A Nuclear-Free Arctic: Why Now?

Climate change has created a “new” Arctic

There is a renewed international recognition of nuclear-weapon-free zones (NWFZs) as an element of non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament. The Arctic could be added to the existing seven nuclear-weapon-free zones, covering 116 countries. The 2010 Review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) includes an agreement to move forward on long-awaited discussions for a Middle East nuclear-weapon-free zone; that concept is better known than the proposed Arctic NWFZ. Both were included in NPT documents from 2010.

Climate change has created a “new” Arctic. With access blocked by ice and snow for much of the year, economic activity has been limited. Now, environmental protection is ever more important in the face of opening of new sea lanes for transportation, new resource exploration on sea and land, and exploitation of fisheries. Aboriginal communities must make continuous adjustments for survival, as they handle changes in their resources, which they derive from the fauna and flora of land and sea. Although it has diminished, obsolete Cold-War-type military activity still exists, with regularly scheduled military exercises and nuclear-armed submarines patrolling under the ice. An opportunity exists to recognize that there must be a natural evolution to a nuclear-free Arctic, but we must implore the international community to begin to act now1 while the window is open.

The UN’s Principles

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s Five-Point Proposal2 on Nuclear Disarmament, first enunciated in October, 2008, is a key point of reference for those involved in arms control and disarmament. In the first point, he endorses a “convention.” This is taken to mean a Nuclear Weapons Convention, the focus of many disarmament experts, including Douglas Roche. Ban’s third point expresses the need to establish and honor legal obligations and specifically addresses regional nuclear-weapon-free zones.

1 Pursue negotiations in good faith—as required by the NPT—on nuclear disarmament, either through a new convention or through a series of mutually reinforcing instruments backed by a credible system of verification.

3 Ensure that disarmament is rooted in legal obligations through universal membership in multilateral treaties, regional nuclear-weapon-free zones, a new treaty on fissile materials, and ratification and entry into force of the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty.

The Secretary General’s reference to legal obligations and universal membership can be fulfilled either by a legal ban under a Nuclear Weapons Convention or the equivalent legal ban within a framework of mutually reinforcing instruments. According to IAEA Director General Amano,3 regional nuclear-weapon-free zones have been an effective means of non-proliferation, arms control, and disarmament. The NWFZ principles, set by the UN General Assembly, 1975, are:

These principles make it clear that an Arctic NWFZ, or any other NWFZ, is, by its nature, an enforceable legal ban-a regional Nuclear Weapons Convention.

In the fall of each year, the United Nations First Committee meets for discussion and progress on matters of disarmament. The 2010 meetings noted the momentum gathering for establishment of NWFZs, and in 2011 the Danish government4 became the first government to support a zone in the Arctic, noting that it could become an integral element of a comprehensive multilateral strategy to implement global nuclear disarmament.

Arctic populations in circumpolar countries differ greatly. The reasons have to do with climate differences. There are differences in climate and population density (Russia’s north is relatively well-populated whereas Canada’s is sparse, with the most severe climate of the circumpolar nations, and with limited development).

Strategies of adaptation to climate change must be jointly developed by Arctic peoples and their governments. Sustainability and environmental protection should be paramount. As the Arctic opens to new commerce, an increased military presence will be evident. The Canadian government stance5 is that militarization is not the goal; the implication of increased activity in the Arctic depends on logistics support from the Canadian Forces. Amongst the circumpolar nations, all have declared that militarization is not their plan or policy, but all are adding new ice-capable naval and coastguard vessels to their fleets. The current risk of conflict is low, but the global future is likely to be turbulent and conflict cannot be ruled out. Therefore, in the present international “calm” in the Arctic, now is the time to begin to negotiate a nuclear-free Arctic.

Multilateral possibiilities

The Arctic Council, formed in 1996 and led by Canadian efforts, has a mandate that covers sustainability, economics and environmental protection. The United States agreed to join only on the condition that security matters were not included. In addition to the circumpolar nations, the indigenous peoples are permanent participants, and the observer group, standing at eight countries now, is likely to enlarge to cover those countries who intend to have economic interests in the Arctic. The Arctic Council is not likely to be a leading champion for the Arctic NWFZ because security is not its mandate. However, the nations with Arctic coastlines have demonstrated capability to enter into multilateral treaties. The Search and Rescue Agreement, May 2011, involves eight countries, search and rescue areas, and coordinated multilateral management. There is great value in having the Arctic NWFZ concept accepted now, as agreements on regulations, logistics, scientific research, regulations on shipping and fisheries will be made, to cite just a few. It is vital that regional, national, pan-Arctic, multilateral, international agreements do not contain a structure that inhibits the formation of an Arctic NWFZ.

There are huge challenges to overcome; it is worth noting that virtually all now-existing NWFZs were said to be impossible, and yet persistence over a period of many years in each case resulted in an international treaty, ratified in the zone countries. Many of these zones are now supported by legislatively approved protocols that include negative assurances from the nuclear weapon states (NWS), and other NWS protocols are progressing toward ratifications.

