Budget Woes Haunt Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone

Justin Reed

On Feb. 14, Latin American and Caribbean countries marked the 40th anniversary of the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the region, the first of its kind in the world. Yet, at this historic milestone, the organization charged with keeping the region free of such arms is threatened by persistent budget shortfalls.

“We are surviving month to month,” Ambassador Edmundo Vargas Carreño, secretary-general of The Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (OPANAL), told Arms Control Today March 15. “Some countries are not paying.”

OPANAL oversees the Treaty of Tlatelolco, ratified by all 33 states-parties in the region, and supports other nonproliferation and disarmament measures. It includes a council of five states that meets every two months (current members are Argentina, Cuba, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru ) and holds a general conference of all states-parties every two years. OPANAL's draft budget for 2007 totals $324,000, of which Argentina , Brazil , Mexico , and Venezuela are expected to pay the largest percentages. OPANAL employs five people.

Senior diplomatic sources said that Brazil and Argentina , two of the organization's primary sponsors, have continually neglected their dues to the organization over a period of “many years.”

Mexico meanwhile has been vital in keeping OPANAL afloat. Its recent contributions, along with those from Chile, Cuba, and Ecuador, averted the organization's shuttering in March, according to Vargas, and should keep it open through spring. It was the “first time in history” that the organization faced closure, said Vargas.

Luciano Tanto, second secretary of Argentina's embassy in Washington , confirmed that Argentina has been late with payments but attributed this to the country's 2001-2002 financial crisis that he said has affected Argentina's contributions to many similar organizations. Nevertheless, Tanto stressed Argentina considers the Treaty of Tlatelolco to be “important” and has a “strong commitment to OPANAL.”

Likewise, a Brazilian embassy official attributed the country's lack of payment to “financial constraints” but emphasized that Brazil is working “to make sure the debt is dealt with as soon as possible.”

Vargas remained optimistic. “The important countries that are not paying will have a responsibility to pay if the alternative is that we close. They will finally pay,” he said.

Tanto stated that there is a pledge for OPANAL in Argentina 's present quarterly budget and that “OPANAL will soon receive the money.”

In its efforts to keep the region free of nuclear weapons, OPANAL has been pressing countries to sign and ratify agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) based on the 1997 Model Additional Protocol. The protocol is designed to enhance traditional IAEA safeguards by providing the agency with greater authority to verify that states are not carrying out undeclared nuclear activities. Fifteen Tlatelolco states-parties have signed or ratified additional protocols.

Brazil has not signed an additional protocol, which is of particular concern to outsiders. Brazil had a nuclear weapons program in the 1970s and 1980s and has a new uranium-enrichment facility at Resende. (See ACT, October 2005. ) Such facilities can produce low-enriched uranium for use in nuclear power reactors or highly enriched uranium, which can be used as fissile material in nuclear weapons.

Nonetheless, Vargas expressed confidence that Brazil 's program is only for peaceful purposes and will not take on a military dimension.

In late 2005, Venezuela 's president, Hugo Chavez, announced his intention to have his country develop nuclear energy capabilities with the assistance of Brazil and Argentina . On the possibility that Venezuela might at some point divert nuclear energy research into a weapons program, Vargas said that “it would be ridiculous for Venezuela because it would have nothing to win and a lot to lose.” He added that there are not the political conditions for “any country in Latin America to become a new Iran or North Korea .” Venezuela has yet to sign an additional protocol.

Vargas also said that OPANAL is committed to the extension of nuclear-weapon-free zones to other parts of the world. OPANAL organized a conference of nuclear-weapon-free zones in Mexico City in 2005 and is planning another conference for New Zealand in 2010.

Vargas said that his “dream” is that more nuclear-weapon-free zones are established, “especially in the Korean peninsula.” For this to happen, he cautioned, the participation of the nuclear powers is required. The five designated nuclear-weapon states signed a protocol to the Treaty of Tlatelolco pledging not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against treaty states-parties. The largest challenge, he concedes, is the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East.