NFWZ Clearinghouse

William Potter, Leonard Spector, Lawrence Scheinman, Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, Nikolai Sokov
April 28, 2010


Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zones (NWFZs) are recognized as important tools of international nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. In 2009, both the Central Asian NWFZ Treaty and the African NWFZ Treaty (Treaty of Pelindaba) entered into force. NWFZs now cover 116 countries including the entire territory of the southern hemisphere. The Central Asian NWFZ represents the first zone located entirely in the northern hemisphere. One of the principal security benefits that NWFZs aim to provide to their signatories is a so-called negative security assurance—a pledge from the five NPT nuclear-weapon states not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against members of the zones.

NWFZ are increasingly recognized as instruments for regional denuclearization and confidence building, as discussions about NWFZs for various regions, most prominently the Middle East and Northeast Asia/Korean Peninsula show. With this “NWFZ Clearinghouse,” the International Organizations and Nonproliferation Program (IONP) at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) provides an overview over the most important features of NWFZs and links to basic resources and documents.



Nuclear Weapon Free Zones Q&A

  1. What are the Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones?
  2. What is the history of NWFZs?
  3. What are common criteria of NWFZs?
  4. Where do NWFZs exist?
  5. How is compliance with a NWFZ verified?
  6. What is the relationship of NWFZs to the NPT regime?
  7. What is the role of nuclear-weapons-states in NWFZs?
  8. What happens in the case of noncompliance and conflict?
  9. Which new NWFZ are discussed?
  10. What are the lessons learned?
  11. What are the future challenges?

1. What are Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones?

A Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (NWFZ) is a regional arrangement that prohibits the development, manufacture, stockpiling, acquisition, possession, control, along with assistance in research on the development, manufacture, stockpiling or acquisition, or possession of any nuclear explosive device within the zone of application by any contracting party. Peaceful applications and uses of nuclear energy are usually allowed. NWFZs create geographical areas that are completely free of nuclear weapons and thereby constitute steps towards a nuclear-weapon-free world.

NWFZs not only enhance the security of zonal members by banning nuclear weapons from the region. They also receive legally binding security assurances from the five NPT nuclear-weapon states (NWS) (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and United States), who, by signing and ratifying the relevant protocols to the treaties, pledge to respect the status of NWFZs and not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against states parties to NWFZ treaties.

NWFZs contribute to confidence building among the countries of a region and to regional cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear technology. Furthermore, NWFZs can promote cooperation in environmental protection by prohibiting the dumping of radioactive waste in the oceans, and in the territory of the zone. Some NWFZ can also establish safety standards against the theft of nuclear materials.

The UN General Assembly established a definition of NWFZs in 1975. According to UN GA Resolution 3472 B (XXX), adopted on November 11, 1975:

“A nuclear-weapon-free zone shall, as a general rule, be deemed to be any zone, recognized as such by the United Nations General Assembly, which any groups of states, in the free exercise of their sovereignty, have established by virtue of a treaty or convention whereby:

a. The statute of a total absence of nuclear weapons to which the zone shall be subject, including the procedure for the delimitation of the zone is defined;

b. An international system of verification and control is established to guarantee compliance with obligations derived from that statute.”

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2. What is the history of NWFZs?

The concept of NWFZ originated during the Cold War. The Soviet Union first introduced the idea of a NWFZ in Central Europe at the United Nations General Assembly in 1956. In 1958, the Polish government proposed a NWFZ covering Poland, Czechoslovakia, and both German states. Due to the Cold War deadlock, neither the Soviet suggestion, nor the “Rapacki plan” (named after the then-Polish foreign minister, Adam Rapacki) were realized.

The 1950s and 1960s saw new initiatives for a NWFZ in Europe. Sweden, Finland, and Romania were among those who tabled proposals. These initiatives often stemmed from the desire to maintain a certain degree of sovereignty and independence from the Cold War super powers. However, none of these proposals were successful.

The first successful initiative to establish a NWFZ originated in Latin America. In 1958, Costa Rica suggested a regional arms control agreement, including a ban on nuclear weapons. The main catalyst to push forward this initiative was the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. It generated strong support for a NWFZ in the region and after years of negotiations, the “Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean” (Treaty of Tlatelolco) was opened for signature in 1967. It entered into force in 1969, and became universal in its zone of application in 2002 with the accession of Cuba.

