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 which can serve as a model for a nuclear-weapon free Korean Peninsula. The treaty aims 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 US and the USSR who had lived in the nuclear-weapon test areas both to work to abolish nuclear weapons and to take responsibility for 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.
The Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and the Uzbek President Islan Karimov, the two Central Asian states to have peaceful nuclear-power programs have been advocating for such a nuclear-weapon free zone for a number of years, especially during meetings of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) which celebrated its 10th anniversary in July 2006. However, Turkmenistan, with a largely isolationist foreign policy, is not a member of the SCO but needed to be brought into the nuclear weapons treaty for the treaty to be meaningful. The representatives of the Mongolian government have welcomed the nuclear-weapon free zone as an important confidence-building measure and may join the zone at a later date.
The concept of nuclear-free zones has been an important concept in disarmament and regional conflict reduction efforts. A nuclear-weapon free zone was first suggested 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 got out of control. 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 of 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 low 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 US 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 held, 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 Tlateloco 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 UN’s Director of Disarmament Affairs. The Treaty established a permanent and effective system of control which contains a number of novel and pioneering elements s well as a body to supervise the Treaty.
It is an unfortunate aspect of world politics that constructive, institution-building action is usually undertaken only because of a crisis. Although a Central Asian nuclear-weapon free zone was discussed at the time of the break up of the Soviet Union and the agreement of Kazakhstan to yield the 1,400 nuclear warheads that had been stationed on its territory by the Soviet military, it is only as the North Korean nuclear-weapon program became a serious factor of Asian politics that the Central Asian nuclear -free zone was finalized.
In a second article, we will look at ways in which the Central Asian Treaty could provide elements for a nuclear-weapon free Korean Peninsula and the ways the representatives of Central Asia may provide leadership in that direction.
Rene Wadlow is editor of the online journal of world politics http://www.transnational-perspectives.org/ and an NGO representative to the UN in Geneva.