Toward a Nuclear Weapon-Free Arctic

By Adele Buckley

In the Arctic, climate change has already induced upheaval and nuclear weapons are already present in submarines and over-flying bombers, but not yet in land-based missiles.1 The fact is that neither of these existential threats has an origin in the Arctic.

Ocean shores, lakes, rivers, and glaciers are changing. Coastal flooding will make some areas uninhabitable. Permafrost melt is creating infrastructure problems, and is a source of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Wildlife habitat is changing. Arctic peoples face food insecurity, clean water shortages, inadequate housing, and unresolved health problems. The indigenous way of life is altered; circumpolar nations recognize cooperative governance as necessary to their well-being. Development of this new frontier for commercial purposes involves exploration and development for oil, gas and minerals, commercial shipping and fishing, and tourism. Arctic peoples want to participate in policy discussions that affect their lives, but their influence is limited.

Some multilateral agreements are beginning to emerge. For example, the five coastal Arctic countries agreed in 2008 to cooperate in the Arctic Ocean under the terms of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In 2011 the Search and Rescue Agreement was adopted; and in 2015 five countries with shoreline on the Arctic Ocean agreed in Oslo to a moratorium on unregulated fishing in the central Arctic Ocean, creating a template for a binding international agreement. The current risk of conflict is low, but every Arctic nation is increasing its military presence.

Ever since the Cold War, nuclear weapons have been present. The North should not be forced to accept nuclear weapons, many of which are on high alert, ready for quick launch. The targets could be anywhere in the world. Now is the time for multilateral discussions on an Arctic free of nuclear weapons.

Challenges of the Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone

Each of the seven existing Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones (NWFZs) came into existence as a Treaty under the United Nations system, and was then ratified by the zonal states. Negative security assurance protocols were ratified by the nuclear weapon states, except for a few that have yet to be ratified. There is also support for nuclear-weapon-free status through the Seabed Treaty, the Outer Space Treaty and the Spitzbergen Treaty. Every zone has different terms because the states within it vary in terms of geography and national strategy. Nevertheless, all conform to the United Nations definition, which requires “effective prohibition of the development, manufacturing, control, possession, testing station or transporting” of nuclear weapons within the zone, and it applies to both the regional parties and the Nuclear Weapon States (NWS).2

Negotiations toward a treaty for the Arctic NWFZ will present challenges unique to the region. However, it is appropriate to begin gradually clearing potential roadblocks and improving the environment for cooperative security. For example, the circumpolar Non-Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS)—Canada, Iceland, Denmark (Greenland) Norway, Sweden, Finland—already conform to the requirements for a NWFZ and could formally negotiate a regional zone. This might be an ideal first step. On the other hand, there are other policies and agreements to be considered first. Although all states, including Russia and the United States, are still cooperating with each other in the Arctic, clearly the current Russia/West tensions have repercussions in circumpolar relationships. Let us examine some of the challenges.

Only the Northern Parts of Circumpolar Countries

The Arctic NWFZ proposal introduces a new idea: that the NWFZ might include only part of the sovereign territory of each state in the region. There is no barrier in the UN definition of a zone that would preclude this. The Arctic Circle, 66.5 degrees latitude, would be a natural geographical choice for the boundary. However, Iceland lies just south of the Arctic Circle, so the boundary would include only its national territorial waters. Parts of Alaska also would not be included.

An alternative geographical choice would be one used in the Search and Rescue Agreement of 2011. Signatory nations are already planning in terms of those specific boundaries. The entire Arctic Ocean is partitioned for Search and Rescue responsibilities. The whole of the Arctic Ocean would not be part of a regional NWFZ because the central Arctic Ocean is internationally recognized as the high seas, a global commons under UNCLOS. Thus, including the Arctic Ocean which lies outside the Exclusive Economic Zones, would require a global treaty.

Although the circumpolar non-NWS could, together, initiate a NWFZ in their entire national territories, that might be counterproductive, since the goal is to encourage the United States and Russia to join the zone by designating part of their national territories. The partial-territory-NWFZ for all countries is therefore the most likely to succeed.

To ease their way into a non-NW Arctic, the United States and Russia could separately agree to eliminate nuclear arms from certain military domains, such as:

If successful, each act of partial de-nuclearization would serve as a Confidence Building Measure (CBM).

Membership in a Nuclear Alliance

The circumpolar non-NWS group includes Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Canada—all of which belong to NATO. Being part of a nuclear alliance would seem to preclude being part of a nuclear-weapon-free zone. However, Australia, a member of the Rarotonga NWFZ Treaty of 1985, also is in an alliance under the nuclear umbrella of the United States. Members of NATO would consider a NWFZ as a “policy obstacle.” Nevertheless, the right to pursue independent policies has been claimed by both NWS and non-NWS in NATO.3 Several NATO meetings have discussed policies for the Arctic, and in 2010 and 2013, Secretary General Rasmussen assured Russia that NATO does not intend to establish in the Arctic. Over the years, Canada has always opposed a role for NATO in the Arctic.