In Africa, French nuclear tests and concerns about a South African nuclear weapons program had sparked the discussion of a continental NWFZ. In 1964, the first meeting of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) called for the establishment of a NWFZ. It was not until 1991, when South Africa dismantled its nuclear weapons and acceded to the NPT that the initiative gained momentum. In 1996, the “African Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone Treaty” (Treaty of Pelindaba) was opened for signature. It entered into force in 2009.

Southeast Asia already had a certain degree of regional cooperation from which the idea of a NWFZ emerged. The 1971 ASEAN Declaration on a Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) endorsed the goal of a NWFZ. It was not until the withdrawal of American military forces and nuclear weapons from the Philippines in 1992 that a treaty could be drafted and opened for signature in 1995. It entered into force in 1997.

Nuclear testing was also the catalyst for a NWFZ in the South Pacific. In 1975, the South Pacific Forum endorsed a proposal by New Zealand to establish a NWFZ in the region. The treaty was opened for signature in 1985 and entered into force in 1986, establishing a zone that extends horizontally from the west coast of Australia to the boundary of the Latin American NWFZ in the east.

The Central Asian NWFZ is the first zone that is entirely located within the northern hemisphere. Suggestions to establish this zone were tabled in 1993 by Uzbekistan and in 1994 and 1995 by Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Due to regional rivalries and differing views on relations towards Russia, no consensus could be reached until 2002. The Treaty of Semipalantinsk was opened for signature in 2006 and entered into force in 2009.

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3. What are common criteria of NWFZs?

The common characteristics of NWFZs were elaborated in a 1999 UN Disarmament Commission report on the objectives, purposes, principles, and guidelines for establishing NWFZs. According to this document, NWFZs:

  • contribute to the international nonproliferation regime, world peace and security;
  • are based on arrangements freely arrived at among the states of the region;
  • originate from the region itself;
  • should be supported by the international community;
  • should include all the states of the region concerned in the negotiations on the establishment of such a zone;
  • should be respected by all states parties to the treaty as well as by states outside the region, including the nuclear-weapon-states;
  • should involve the nuclear-weapons-states (NWS) in the negotiations of the treaty and protocols to facilitate their support;
  • should involve states with territory or that are internationally responsible for territories within the zone in the negotiations of the treaties and protocols;
  • should take into account all the relevant characteristics of the region;
  • should reaffirm the commitment of the states to such zones to respect relevant international treaties;
  • are legally binding;
  • should be consistent with international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea;
  • should provide for states parties to freely decide whether to allow foreign ships and aircraft to visit their ports and airfield, and transit their airspace and
  • their territorial waters;
  • should be implemented by the states parties in accordance with their individual constitutional requirements;
  • should prohibit the development, manufacturing, control, possession, testing, stationing, or transporting by states parties of any type of nuclear explosive device. They should also prohibit the stationing of any nuclear explosive devices within the zone;
  • should have an effective means to verify compliance with the treaty obligations through IAEA comprehensive safeguards agreement;
  • should clearly demarcate the zone in full consultations with prospective states parties to the treaty and other states concerned;
  • should be supported by the NWS who commit not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against the states party; and
  • should not prevent the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

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4. Where do NWFZs exist?

NWFZ treaties now cover the entire southern hemisphere and are in force in South America and the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, Africa, and Central Asia. Mongolia declared its territory to be an NWFZ in 1992. All NWFZ treaties allow, at the sovereign discretion of each member state, for overflight and transit of nuclear armed vessels through international waters. The provisions of the Treaty of Bangkok also cover the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) and continental shelves. It is disputed whether this is in accordance to the UN Law of the Sea Convention.

NWFZs have also been established for uninhabited areas, such as Antarctica, the seabed, the Moon and other celestial bodies, and outer space.

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5. How is compliance with a NWFZ verified?

According to the 1999 UN Disarmament Commission report, NWFZs should have an effective means to verify compliance with the treaty obligations through IAEA comprehensive safeguards agreement. All existing zones include provisions on full-scope safeguards. However, cases of clandestine nuclear weapons programs in Iraq or Libya have shown the shortcomings of the IAEA full-scope safeguards system. The Central Asian NWFZ therefore sets an important precedent by also requiring its members to conclude the IAEA Additional Protocol.

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6. What is the relationship of NWFZs to the NPT regime?

