Central Asia Becomes A Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone

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William C. Potter
Togzhan Kassenova
Anya Loukianova
December 11, 2008

On March 21, 2009, the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone [CANWFZ] Treaty formally entered into force. Ratification of Treaty was completed on December 11, 2008 after action by the upper house [Senate] of the parliament of Kazakhstan.[1] Kazakhstan’s ratification closely follows similar approval by the Tajik parliament on November 12, 2008.[2] Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan previously ratified the treaty on March 22, 2007, April 2, 2007, and April 19, 2008, respectively.[3] The treaty was signed by the five Central Asian states on September 8, 2006, approximately eight and one-half years after the presidents of Central Asia first issued their joint declaration calling for the zone.[4]

The Central Asian zone joins three other active NWFZs covering Latin America and the Caribbean, the South Pacific, and Southeast Asia. Momentum also is building for a fifth zone, covering Africa, and only two more ratifications are required before it enters into force.

Attainment of the CANWFZ comes at a propitious moment for nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation, and at a time when the nonproliferation regime is under severe strain. It is consistent with the clarion call for “a world free of nuclear weapons” issued in January 2007 by George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn,[5] and endorsed in October 2008 by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who concurrently expressed support for the entry into force of the Central Asian NWFZ Treaty.[6]

To a greater extent than the previous zones, the one in Central Asia showcases a commitment to nuclear disarmament by a region which previously had nuclear weapons on its territory and continues to live in a nuclear-armed neighborhood.[7] Surrounded by Russian, Chinese, Pakistani, Indian, and Israeli nuclear weapons, and housing Russian and US military bases, the new zone serves as a powerful example of nonproliferation. It is also the first NWFZ located entirely in the northern hemisphere.

The Central Asian treaty contains concrete provisions that strengthen regional and international nonproliferation efforts. Under its terms, the Central Asian states will be the first countries in the world legally bound to adhere to enhanced International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards [known as the Additional Protocol], on their civilian nuclear assets. The treaty also requires them to meet international standards for the physical protection of nuclear material. Considering the danger that Central Asia could become a source or transit corridor for terrorist smuggling of nuclear materials, these terms of the CANWFZ are an important counterterrorism measure. In a unique feature, the treaty also recognizes the environmental damage done to Central Asia by the Soviet nuclear weapons program and pledges to support environmental rehabilitation. Appropriately, the September 2006 treaty establishing the CANWFZ was signed in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, the site of the world’s largest open-air nuclear testing ground, where 456 Soviet nuclear tests took place.

Nuclear Weapons States Support of the CANWFZ Needed

An important feature of NWFZs are protocols to the treaties by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council in which the nuclear weapons states (NWS) pledge not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against members of the zone. Although the NWS support the creation of NWFZs in principle, in practice they find few zones that they like. As such, they often have refused to sign protocols to past NWFZ treaties, citing a variety of specific objections. None of the NWS, for example, have signed the protocol to the Treaty of Bangkok, which established the Southeast Asian NWFZ, and the United States has yet to ratify the protocol to the South Pacific NWFZ (Treaty of Raratonga), which entered into force in 1986.

Russia and China have long expressed public support for the CANWFZ initiative. Most recently, Moscow and Beijing supported a resolution endorsing the zone at the 63rd Session of the First Committee of the UN General Assembly[8]. The importance of the zone also was noted in the declaration issued in August 2008 by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a forum bringing together Russia, China and the Central Asian states.[9]

In contrast to the favorable views held by Russia and China, the so-called P-3—the United States, United Kingdom, and France—have been very critical of the treaty negotiated by the five Central Asian states. They routinely have opposed language welcoming the treaty in the NPT review process and the UN General Assembly, and the United States even pressured the United Nations and other international bodies to withhold their support of the treaty following its signature.[10]

Addressing Concerns of the P-3

The P-3 chose not to express their views directly to the five Central Asian states during the initial phase of the treaty’s negotiation between 1997 and 2002. Since then, however, they repeatedly have voiced strong objections to several aspects of the treaty text.

Their harshest criticism concerns the treaty’s ambiguous language regarding the relationship of the CANWFZ to prior international agreements. According to Article 12 of the CANWFZ Treaty, the accord “does not affect the rights and obligations under other international treaties.” The P-3 has expressed concern that this language implies that under the provisions of the Commonwealth of Independent States Collective Security Treaty [to which four Central Asian states, excluding Turkmenistan are party] Russia will theoretically be able to deploy nuclear weapons in Central Asia under a premise of granting “military assistance” foreseen in the collective security treaty.

