Central Asian States Achieve Breakthrough on Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone Treaty

Scott Parrish
September 8, 2006


The five Central Asian states: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

In a major step strengthening the global nuclear nonproliferation regime, diplomats from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have agreed on the text of a treaty establishing a Central Asian nuclear weapon-free zone (CANWFZ). The agreement, announced in Samarkand, Uzbekistan on 27 September 2002, concludes five years of talks that began in 1997. It clears the way for the creation of the world’s fifth nuclear weapon-free zone (NWFZ), alongside those in Latin America and the Caribbean, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, and Africa. The Central Asian states intend to sign the treaty as soon as possible, most likely at the former Soviet nuclear weapons test site at Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, during a visit to the region by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in mid-October.

The establishment of the CANWFZ is particularly significant because thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons were once based in Central Asia. The new zone also borders on regions of proliferation concern, such as the Middle East and South Asia. Further enhancing its importance, the CANWFZ will border on two nuclear weapon states, Russia and China, and it will be the first nuclear weapon-free zone located entirely in the northern hemisphere. The terms of the treaty itself buttress the nonproliferation regime as they oblige the Central Asian states to accept enhanced International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards on their nuclear material, and require them to meet international recommendations regarding security of nuclear facilities. Considering current concerns that Central Asia could become a source or transit corridor for terrorist smuggling of nuclear materials, these terms of the CANWFZ should be viewed as a positive step in the ongoing international struggle against terrorism. In a unique feature, the treaty also recognizes the environmental damage done to Central Asia by the Soviet nuclear weapons program and pledges to support environmental rehabilitation.

The Origins and Development of the CANWFZ Concept

The agreement to establish a CANWFZ reflects the widespread support in the international community for NWFZs. Since the first NWFZ proposal in 1956, four NWFZs have been established in populated areas of the world, and NWFZs now cover the entire inhabited area of the southern hemisphere, while additional treaties ban nuclear weapons from outer space and the seabed.[1] NWFZs can be seen as both nonproliferation and disarmament measures. On the one hand, NWFZs aim to prevent the emergence of new nuclear weapon states by addressing regional security concerns. On the other hand, the slow expansion of NWFZs across the globe can also be seen as a step toward the ultimate abolition of nuclear weapons.

The idea of a CANWFZ traces its roots back to the 1992 initiative by Mongolia declaring itself a NWFZ, in which Mongolia also called for a regional NWFZ.[2] The first formal CANWFZ proposal was made by Uzbekistani President Islam Karimov at the 48th session of the UN General Assembly in 1993. Additional proposals by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia followed in 1994-1996, but none made any headway owing to a lack of regional consensus on the issue.

The crucial step in the process of moving the CANWFZ from an abstract proposal to a concrete policy initiative was taken on 27 February 27, 1997, when the five presidents of the Central Asian states issued the Almaty declaration endorsing the creation of a CANWFZ.[3] The declaration specifically placed the establishment of the CANWFZ in the context of the environmental challenges faced by all five Central Asian states. Each of these states housed parts of the former Soviet nuclear infrastructure, and they now confront common problems of environmental damage resulting from the production and testing of Soviet nuclear weapons.[4]

In the wake of the Almaty declaration, international support for the CANWFZ grew rapidly. At the 52nd session of the UN General Assembly, held in fall 1997, the five Central Asian states jointly submitted a draft resolution endorsing the CANWFZ initiative. Central Asian diplomats were initially uncertain how the nuclear powers would react to this draft resolution, especially since the proposed CANWFZ would border on Russia and China. The United States, Russia, China, France, and Great Britain, however, endorsed the resolution after the Central Asian states agreed to accept several amendments to its original text. The amended resolution was then adopted by consensus on 10 November 1997 by the First Main Committee of the General Assembly, and later endorsed by the full General Assembly on 9 December 1997.[5] A similar resolution endorsing the CANWFZ concept was adopted by the 55th session of UN General Assembly in fall 2000.[6]

Following this endorsement by the international community, the Central Asian states, with the assistance of the UN, the IAEA, and financial support from Japan, made rapid progress toward establishing a CANWFZ during 1998 and 1999. A working group of Central Asian diplomats began drafting a treaty establishing the zone. At a meeting in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in July 1998, Central Asian experts discussed the basic principles of the proposed CANWFZ with representatives of the nuclear weapon states.[7] At subsequent meetings of the expert group, held in New York, Geneva, Switzerland, and Sapporo, Japan, almost all of the text of the draft treaty was agreed. Nevertheless, several significant points of disagreement remained, halting progress by mid-2000. By early 2001, some analysts had concluded that these points of disagreement were serious enough to block the establishment of a CANWFZ.[8] There were few signs of progress until mid-2002.