While the NPT takes a global approach to nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, NWFZs complement this approach on a regional basis. They further strengthen the nonproliferation and disarmament norm, and reduce the geographic area in which nuclear weapons can be stationed or used. The NPT recognizes this role of NWFZs. Article VII of the NPT states that “nothing in this Treaty affects the right of any group of States to conclude regional treaties in order to assure the total absence of nuclear weapons in their respective territories.”

While the NPT prohibits the transfer of nuclear weapons from NWS to NNWS, there is a dispute whether the stationing of nuclear weapons in NNWS by NWS is legal. In NWFZs, this would be a clear breach of the treaty.

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7. What is the role of nuclear-weapons-states in NWFZs?

NWFZs prohibit the use of nuclear weapons by NWS against any state of the zone. For this purpose, the existing treaties include protocols which obligate the nuclear-weapon states (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and United States) to give negative security assurances (NSGs) to states in the NWFZ. There has been no attempt to include the non-NPT nuclear-weapon states, such as Israel, India or Pakistan, in NWFZ protocols.

Even though the five NWS have repeatedly stated that they would not attack NNWS with nuclear weapons, the Treaty of Tlatelolco is the only NWFZ whose NSA protocol is signed and ratified by all five NWS. The United States is particularly reluctant when it comes to granting NSAs to NWFZ members and Washington has only ratified the protocol to the Tlatelolco Treaty. In 1995, the U.S. government published its own criteria for the establishment of a NWFZ, highlighting the right of states parties to grant or deny the passage of nuclear-capable ships and aircraft of non-party nations, and the validity of rights recognized under international law such as the freedom of navigation and overflight, the right of innocent passage, and the right of archipelagic sea lanes passage.

France, Russia, and the United Kingdom generally accept the UN principles for establishment of NWFZs. They make their decisions to support individual NWFZs on a case-by-case basis. China is the only NWS that has explicitly rejected the first use of nuclear weapons and has pledged not to use nuclear weapons against any NNWS and/or member of a NWFZ.

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8. What happens in the case of noncompliance and conflict?

The existing NWFZ have different provisions concerning noncompliance and conflict resolution. The Treaty of Tlatelolco establishes the inter-governmental Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (OPANAL) to ensure compliance. Its supreme organ, the General Conference, would take note of all cases in which any state party is not in full compliance with its treaty obligations. It would draw the matter to the attention of the concerned party and make any recommendations it deems appropriate. It might also report the case to the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly, the Organization of American States, or the IAEA.

The Treaty of Rarotonga establishes a Consultative Committee that would pursue a terraced approach to meet complaints about noncompliance. This approach includes special inspections and, if necessary, a meeting of the South Pacific Forum on this issue. Similar provisions can be found in the treaties of Bangkok and Pelindaba. In both cases, the issue can be referred to the UN Security Council. The Treaty of Pelindaba establishes the African Commission on Nuclear Energy (AFCONE), which, in addition to ensuring treaty compliance, promotes regional cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The CANWFZ does not establish an organization to oversee compliance, but it provides for an annual gathering of states parties to discuss this issue.

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9. Which new NWFZ are discussed?

Apart from the existing NWFZ treaties, several new zones have been suggested. In 1975, one year after the 1974 Indian nuclear test, Pakistan proposed the establishment of a NWFZ in South Asia through a UN General Assembly Resolution. This initiative was discussed again in the Final Document of the 2000 NPT Review Conference. Possible members of such a zone would be Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Its establishment, however, has been opposed by India and Bhutan. India is especially skeptical of a NWFZ that would not include China.

In 1974, Iran and Egypt proposed the establishment of a Middle Eastern NWFZ. The UN General Assembly has adopted several resolutions supporting this idea. A 1991 UN expert study laid out the steps and necessary provisions that would facilitate the implementation of such a zone. In the same year, with the end of the Gulf War, the UN Security Council endorsed the establishment of a NWFZ in its Resolution 687. The 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference adopted a resolution on the establishment of a nuclear- and WMD-free zone in the Middle East, and the objective was further endorsed at the 2000 Review Conference.

The Middle East Arms Control and Regional Stability (ACRS) talks of the Madrid peace process from 1991-1995 were the first multilateral talks to address regional security. However, they did not lead to tangible results due to major disagreements. While Egypt and other Arab nations insisted on Israel’s accession to the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state, Israel maintained that there had to be a comprehensive peace between Israel and its neighbors before Israeli disarmament.

