New developments in Nuclear Weapon-Free Zones

New developments in Nuclear Weapon-Free Zones

Michael Hamel-Green: Thank you Richard. I want to talk about what is probably an unsung success in efforts to achieve a denuclearized world, and that is the success of regional groups of countries who have created legally binding treaties that rid their countries of nuclear weapons and refuse to allow their territory to be used for stationing nuclear weapons by any of the nuclear powers. The idea of nuclear weapon free zones was first put forward by a Polish diplomat, Adam Rapacki in the 1950’s, the early years of the Cold War, but rejected at the time by Western nuclear powers on the grounds that forward stationed nuclear weapons were needed to deter the much bigger conventional forces of the Soviet Union and its allies.

But the idea didn’t die there. Some of the diplomats and leaders committed to disarmament in non-nuclear countries took up the idea for their regions. And one is here today. Ambassador Rolf Ekéus was actually one of the pioneers of this idea in terms of a Nordic nuclear weapon free zone.

Another was the Nobel Prize winning architect of the first nuclear weapon free zone in a populated region, the Mexican diplomat Alfonso Garcia Robles. The nuclear free zone Robles successfully negotiated in 1967 covers the whole of South America and bans nuclear weapon acquisition by any country in that region, and the stationing of such weapons by nuclear powers.

Not only have all the Latin American countries signed up to the zone, but the five security council nuclear powers have agreed to sign protocols binding them not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against any country in that region. And that is the first agreement under which the US and other nuclear powers have accepted limitations on their right to use nuclear weapons.

Alfonso Garcia Robles’s vision was, and I am quoting,

“That nuclear weapon free zones would gradually broaden the areas of the world from which nuclear weapons are prohibited to a point where the territories of powers which possess them, these terrible weapons of mass destruction, will be something like contaminated islets subject to quarantine.”

If you look at the media, you can be forgiven for thinking that Robles was daydreaming. Almost every day we are confronted with nuclear proliferation risks in one region or another. And certainly, international concerns about nuclear proliferation are very real, especially in Northeast Asia where North Korea, as we have just heard, has acquired nuclear weapons, the Middle East where Israel has nuclear weapons, and Iran who is obviously seeking them, and, of course, South Asia where both India and Pakistan have tested nuclear weapons.

The media coverage of the bad news stories has overshadowed the fact that many countries, in fact, the majority of countries, have actually, region by region, followed the denuclearization path that was Robles’s vision.

And one South American diplomat likened this to the process of peeling an orange. Imagine the globe as an orange with a nuclear skin. Well first, the skin was peeled from the bottom of the orange when the 1959 Antarctic Treaty that demilitarizes and denuclearizes everything south of the 60th Parallel was signed.

And then, as we have seen, more of the skin was taken off with the Latin American treaty in 1967. Two decades later in 1985, the South Pacific Islands, Australia and New Zealand established a nuclear weapon free zone treaty in our part of the world. Not the perfect zone, but one that banned acquisition, testing, stationing of nuclear weapons in our part of the world.

Then a decade later in 1995, 1996, over half the nuclear skin of the orange was peeled off when Africa and the Southeast Asian states signed up to nuclear weapon free zones. And the most recent zone, entirely in the Northern Hemisphere, is the Central Asian nuclear zone, where five of the states that used to be part of the Soviet Empire established a nuclear weapon free zone.

So all together, over 120 countries have signed up to nuclear free zone arrangements that bind them not to develop nuclear weapons, and seek to bind the nuclear powers not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against them.

They are also a very significant lobby group in the UN and the international community seeking to extend nuclear weapon free zones to new regions, and to achieve complete nuclear elimination. And there have been two meetings, one in 2005 and another more recently this year, that have brought together states belonging to nuclear weapon free zones and enabled them to be part of this mobilization of the international community for nuclear elimination.

Regional nuclear weapon free zones are not panaceas. They do not remove the central threat posed by the existence of nuclear stockpiles in the hands of the current nuclear powers and sought by other states deluded enough to think that nuclear weapons will bring them security. Only a centrally negotiated nuclear weapons convention will do that, as other presenters have argued.

But what regional nuclear weapon free zones can do is reduce, in a geographical way, the areas in which nuclear weapons are part of security arrangements, either on the part of regional states or the part of nuclear weapons states seeking to further deploy their arsenals. They serve as practical and symbolic ways of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in security arrangements.

The challenge now is to extend the peeling of the nuclear orange to regions like the Middle East, the Korean Peninsula, Northeast Asia, and South Asia, all areas where nuclear proliferation, as we have noted, has already occurred.

Each of those areas is highly complex, but I would like to say something about the possibilities for the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia, which is the focus of this particular session.

So North Korea has exploded two small bombs, as we have just heard. It has also pulled out of the Six Party Talks chaired by China. And those talks, as late as last year, seemed to hold out such promise. There was a 1967 agreement, and that was to be for North Korea to denuclearize in a verified way in exchange for economic and other assistance.