The Stumbling Blocks and Their Resolution

The differences which threatened to block the treaty were fuelled by continuing regional rivalry among the five Central Asian states and different approaches to relations with Russia, the leading regional power. While Kazakhstan had retained fairly close ties to Russia, including on security issues, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan had taken a much more independent stance. The two principal stumbling blocks that emerged were (1) how the CANWFZ treaty would treat the possible transit of nuclear weapons through the CANWFZ; and (2) the relationship of the CANWFZ treaty to previous international agreements to which the Central Asian states are parties.

Both of these issues were apparently linked to Russian concerns about retaining future freedom of action in the Central Asian region, including the possibility of deploying nuclear weapons. In 1997 and 1998, these Russian concerns were muted, and Russian diplomats voiced support for the initiative to establish a CANWFZ.[9] This stance changed after April 1999, when the NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo prompted Russia to place enhanced emphasis on the role of nuclear weapons in its national security strategy.[10] It was at about this time that Kazakhstan stiffened its position in the negotiations on the two disputed issues.

With respect to transit, Kazakhstan argued that the treaty should allow each party to independently resolve issues related to transit of nuclear weapons through its territory by air, land, or water. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan sought to have more restrictive language placed in the treaty, with Turkmenistan taking an especially hard line on this issue.

The relationship of the CANWFZ to previous international agreements also divided the Central Asian states. Although not openly addressed, the 1992 Tashkent Collective Security Treaty, to which Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are signatories, motivated this dispute. Russia interprets the Tashkent Treaty as allowing the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons on the territory of the other signatories if they reach a joint decision that it is necessary.[11] As a result, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan proposed that the CANWFZ treaty explicitly state that its provisions do not affect previous bilateral and multilateral treaties and agreements. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which are not parties to the Tashkent Treaty, refused to accept this language. Aside from these two substantive disagreements, meetings of the expert group in 2000 were further hampered by the absence of Turkmenistani diplomats.

A number of factors combined by mid-2002 to make possible the resolution of these disagreements. First, the geopolitical balance in the region changed dramatically following the terrorist attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001. The United States became much more active in Central Asia, deploying military forces at bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in support of its ongoing operations in Afghanistan. Russia accepted this increased U.S. role in the region, and in turn the Central Asian states became less dependent on Russia and less subject to Russian pressure. Second, the new prominence of Central Asia as the “front line” in the struggle against terrorism transformed the CANWFZ concept from an abstract idea with only limited practical application to a much more practical mechanism that could help prevent the introduction of nuclear weapons into the region.

In addition to these geopolitical changes, a successful visit to the five Central Asian states in August 2002 by UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs Jayantha Dhanapala helped jump-start the negotiations. Dhanapala’s meetings with all the Central Asian foreign ministers and presidents of three of the Central Asian states gave a new impetus to efforts to find a compromise resolution to the disputed issues. Also helpful was the proposal to sign the CANWFZ treaty at the former Soviet nuclear test site in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan.

As a result of these factors, the five Central Asian states agreed at Samarkand on compromise wording of the articles in the CANWFZ treaty dealing with the previously disputed issues, clearing the way for its signature.

“I am pleased to announce to this Committee that Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have just agreed — at an expert group meeting in Samarkand — on the text of a treaty to establish a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Central Asia. They also agreed that the signing of the treaty should take place as soon as possible. This is a significant achievement not just for the Central Asian states but also for the United Nations, which has been assisting this effort since 1997, pursuant to Resolution 52/38 S. It is all the more significant given that this region once reportedly hosted over 700 tactical nuclear weapons — not to mention the over 1,400 former Soviet strategic nuclear weapons that Kazakhstan returned to Russia before joining the NPT in 1995.”

—Jayantha Dhanapala, UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs, September 30, 2002.

Implications and Prospects

The establishment of a CANWFZ is a very important step forward for the global nonproliferation regime. Although none of the five states in the region has nuclear weapons, the treaty will prevent the reintroduction of nuclear weapons into this region by either the formerly dominant regional nuclear power Russia, or by the United States, which now has air bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The CANWFZ will also serve as an island of non-nuclear stability to the north and east of the Middle East and South Asia. The treaty marks an important step forward for the region as it requires the adoption of enhanced IAEA safeguards by the five Central Asian states, obligates them to adopt international recommendations for the security of their nuclear facilities, and provides for regional cooperation in the remediation of environmental damage caused by the Soviet nuclear weapons program.

One question that remains uncertain, however, is the attitude of the nuclear weapon states toward the CANWFZ. NWFZ treaties contain a protocol that is open for signature by the nuclear weapon states, in which those states pledge to respect the NWFZ and refrain from the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons against the states that are part of the NWFZ. In principle, the nuclear weapon states support the creation of new NWFZs. However, in practice, the nuclear weapons states have refused to sign the protocol to NWFZ treaties to which they object for various reasons. Because its terms can be interpreted as interfering with freedom of the seas, for example, none of the nuclear weapon states have signed the protocol to the Treaty of Bangkok, which established the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone.

Russia has expressed reservations about the CANWFZ in the past, and may now exert pressure on the Central Asian states in an effort to either alter the terms of the treaty or block its signature. Such actions would be consistent with previous Russian efforts to prevent agreement on a CANWFZ treaty that would restrict the possibility of future Russian nuclear deployments.