Support for a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Arctic

Ideally, governments would be advocating for the Arctic NWFZ, and so far, the Government of Denmark does have it included in its Arctic policy statement. However, when officials from Denmark consulted the Nordic Council Member States, there was little interest. A bill to make Iceland an individual nuclear-weapon-free nation was introduced in its parliament but did not pass. Canada is not opposed to a NWFZ, but has never considered incorporating it within its Arctic policy. If the Arctic non-NWS were to include the NWFZ in their official policy, this would signal real progress.

The United Nations favors adding NWFZs; the concept appears in Article VII of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. If states in a region freely decide to create a NWFZ, then the UN will assist them.

The Arctic people want their regions to be nuclear-weapon-free. A 10,000 person survey of these populations was done4 in 2010 and in 2015. The survey statement was “The Arctic should be a nuclear weapons free zone just like [the] Antarctic is, and the United States and Russia should remove their nuclear weapons from the Arctic.” In both years, all countries agreed strongly, with a substantial increase from 2010 to the 2015 survey. The lowest rates of agreement in 2015 were 67% and 68% in the United States and Russia respectively.

The original population of the Arctic, the Inuit, see this as necessary. After years of issuing statements, in 1983 the Inuit Circumpolar Conference adopted a “Resolution on a Nuclear Free Zone in the Arctic,” and in 1998 called for the Arctic to be designated a military-free zone.

The Arctic Council would seem to be a fitting body to sponsor discussions on an Arctic NWFZ.5 Unfortunately, when it was formed, the United States, as a condition of joining it, required its mandate to exclude all military and security issues. The Arctic Council therefore can only champion economic, cultural, and environmental meetings and activities. While the US presides over the Arctic Council, it would be a major achievement for the terms of reference to be extended to military matters. Then the Council could deal with security and particularly with nuclear weapons.

Posture of the Nuclear Weapons States

All circumpolar nations except the US are signatories to UNCLOS. However, the US has signed the Ilulissat Agree­ment, in which the countries with territory on the Arctic Ocean undertake to abide by the rules of UNCLOS. Russia is pursuing potential rights in its Exclusive Economic Zone by extending its claims under UNCLOS. Russia greatly exceeds the US in its stock of surface naval and other vessels, especially icebreakers. The Americans will, at last, increase resources for the Arctic. This is evidenced by the tour of Pres­ident Obama in Alaska, and the 2014 appointment of Admiral Robert Papp as US special representative to the Arctic.

The international community has proudly designated the Arctic as de-militarized, but now the US is planning to install ballistic missiles there and Russia is building up land and sea military capacity all along its vast coastline.6 Some see this as rebuilding military infrastructure, but others see it as a strategic response to NATO’s buildup near Russian borders. Both the US and Russia are launching new submarines.

Incremental moves may be the best path to freeing the Arctic of nuclear weapons. Russia has much of its nuclear weapon capacity in the North—notably its Kola Peninsula submarine base—whereas American submarine bases are in several locations outside the Arctic. Hence a nuclear-weapon free Arctic would clearly be much easier for the US than for Russia.

A useful incremental move might be to exclude the territorial waters of the NWS—both surface and sub-surface. UNCLOS, Article 20, describes the concept of “innocent transit.” Under this rule, the Russian submarines could transit Arctic territory, but not undertake a military patrol. However, submarine strategy relies on secrecy of location, so use of innocent transit would be a major concession. In addition, Article 20 requires the vessel to surface and show their flag—again a problem. It may be possible to settle on equivalent identification, using modern technology, for submarines remaining submerged.

Completing a NWFZ requires ratification by the parliaments of each participating country. Then each NWS must pass Negative Security Assurances (NSA)—guarantees not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against the states that have renounced them.

This is complicated. If only the northern territories of NNWS formed a NWFZ, then the US and Russia would be expected, like the other NWS, to pass the NSA. Although it would seem difficult for Russia to undertake such guarantees for any member state of NATO, such NSAs actually would be possible because only the northern land, sea, and air would be covered. Never­theless, both countries would have to adjust their operations in the Arctic.

