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Central Asian States Renounce Nuclear Weapons

Sonia Luthra

Five former Soviet Central Asian states agreed Sept. 8 to forswear nuclear weapons within their territories permanently. However, breaking from typical practice, the treaty lacks the endorsement of three of the five official nuclear-weapon states. France, the United Kingdom, and the United States have refused to lend their support, citing concerns that Russia might be able to deploy nuclear weapons in the zone.

In a Sept. 8 statement, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan hailed the event as a disarmament achievement but urged the Central Asian states to “engage with the nuclear-weapon states with a view to bridging the differences and ensuring the treaty’s effective implementation.” The treaty will enter into force after each of the Central Asian states ratifies it.

The Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (CANWFZ) will encompass Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. It will join four other such treaties that encompass Latin America, parts of Africa, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific. These pacts make it illegal for member states to manufacture, acquire, test, or possess nuclear weapons. Protocols to the treaty restrict the transport or use of nuclear weapons within the zone.

The treaty breaks new ground, however, in that each of the Central Asian states has also agreed to adhere to an additional protocol to their International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards agreements. Based on the 1997 Model Additional Protocol, such agreements give the agency greater ability to verify that non-nuclear-weapon states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) only use nuclear materials and facilities for peaceful purposes.

In another new step, the CANWFZ also requires member-states to meet international standards for the physical protection of nuclear materials.

The Central Asian states have been seeking to construct the nuclear-weapon-free zone, the first in the Northern Hemisphere, for nearly 10 years. Talks began soon after Kazakhstan renounced nuclear weapons. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, newly independent Kazakhstan inherited more than 1,400 nuclear warheads, a larger arsenal than any of the NPT nuclear-weapon states except for Russia and the United States. In 1992, Kazakhstan voluntarily agreed to transfer these warheads to Russia and acceded to the NPT two years later. Another impetus for the CANWFZ was the health and environmental damage caused by nuclear test explosions in Kazakhstan during the Soviet era. None of the other Central Asian states has possessed nuclear weapons.

The Central Asian states agreed on a draft text of the treaty in September 2002 and a revised version in February 2005. But they held off on signing the pact in an attempt to gain support for relevant protocols from all of the NPT nuclear-weapon states. The most important of these are so-called negative security assurances. In an effort to buttress the nuclear-weapon-free zones, the nuclear-weapon states have often agreed that they will not use or threaten to use nuclear arms against states in the zones.

However, the five nuclear-weapon states have been inconsistent in their support for the Central Asian zone. China supported the zone from the beginning of negotiations. But France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States have wavered in their support as they tussled for influence in the five Central Asian nations, all of which formerly belonged to the Soviet Union.

The United States, as well as the United Kingdom and France, were worried about a provision in the treaty providing for the possible expansion of the nuclear-weapon-free zone to neighboring states. This would mean, for instance, that Iran could apply to join the zone, perhaps complicating efforts to constrain the country’s nuclear program. The provision was removed from the treaty, thereby limiting the zone to the five signatories.

One sticking point was the transit of nuclear weapons within the zone. These concerns were allayed after the 2002 draft text included language allowing CANWFZ states to decide whether they would allow such transit.

The Central Asian states were not able to meet one final concern of the United States, France, and the United Kingdom. These states objected to a provision in the zone treaty that would grant precedence to existing international treaties. In particular, they were concerned that if the Tashkent Collective Security Treaty signed with Russia took precedence, then Russia would retain the right to deploy nuclear weapons in the zone.

A Sept. 21 statement from the U.S. embassy in Kazakhstan expressed Washington’s concern that “provisions of other international treaties could take precedence over the provisions of this treaty, and thus obviate the central objective of creating a zone free of nuclear weapons.”

Russia and China praised the pact and sent official representatives to the treaty signing. But France, the United Kingdom, and the United States did not. A statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry Sept. 8 said the treaty would aid efforts to counter nuclear terrorism, saying that the nuclear-weapon-free zone would make a “substantial contribution” to the “prevention of nuclear materials and technology falling into the hands of non-state actors.”

The treaty’s signing at Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, also marked the 15th anniversary of the closing of the nuclear testing site at Semipalatinsk. The Soviet Union conducted more than 450 underground and atmospheric nuclear tests at the site in a 40-year period before it was closed permanently in 1991 by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.