The United States has not actively supported the CANWFZ in the past, saying it would wait to see the final treaty text. The United States is likely to be particularly concerned about the precedent that the CANWFZ treaty may set regarding issues of transit, negative security assurances, the relationship of the CANWFZ to other treaties, and the treaty’s possible extension to other states. Under these conditions, and given the attitude of the Bush administration toward multilateral arms control treaties, it is conceivable that the United States will withhold its support for the CANWFZ and may resist signing the protocol.

Among the other nuclear weapon states, the positions of Great Britain and France are likely to depend in large part on the position of the United States. China, which has openly supported the CANWFZ in the past, is the nuclear weapon state most likely to support the CANWFZ and sign the protocol.

By contrast, other members of the international community are already expressing support for the CANWFZ treaty. In a statement to the First Main Committee (Disarmament and International Security) of the UN General Assembly on 30 September 2002, the New Agenda Coalition, a group of states that includes Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, and Sweden, welcomed the conclusion of the treaty.[12] Many other states are likely to follow their example. In his statement to the same committee, UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs Jayantha Dhanapala also noted that the conclusion of the treaty was a major accomplishment not just for the Central Asian states, “but also for the United Nations, which has been assisting this effort since 1997.”[13]

Although the effectiveness of the CANWFZ will be reduced if the nuclear weapon states do not sign the protocol, many positive effects will still follow if the five states of the region sign and ratify it. Regardless of the position of the nuclear weapon states, the CANWFZ enhances the global nuclear nonproliferation regime. When signed and ratified, the CANWFZ will continue the trend toward establishing NWFZs in various parts of the world that has accelerated in the last decade. At a time when disarmament and nonproliferation achievements are few and far between, the Central Asian states, the United Nations, and other organizations that played a role in achieving the CANWFZ treaty have made a significant contribution to international peace and security.

[1] For a discussion of the development of the NWFZ concept and the negotiations that produced the existing NWFZ treaties, see Jozef Goldblat, “Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones: A History and Assessment,” Nonproliferation Review 4 (Spring-Summer 1997), pp. 18-31, “Existing NWFZs: History and Principles,” Paper Presented at the International Seminar Nuclear Weapon-Free Zones: Crucial Steps Towards a Nuclear-Free World, Uppsala, Sweden, September 1-4, 2000.
[2] For more information on the Mongolian initiative, see Tariq Rauf, “Mongolia’s International Security and Nuclear-Weapon-Free Status,” CANCAPS Bulletin/Bulletin de CONCSAP No. 27 (November 2000), www.iir.ubc.ca.
[3] “Text of Almaty Declaration on Aral Sea Pollution,” Narodnoye slovo (Tashkent), March 4, 1997, in FBIS Document FTS19970530002474.
[4] Largely because it does not share a common border with the former Soviet Central Asian states, Mongolia has not been included in the CANWFZ initiative, even though the Central Asian states generally support Mongolia’s nuclear weapon-free status, and they acknowledge that they have drawn inspiration from Mongolia’s example.
[5] “Establishment of a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in Central Asia,” United Nations General Assembly, 51st Session, Resolution 52/38 S, December 7, 1997.
[6] United Nations General Assembly, 55th Session, A/RES/55/33W, “Establishment of a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in Central Asia,” November 20, 2000.
[7] “Central Asian Foreign Ministers Meet on Nuclear-Free Zone,” Interfax, July 9, 1998, in FBIS Document FTS19980709000486.
[8] Scott Parrish, “Prospects for a Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone in Central Asia,” Nonproliferation Review 8 (Spring 2001), pp. 141-148.
[9] See for example, “Moscow Welcomes Karimov’s Initiative on Nuclear Weapons,” Interfax, September 16, 1997; in FBIS Document FTS19970916000227; “Central Asian Foreign Ministers Meet on Nuclear-Free Zone,” Interfax, July 9, 1998; in FBIS Document FTS19980709000486.
[10] For a discussion of this issue, see Nikolai Sokov, “Russia’s Nuclear Doctrine: The End of the Period of Transition?” paper presented at Presentation at a UN Symposium on Nuclear Doctrines, New York, October 18, 1999.
[11] CIS Collective Security Treaty, Rossiyskaya gazeta, May 23, 1992. Article 4 of the treaty states that signatories will render each other “all necessary assistance, including military assistance,” in response to aggression. It is this article that Russian officials have interpreted as allowing transit and deployment of nuclear weapons.
[12] “Statement to the First Committee on behalf of the New Agenda Coalition (Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, and Sweden),” delivered by Ambassador Mary Whelan, Permanent Representative of Ireland to the United Nations in Geneva, United Nations, New York, NY, September 30, 2002.
[13] “Statement to the First Committee of the General Assembly by UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs Jayantha Dhanapala,” United Nations, New York, NY, September 30, 2002.

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