The parts of the Arctic Ocean that are designated as high seas/global commons would not be subject to a nuclear-weapon-free zone treaty, even one that involved all Arctic territories of all circumpolar nations. An appropriate solution is for all NWS, plus India, to sign negative security protocols not to station or patrol or use nuclear weapons in the Arctic Ocean or threaten to do so.7

Britain, France, China, and India are all observers at the Arctic Council and they all have nuclear weapon-equip­ped submarines. At the same time, all of these countries, particularly China, are very interested in commercial and scientific research opportunities in the Arctic. It is in their self-interest to have a nuclear-weapon-free Arctic, in international waters and all national territory. They could benefit by initiating some discussions to this effect.

Confidence Building or Business as Usual?

Some preliminary multilateral agreements would build confidence. Here are some examples:

In recent years, nuclear weapons abolitionists have emphasized the humanitarian consequences of the bombs at their conferences in Oslo, Nayarit, and Vienna. So far, 127 nations have endorsed the Humanitarian Pledge, which includes a declaration of support for a Ban Treaty covering all non-NWS. If implemented, that ban would include the circumpolar non-NWS states. Together, these nations could approach UNODA8 for assistance in establishing a formal NWFZ encompassing their individual Arctic territories. If the Ban Treaty is a “dead end”, accepted by no NWS, then the US would probably have to withdraw its nuclear umbrella for the sovereign countries that are its allies in NATO—a favourable move toward disarmament.

The New START Treaty commits the US and Russia to reductions in nuclear weapons. The Treaty proposes a further goal: the reduction by 50 percent of deployed and not-deployed, as well as non-strategic, warheads. Part of that reduction could logically be in the Arctic on ballistic missiles installed on SSBN submarines. Going further, Gordon and Pifer point out that if Russia and the United States chose to eliminate patrols of nuclear-missile-equipped submarines in the Arctic, they could identify that as a “joint enterprise” with minimal security consequences.9

Without new steps toward a nuclear-weapon-free Arctic, we will experience “Business as Usual.”

The Arctic could become just another theatre of operations for the militaries of the world. The non-militarization of the Arctic Ocean surface probably will not last. More military bases will be built to support land, sea, and air operations. Tension will increase between Russia and NATO. Both continue to hold exercises in the Arctic.

Arctic Council observers will feel free to deploy submarines, and many of them will be equipped with nuclear missiles. China, Britain, France, and India have both the potential and the interest in polar zones for resources and research. The health of northern peoples and wildlife will be further endangered in the fragile Arctic.

There is some concern that working toward a NWFZ could distract from the effort to rid the whole world of nuclear weapons. A Nuclear Weapons Con­vention (NWC) is regarded as the best hope for de-nuclearization: a Ban Treaty could be a prelude. However, the Arc­­tic NWFZ would be, when completed, a regional version of a Nuclear Weapons Con­vention. This would present an opportunity to test the concepts that had been negotiated, but on a smaller scale. Therefore, prior to signing a full NWC, the procedures could be tested for NW reduction and dismantling, verification, and institutional support. Since the United States and Russia (with special provisions) would be involved, it would enable them to try out the approach without significantly affecting the role of nuclear weapons in their security policy. In other words, acting on the Arctic de-nuclearization project would be an important confidence building measure, and therefore the Arctic NWFZ could be a tipping point.

Starting now, each of the circumpolar states should formulate an Arctic national policy that includes establishment of the Arctic Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone, and follow by opening negotiations for that purpose. That would open a viable pathway to the goal.

Adele Buckley is a retired physicist, aerospace engineer, and environmental scientist living in Toronto.


1 Ernie Regehr,“A Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone and the Pursuit of Cooperative Security in the Arctic”, Simons Foundation, October 2014, which states that there are currently no land-based ICBMs stationed in the Arctic.

2 First defined in 1975 by the United Nations General Assembly; and also, as reported by Michael Hamel-Green, UNIDIR/2005/19 GE.05-01490-November 2005-2.790, from Annex 1, Report of the Disarmament Commission, United Nations General Assembly, 54th Session, UN A/54/42, May 1999, para. 33

3 S. Lothe Eide, IPLI Policy Papers, 2014


5 Ernie Regehr, 2014

6 Personal communication, Prof. Sergei Plekhanov, Political Science, York University, Toronto, Canada “…all evidence suggests that the goal of Russia’s military activities in the Arctic is to assure Russia’s security along its longest frontier, including the Northern Sea Route. The biggest Arctic challenge to Russia’s security comes from the unfolding US project to build a ballistic missile system aimed at Russia’s deterrent, with the Arctic seen as a key deployment area.”

7 Ernie Regehr, 2014

8 United Nations Office of Disarmament

9 J. Goodby & S. Pifer “The War that Must Never be Fought, Creating the Conditions for a World without Nuclear Weapons”

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2016

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2016, page 18. Some rights reserved.

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