Central Asian Nuclear Free Zone

Nuclear-free zone policies are starting to be adopted as a practical position. Nowhere is this more true than in Central Asia

By Eric Walberg | 1998-03-01 12:00:00

NUCLEAR disarmament inched forward this past autumn in an exotic locale - Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia, a land of steppe and desert on the eastern face of the Tien Shan mountains.

On September 15 the Foreign Ministers of the Central Asian countries signed a statement approving a nuclear-free zone in Central Asia. The conference "Central Asia - Nuclear Weapon Free Zone" brought together representatives from all the major nuclear powers and from the four existing nuclear-free zones, as well as non-governmental organizations and resulted in the signing of a declaration by the five Central Asian states (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan) to create the Central Asian nuclear weapons-free zone.

Canada was the first major country to support in principle the idea of a nuclear free zone in Central Asia in April 1997, at the first session of the U.N. Nonproliferation Treaty preparatory committee meeting in New York. "This is the next step," said Tariq Rauf, Director of International Organizations and Nonproliferation Project at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey California. Rauf is a Canadian who formerly worked at the Canadian Center for Global Security in Ottawa.

The Monterey Institute of International Studies has been working with the former Soviet bloc countries on issues related to dismantling, storing, and accounting for nuclear materials. They co-organized and co-sponsored this conference, which is unique in "bringing together experts and representatives from all the existing nuclear free zones to share their experiences," according to Emily Ewell of the Monterey Institute.

End of Cold War Opens Way

The 52nd session of the United Nations General Assembly adopted the resolution "A Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in Central Asia" on December 9, 1997, calling on all countries to support this effort, and appealing to the UN Secretary General to assist in formatting a treaty.

According to Vladimir Petrovsky, Under Secretary General of the U.N. and Secretary General of the Conference on Disarmament, who addressed the conference, there are advantages for nuclear free zone treaties which are not possible in a global treaty: flexibility, speed of agreement and ease of implementation.

Antarctica was the first zone to be kept free of both nuclear weapons and waste by a U.N. treaty. Enrique Roman-Morey, Secretary General of the Organization for the Prevention of Atomic Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean, described how the Cuban missile crisis galvanized people in Latin American to make Latin America nuclear free. In 1963 the Tlatelolco Treaty was signed, but only in the 1990s did Cuba, Brazil, Argentina and Chile join, giving it full credibility.

The Cold War prevented other such initiatives from becoming law, and it was only in 1985 after the sinking of the Greenpeace protest ship Rainbow Warrior and the thawing of the Cold War that the Raratonga Treaty gave the necessary impetus to the major South Pacific island nations. The third regional treaty, which was signed in Bangkok in 1995, now includes nine of the 10 ASEAN countries, with only the Philippines yet to join.

African countries were among the first to aim at creating a nuclear-free continent, spurred on by French tests in the Sahara. A U.N. declaration in 1964 was not acted on, due to South African apartheid and the Cold War, and it was only in 1996 that the Cairo Treaty was signed by 45 of the 54 states in the Organization of African Unity.

Growing Movement for More Zones

With the dismantling of nuclear weapons in Ukraine and Belarus, the campaign to make Central Europe a nuclear free zone has gained momentum, supported by Russia. The vision there is to make a nuclear free zone from the Baltic to the Black Seas. There are campaigns to make a nuclear-free southern hemisphere, for a nuclear, chemical and biological weapons-free zone in the Middle East, and a nuclear-free Northeast Asia, the latter to include the eastern coast of Russia, Japan, Alaska and eventually Canada.

A conference "A Limited Nuclear Weapons Free Zone for Northeast Asia" is being held in Moscow in October. At the Tashkent conference, the First Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, Igor Ivanov, complimented President Karimov on his initiative, seeing it as proof of Uzbekistan's policy of promoting nonproliferation and stability in Central Asia that would contribute to the "greater cohesion of the Commonwealth of Independent States."

This initiative has the green light so far from the major nuclear powers, including the USA, China, Britain, and France, all of which sent official representatives to Uzbekistan for the conference. Ironically, the U.S. Ambassador to Uzbekistan was unable to attend as he was observing the Central Asian Battalion war games involving US, Russian, Central Asian, and Turkish troops, taking place about 100 miles away, just across the border in Kazakhstan.

Major Spin-offs

The speed with which this movement to create a nuclear-free zone has moved along suggests that the spin-offs - improved regional stability and ecological cooperation - are more important than the direct effects of the proposed nuclear-free zone. There is much rivalry between the Central Asian governments, which Rauf hopes this initiative will help to overcome: "I'm not worried so much about these states acquiring nuclear weapons as concerned about making sure there is a complete inventory of nuclear materials, monitoring them so they aren't stolen, and providing controls and standards through the AIAE. These spin-offs are really more important.... They need to sit down now and work together to develop a draft treaty."

At the conference, Kyrgyzstan proposed to host a meeting in Bishkek soon where experts on nuclear-free zone treaties, the top nuclear powers, and the Five Central Asian states will do just that. The civil war in Tajikistan and the continuing civil war in neighboring Afghanistan, on the one hand, and the ecological tragedies of the legacy of Soviet nuclear program and of the Aral Sea, on the other, are spurring the Central Asian countries to overcome their rivalries, both economic and political. The relatively uncontentious idea of a nuclear-free zone is the obvious beneficiary.

Petrovsky was delighted with the conference and hopes to see an agreement in time for the review of the Nonproliferation Treaty in the year 2000, although he warned: "There's a Russian saying that the trouble with the first step is it's too easy. They have much work to do but I am optimistic."

Indeed, already this effort to create the fifth nuclear weapons free zone has already resonated elsewhere. Azerbaijan has called for a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in Transcaucasia.

New Role for Canada

Rauf sees this latest disarmament proposal as an excellent opportunity for Canada to make up for lost ground: "Canada has lost a lot of ground economically in Central Asia since these countries became independent, and this is an excellent window of opportunity for us to do something about this. "Canada has concentrated so far on the European part of the former Soviet Union, since Canada and Russia are the stewards of the Arctic. Central Asia hasn't really registered on our radar screens in Ottawa, though this area is rich economically.

"These countries need help with the Soviet legacy of nuclear waste and unsafe reactors. Atomic Energy of Canada and Ontario Hydro could provide much needed expertise. One of the issues involved here is the porous borders between these countries, Russia, and China, which facilitate smuggling of drugs and nuclear materials. There are lots of things we could do to support the present initiative: provide civilian telecommunications support, engineering, even border patrol vehicles, in conjunction with E.U. countries. It seems that External Affairs may be ready at last to turn its attention to this part of the world. We can do what we've already done for Ukraine and Russia."

Rauf sees a need for a diplomatic presence here, considering the strong presence of the U.S. and Europe. While Canada has a modest embassy in Kazakhstan, Canadian affairs for the other Central Asian republics are still run out of Moscow, which is "politically awkward," according to Rauf.

Walberg is a Canadian editor working in Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan.

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1998

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1998, page 26. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Eric Walberg here

Peace Magazine homepage