current and future NWFZs, countries signatory to the treaty should be prohibited from assisting or encouraging the nuclear programs of nuclear-armed countries. NWFZs should also consider banning nuclear weapons research if they haven’t already.
  5. Any NWFZ that is affected by past nuclear weapon related activities, such as uranium mining, nuclear testing, etc., should include or strengthen their provisions requiring victim assistance and/or environmental rehabilitation.

The author concludes with the belief that even though the existing nuclear-armed countries remain outside of the TPNW, current and future NWFZs can still play a crucial role in influencing international opinion and norms regarding nuclear weapons. They can also continue in their work to prohibit cooperation with—and demand security guarantees from—nuclear-armed countries, thus shrinking the influence and public perception of the weapons-holders even further.

Contemporary Relevance:

Included in the author’s suggested improvements for current and future NWFZs are two regions currently at the center of international debate: the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula. Both of these regions have proposed NWFZs of their own but, for various reasons, have been unable to secure agreements. In the Middle East, the UN has pursued a NWFZ as far back as 1974, and in 1990 it expanded its proposal into a more inclusive weapons ban titled the Middle East Weapon of Mass Destruction Free Zone (MEWMDFZ). However, ongoing violent conflict and Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons have all but eliminated regional consensus for such treaties. Iran was also on the verge of nuclear weapons possession until the signing of the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal. But now, with the vitally important and effective deal tossed away by the Trump Administration, Iran has little incentive to abide by the agreement and can once again begin developing nuclear weapons.

Talking Points:

  • Nuclear Weapon Free Zones (NWFZs) have advanced the global movement against nuclear weapons by requiring—in at least one case—commitments from nuclear-armed countries to never use, test, or store their weapons within the NWFZ region.
  • The unique characteristics, culture, and political environment specific to each NWFZ simplifies nuclear nonproliferation because countries within a NWFZ are better able to address regional nuclear threats—whether in the form of a neighboring country looking to develop nuclear weapons or in the case of an outside nuclear-armed state interested in testing or stationing its weapons within the region.
  • NWFZs have been successful in creating a “nuclear taboo” that has changed international opinion and norms attributed to the role, legitimacy, and use of nuclear weapons.
  • Current and future NWFZs can strengthen their treaties by making it mandatory for their members to sign and ratify the TPNW; specifically prohibiting external nuclear-armed countries from using, testing, researching, or storing nuclear weapons within their NWFZ; and including or strengthening provisions requiring victim assistance and/or environmental rehabilitation from past nuclear weapon users in the region.

Practical Implications:

The 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) is, to date, the most comprehensive agreement against nuclear weapons possession and therefore stands as the ultimate tool for reaching nuclear abolition. However, as this research has shown, Nuclear Weapon Free Zones (NWFZs) have been very successful in eliminating nuclear weapons at a smaller scale and providing a foundation for large-scale treaties like the TPNW. Perhaps a region-by-region approach still has an important role to play in nuclear abolition, despite the presence of a global treaty. Neighboring countries often share similar social and political values and therefore are better positioned to come to an equitable agreement on nuclear weapons than large-scale international treaties that, by nature, are designed to appeal to all countries and therefore lack the nuance often found in regional treaties such as those found in NWFZs. Though gradual abolition via NWFZs may be a slower approach than a total ban, the social pressure applied by the international community to conform to norms against nuclear weapons would grow with the number of NWFZs, making it harder for countries that possess or support nuclear weapons to justify their position. The mounting pressure on nuclear-armed states could also be achieved through a global treaty alone, but NWFZs have the added benefit of on-boarding many countries at once, instead of one by one in the case of the TPNW. Once universal adoption and effective implementation of the TPNW is reached, regional prohibitions like the NWFZs can still play a vital role in ensuring the longevity of the agreement. NWFZs can assist or complement larger treaties with compliance and verification activities, form cooperative security initiatives in their regions to avoid future arms races, and help advance the efforts to ban (or strengthen the ban of) other weapons of mass destruction.

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