The second part of the CANWFZ Treaty’s Article 12 was designed to address this concern, but does so only obliquely. It states that the parties will “take all necessary measures for effective implementation of the purposes and objectives of this Treaty in accordance with the main principles contained therein.”[11]

In fact, Article 12 represents a form of diplomatic craftsmanship or creative ambiguity in which the five Central Asian states sought to take account of the strong interests on the part of different NWS. The first paragraph of the Article 12 sends a message to Russia—Central Asia’s key defense cooperation partner—that the CIS collective security mechanism will not be undermined. The second part of the Article 12 acknowledges P-3 concerns and indicates commitment to adhere to the major principle of the CANWFZ–of not allowing nuclear weapons on its territory.

A second but lesser P-3 concern involves the possible conflict between a provision allowing each country to decide for itself on whether to permit transit of nuclear weapons through its territory and a prohibition of possession and control of nuclear weapons, as well as of encouragement or assistance with possession or control [read broadly, it can be interpreted as a prohibition of transit]. The P-3 has requested that this ambiguity be clarified.

Although the P-3 strongly criticized the Central Asian states for not being responsive to their request for further consultations before signing the treaty, they subsequently called upon the five states to ratify the treaty and then revisit the points of contention. Given the difficulties of forging consensus among the five states in the first place, and the strong criticism they would face from Russia were they to try to amend the treaty, further P-3 pressure to renegotiate/amend the treaty is likely to be rejected out of hand by the Central Asian states, especially if the message is delivered in the same condescending manner in which it has been previously conveyed. A far more promising means to rectify legitimate P-3 concerns is to encourage the four Central Asian states party to the CIS Collective Security Treaty to issue a joint statement that they are not party to any agreements that would allow for the deployment of nuclear weapons on their territory. Another creative if politically challenging means to resolve the Article 12 dilemma would be for the new US administration to embrace the long-standing Russian proposal to foreswear the deployment of nuclear weapons outside of one’s national territory. Were the United States and Russia to agree to such constraints, the U.S. worst case interpretation of Article 12 would become moot.

A Long Term Perspective

NWFZ treaties have never been simple to negotiate, often have experienced lengthy delays before they entered into force, and typically have taken decades before NWS protocols have been concluded. The history of the Central Asian NWFZ Treaty to date resembles this model, and it would not be surprising for considerable time to pass before the P-3 determine that the zone serves their national security interests as well as those of the states in the region.

To be sure, the Central Asian NWFZ Treaty is not a nuclear disarmament or nonproliferation panacea, nor is it a perfect document. The same, however, can be said about all treaties, including the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Moreover, for a region noticeably lacking a history of cooperation on issues of international peace, security, and environmental protection, the CANWFZ represents a major breakthrough and offers the prospect of further regional cooperation in pursuit of common disarmament and nonproliferation goals.

William C. Potter is Director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar Professor of Nonproliferation Studies Monterey Institute of International Studies, Togzhan Kassenova is a Research Associate at the Center for International Trade and Security (The University of Georgia) and a former Postdoctoral Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Anya Loukianova is a Research Associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

[1] “Soobscheniye dlya SMI,” Press Sluzhba Senata Parlamenta, December 11, 2008, www.parlam.kz. The lower house of the parliament (the Majlis) approved this treaty on November 26, 2008, “Majlis odobril zakonoproyekt ‘O ratifikatsii dogovora o zone, svobodnoy ot yadernogo oruzhiya v tsentralnoy azii’,” Kazakhstan segodnya, November 26, 2008, www.gazeta.kz. Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev signed the treaty into law on December 5, after which the instruments of ratification will be deposited with Kyrgyzstan, the formal treaty repository. See “Prezident podpisal zakony,” Khabar, January 5, 2008, www.khabar.kz.
[2] “Tajikistan ratifies agreement on setting up nuclear-free zone in Central Asia,” Asia-Plus Online, November 12, 2008, Open Source Center Document CEP20081112950267.
[3] CANWFZ, United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, Status of Multilateral Arms Regulation and Disarmament Agreements, http://disarmament.un.org.
[4] Letter dated March 14, 1997 from the representatives of Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General, www.un.org.
[5] George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn, “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007, www.nuclearsecurityproject.org.
[6] United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “The United Nations and Security in a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World,” Address to the East-West Institute, New York, October 24, 2008, http://docs.ewi.info.
[7] Discussion of CANWFZ features is taken from Scott Parrish and William C. Potter, “Central Asian States Establish Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone Despite US Opposition,” CNS Research Story, September 8, 2006.
[8] Text of resolution A/C.1/63/L.37, “General and Complete Disarmament: Establishment of a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in Central Asia,” October 17, 2008, www.reachingcriticalwill.org; voting result in First Committee, October 29, 2008, www.reachingcriticalwill.org.
[9] “The Bishkek Declaration of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s Summit Meeting,” Xinhua, August 16, 2007, Open Source Center Document CPP20070816338002; “SCO Leaders Reaffirm Commitment to Territorial Integrity of States-Declaration,” Interfax, August 28, 2008.
[10] Parrish and Potter, op.cit.
[11] CANWFZ Treaty text.

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