And the situation is very grave because North Korean acquisition of nuclear weapons could lead to a nuclear arms race in the region. Both Japan and South Korea are very capable of rapid development of their own nuclear force, of their own nuclear weapons.

As we have seen from Tillman’s presentation, even a limited war in this highly populated region would be a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions for the region, and for the whole world. The odd thing is that as recently as sixteen months ago, everything seemed to be going well.

In May 2008, and I am quoting the U.S. State Department, North Korea had provided 18,000 pages of documentation relating to its nuclear programs, carried out eight of eleven agreed disablement activities at its three core facilities, and was continuing work with the other three.

So what happened? There were disputes over things like the unfreezing of North Korean assets in the Banco Delta Asia Bank. This was an agreement under the February Six Party Talks, an agreement with North Korea. That did not happen.

There was a U.S., Japanese and South Korean insistence on intrusive verification of North Korea’s declaration of its plutonium-related programs before moving into the second phase – another thing that wasn’t agreed as part of the first phase. They agreed that would happen in the second phase. We didn’t get to the second phase, because it was insisted upon as part of the first phase. So the whole thing unraveled.

North Korea, this year, tested ballistic missiles in the guise of a satellite launch, conducted its second underground test, and confirmed that it is embarking upon a uranium enrichment program. So, defeat, once again, snatched from the jaws of victory.

There is now a new opportunity, following the advent of the Obama administration in Washington, the Hatiyama government in Japan, and a heightened sense of urgency on the part of the Chinese government.

In 1992, the two Koreas did sign up to a joint declaration on the de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula. But it was never implemented. It contained many of the provisions of other nuclear-free zones, and represents a legal basis and starting point for new discussions on de-nuclearization. These would need to aim at developing more fully-fledged and comprehensive zone arrangements for the Korean peninsula.

The most critical need would be for a new or revised Korean weapon-free zone treaty to include protocols that would bind the nuclear weapons states, especially the United States, not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against the two Koreas, something long-sought but never assured in a legally binding way during all the previous abortive U.S. and North Korean negotiations.

It would also need to be more comprehensive in the sense of creating a basis for cooperation on economic and energy needs. And this could be achieved by a separate protocol that would create a framework for providing the economic and energy assistance, sustainable development assistance, and nonmilitary energy infrastructure, including a light water reactor sought by North Korea.

If it included all those, it would be crucial as the North Korean leadership weighed up the cost of building and maintaining or relinquishing their recently demonstrated nuclear weapon capabilities.

Although Northeast Asia and the two Koreas lack the kind of regional organizations that played such an important role in a nuclear free zone establishment in other parts of the world, there is nothing to prevent a special convening of a conference to renegotiate the 1992 joint agreement with not only the Koreans, but also Japan, China, the United States, and Russia. Alternatively it might be negotiated through a resumption of the Six Party talks.

Another suggested way forward has been put by Japan’s leading newspaper, Asahi Shimbun, in an editorial last month. And I quote:

“One worthwhile idea would be a nuclear-free zone treaty for Northeast Asia. Japan and South Korea could take the initiative by signing such a treaty first, and putting it into force. If the United States, China, and Russia all ratify a protocol that bans them from launching nuclear attacks against Japan and South Korea, a non-nuclear umbrella would be raised for the region. North Korea should be able to join the treaty for protection under the non-nuclear umbrella after it abandons its nuclear program and returns to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This prospect would give North Korea a strong incentive to abandon its nuclear ambitions.”

This isn’t a fringe group in Japan, it is one of their leading newspapers saying this. So, in Northeast Asia, we are at new fork through very different terrain. One path leads to peace and security, the other bears scarcely thinking about – a regional nuclear arms race that could lead to misuse and catastrophic destruction, regionally and globally.

Past Korean negotiations have involved so many wrong turns and reverses, words that were not meant and words that were not kept. But we are now at a more hopeful moment, following the changes of leadership in the United States and Japan. There are new opportunities for a more comprehensive solution to the security issues and fears that have led to the North Korean proliferation that pose threats both regionally and globally.

This solution would need all of the courage, commitment, and cooperation of the political leaderships in and beyond the region, including Australia, to go beyond Cold War assumptions about nuclear weapons and deterrence, and commit themselves to the global elimination of nuclear weapons and region-by-region de-nuclearization, not least on the Korean peninsula. And the way is very much still open.

About Michael Hamel-Green

Michael Hamel-Green is the Executive Dean, Faculty of Arts, Education and Human Development, Victoria University, Australia.

He presented this speech at a public forum on nuclear disarmament, Who Will Stop Nuclear Next Use? The forum was organized by the Nautilus Institute at RMIT. It was held on Sunday 20 September 2009 at RMIT Storey Hall.