It has also been proposed to declare the entire Southern Hemisphere a NWFZ. The United States, United Kingdom, and France have repeatedly voted against such resolutions in the UN General Assembly. According to these nuclear-weapon states, such a zone would contradict the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and curtail the freedom of navigation and innocent passage.

There have been suggestions to establish a NWFZ in Northeast Asia. In 1992, North and South Korea signed a Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. However, the idea suffered serious set-backs, including the North Korean nuclear crises of 1993 and 2002, and finally the North Korean nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. Even if North Korea would dismantle its nuclear weapons, there are several questions that would have to be resolved before such a zone could be established.

As noted in the history section, there were a number of early proposals for the creation of NWFZs covering various parts of Europe. In 1990, Belarus submitted a proposal on the creation of a Central and Eastern European NWFZ stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. The idea gained little support from other states, and the eastward expansion of NATO and the EU rendered the proposal more or less impossible.

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10. What are the lessons learned?

Some of the lessons learned that have been identified in this section will not be applicable for all regions of the world due to several issues, including political and security matters. However, they serve as guidelines for those countries that are ready to make a positive contribution to the NWFZ norm.

1. Si vis pacem, para pacem – If you want peace, prepare for peace

Nearly all NWFZs proposals spent significant time on the political back burner before they were considered executable. While several strategic security hurdles must be considered in the road to establishing a NWFZ, they should not inhibit the development and promotion of the concept. States proposing new NWFZs should continue their efforts even if their initial proposal fails due to a lack of political will. The world can only take advantage of a favorable political and security climate or watershed event if the groundwork has been laid by committed and patient states, organizations and individuals.

2. Utilize Regional Organizations

Identifying and utilizing existing regional organizations are vital components to the successful promotion of a new NWFZ. Even though such organizations often consider topics apart from nuclear weapons issues, they provide an avenue towards formalizing proposals and accruing political momentum.

If the appropriate regional organization or formal mechanism cannot be established, a core group of committed States can work together to create the critical mass needed to galvanize political will.

3. Galvanize Support

In cases where the appropriate regional organization cannot be identified, a core group of committed states must declare their goals and coordinate their efforts to promote the creation of a NWFZ. In coordinating their actions, this core group may call for an international conference, inviting other states in the region to discuss the establishment of the zone. Such coordinated efforts of this core group are essential to influence others and gather more proponents of the zone.

4. Employ Political Pressure and Isolation

In the past, the isolation of non-members of NWFZs has paved the way for the ultimate establishment of NWFZs. A number of states committed to the establishment of a NWFZ in their region could coordinate efforts to employ political pressure and isolating tactics against countries that represent the main obstacles for the establishment of such zones.

5. Use Creativity with Treaty Texts

Creativity in crafting treaty text can help circumvent issues and technicalities without requiring the renegotiation of the entire treaty text, or violation of pre-existing legal arrangements. These creative approaches contrast with another approach often used in treaty negotiations—ambiguity. In areas of disagreement, states can be tempted to seek agreement through language that is vague and open for differing interpretations by parties with diverse political and strategic interests. Indeed, any negotiation will attempt to balance the most desired outcome with what is deemed feasible or acceptable.

6. Bargain with Prestige

The offer of prestige is among the tools available for encouraging reluctant states to agree to a future NWFZ treaty. There are many ways in which a country could gain prestige when joining a NWFZ, including naming the treaty after a country’s city or hosting the signing ceremony of the treaty.

Some of the lessons learned that have been identified in this section will not be applicable in the future for all regions of the world due to several issues, including political and security matters. However, they serve as guidelines for those countries that are ready to make a positive contribution to the NWFZ norm.

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11. What are the future challenges?

All newly proposed zones would be in areas where nuclear weapons exist. It is therefore important to strengthen the disarmament aspect of NWFZs. The African and Central Asian zones set important precedents. Because of the former existence of nuclear weapons within their territory, they are strongly committed to disarmament. The Pelindaba Treaty requires state parties to dismantle and destroy any nuclear explosive device manufactured prior to the treaty coming into force. States are also required to destroy or convert facilities for the manufacture of nuclear explosive devices.

Another challenge is the rise of international terrorism and the danger of black market nuclear proliferation. The safety and security of nuclear facilities should therefore be an aspect of new NWFZs. Again, the Pelindaba Treaty sets an example by requiring its member states to apply “measures of physical protection equivalent to those provided for in the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and in recommendations and guidelines developed by IAEA” (Article 11).

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