Two Arctic states, the Russian Federation and the United States, are the world’s major nuclear powers, but they have recently agreed to significant reductions under the New START treaty and continue considering further mutually acceptable NW reductions. Of the non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS), four out of six are members of NATO, a nuclear alliance. However, each NWFZ treaty is individually fitted to the participating states, and Australia, part of the Rarotonga Treaty, remains in a nuclear alliance with the United States. The Central Asia state signatories of the Semipalatinsk Treaty retain some obligations to Russia. A major obstacle is the nuclear-armed submarines that have patrolled under the Arctic ice since the Cold War. However, the number of patrols is diminishing; US and Russian attack submarines no longer carry nuclear weapons, per a 1991 agreement. The large SSBN class submarines rely on stealth; but with diminishing ice-cover, and with serious problems of ingress and egress, their usefulness is declining.6 Nevertheless, diminishing ice is not the only factor that could drive submarines out of the Arctic. Both the United States and Russia are in the process of strengthening their naval presence in Northeast Asia, in view of the growing power of China. Its SSBN fleet will rival the size of Russia’s fleet by 2020.

Russian naval bases in the Kola Peninsula are a serious obstacle, but it is a possibility that, in the early stages of integrating Russia into a nuclear-free Arctic, one might allow this to continue, allowing “right of innocent transit” but not patrolling. The freedom of the seas is a recognized international principle, so the very large central part of the Arctic Ocean could only be a NWFZ if all maritime nations subscribed to an agreement committing them to such a measure.7 The territorial waters and exclusive economic zones under sovereign jurisdiction, as agreed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), would come under the jurisdiction of the individual states of the Arctic NWFZ.

How to get there

What would be a probable path to an Arctic Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone? It is generally agreed that the NNWS could act together to establish a NWFZ, and that this is the most probable pathway. This would likely include lands north of the Arctic Circle, surface and/or sub-surface territorial waters, and possibly air space (or air space could be added later). The UN First Committee, with leadership from one of the NNWS, probably Denmark, but not likely to be Canada in the near future, could gather support. Then a resolution could be submitted to the UN General Assembly. Approaching the United States and Russia would only be productive when there has been full commitment by the NNWS. The US and Russia, under regional and global pressure, might accept a nuclear weapon free zone for their sovereign territory north of the Arctic Circle. While envisioning this presently seems a very big stretch, historical precedent is that, by leaving the door open for further participants, the zonal nations involved in other NWFZ treaties have seen such international pressure result in joining of formerly reluctant states.

There is a broad spectrum of supporters8 for an Arctic NWFZ, including leaders in civil society and the PNND (Parliamentarians for Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Disarmament), the Nordic Council and others. The new policy of the Danish government is very important. Several members of the Canadian parliament are supporters, with the result that there have been motions (both voted unanimous approval) in the Senate (June, 2010) in support of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s five point proposal, and in the House of Commons (December, 2010); this proposal endorses NWFZs. In addition there has been a private member’s bill on a Canadian nuclear-free Arctic and an approved resolution on the Arctic NWFZ, both of which died when a new election was called. The main thrust of these motions is to call on the Government of Canada to “engage in negotiations for a nuclear weapons convention.” The Nuclear Weapons Convention is the main thrust of interactions with the government, backed by Canadians for a Nuclear Weapons Convention, composed of over 570 members of the Order of Canada. Outside of Canada, senior statesmen and organizations like the Nuclear Abolition Forum also are pressing for an international, universal, legal ban of nuclear weapons, supported by credible verification. An Arctic NWFZ could be one of the routes leading to the NWC. Through the negotiations of the Arctic NWFZ, co-operative security mechanisms will be built that facilitate a global nuclear-weapon free regime. Potentially, new means of governance will be employed.

The goal of the Arctic NWFZ campaign9 is to bring the proposal to the forefront of the policy considerations in the Arctic NNWS governments, until these governments are committed to going forward, and continuing during the process as needed. Civil society groups, educators, indigenous groups, and individuals will assist in moving this multi-year process forward by visiting and writing to their MPs.

Adele Buckley is a physicist, aerospace engineer and environmental scientist, now retired. She is past chair of Canadian Pugwash and a member of the international Pugwash Council.


1 Hansard, June 2, 2010, Motion to Recognize the Danger Posed by the Proliferation of Nuclear Material and Technology to Peace and Security—Adopted, and the ensuing discussion by Senator Romeo Dallaire.

2 SG/SM/11881 DC/3135, United Nations Dept. of Public Information. http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2008/sgsm11881.doc.htm

3 IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano, “Forum on Experience of Possible Relevance to a Creation of a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in Middle East” Nov 21, 2011

4 H.E. Truelsen, U.N. Undersecretary for Disarmament; In a personal discussion at the Danish Mission in New York, Amb. Truelsen said that the Danish government would initiate informal discussions with its Nordic neighbors on Arctic NWFZ.

5 As outlined by Brigadier-General John Collin, Nov. 9, 2010 at a forum “True North Strong and Free: Canada’s Role in the Arctic”, Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) Waterloo, Canada.

6 Michael D. Wallace, “Submarines: not really an obstacle to an ANWFZ”, Canadian Pugwash Group AGM and Seminar, November, 2011, Toronto http://pugwashgroup.ca/events/documents/2010

7 Jan Prawitz, “The Arctic: top of the world to be nuclear-weapon-free” UNIDIR Disarmament Forum, two, 2011

8 Adele Buckley “Arctic Nuclear Weapon Free Zone”, Working Group 1, 59th Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, Berlin, July, 2011

9 The Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation supports this campaign.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2012

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2012, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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