About Nuclear Weapons Free Zones

The central idea underlying a nuclear weapon free zone (NWFZ) is that one or more states commit to the total exclusion of any nuclear weapons from their territories. Today, one hundred and twelve states are party to five nuclear weapon free zone treaties that cover a large part of the Northern and almost the entire Southern Hemisphere.

Regional NWFZs l Suggested Reading 

Regional nuclear weapon free zones

Five treaty-based, full-fledged nuclear weapon free zones are in force, plus a range of other treaties and national declarations banning nuclear weapons from specific territories).  These are:

The Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean;

The South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty;

The Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty;

The Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty;

The African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty.

One hundred and twelve states are party to nuclear weapon free zone treaties covering a large part of the Northern and almost the entire Southern Hemisphere. They are an established and legitimate instrument used by states to realize nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament policy goals.  As the United Nations Disarmament Commission concluded in 1999,

“Nuclear-weapon-free zones are an important disarmament tool which contributes to the primary objective of strengthening regional peace and security and, by extension, international peace and security. They are also considered to be important regional confidence-building measures.”

These nuclear weapon free zones vary substantially in relation to critical elements. For example:

  • Some nuclear weapon free zones (such as the South Pacific Nuclear Weapon Free Zone) do not stop nuclear weapons states (NWS) party to the nuclear weapon free zone from firing nuclear weapons into or out of the zone.
  • Most but not all (the Southeast Asia Treaty is the only exception) do not contain any enforcement mechanism should a nuclear weapon state party to a nuclear weapon free zone treaty transgress its zonal obligations.
  • The South Pacific and African nuclear weapon free zones, like others, prohibit nuclear weapons, but also disassembled or partly assembled weapons.
  • Only the Southeast Asian and Latin American nuclear weapon free zones include marine Exclusive Economic Zones in the territory covered by the zone.
  • These variations are not surprising, considering the diverse historical and security situations in each region, especially the role played by nuclear weapon states and alliances, and the existence of nuclear weapon states outside of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) system (Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea).

In principle, nuclear weapon free zones still permit peaceful nuclear devices and even actual peaceful nuclear explosions within a nuclear weapon free zone, even though these are technically indistinguishable from nuclear weapons and nuclear tests or attacks. The issue of transit by air or sea by nuclear capable ships or aircraft that may carry nuclear weapons remains contentious and ambiguous in all the zones.

Suggested Reading

US vs China vs UN & DPRK Position on NWFZs
Hayes, P.

Evaluating the 2010 NPT Review Conference
Dhanapala, J., United States Institute for Peace, Special Report 258 (October 2010)

Arctic Security in the 21ST Century: Conference Report
Dhanapala, J., John Harriss, Jennifer Simons, Co-convened by The Simons Foundation and School for International Studies, Simon Fraser University (April 11 & 12, 2008)

Let’s Keep the Arctic Free of Nukes
Dhanapala, J., International Herald Tribune, March 3, 2008