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June 2, 2022
Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Formed
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Manasi Kakatkar and Miles A. Pomper

Kazakhstan ratified a treaty establishing the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (CANWFZ) Dec. 11, allowing it to enter into force in early 2009. 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.

Kazakhstan's ratification followed that of Tajikistan on Nov. 12 and earlier ratifications by Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The treaty was signed by the five states at the former Soviet nuclear weapons test site in Semipalantinsk, Kazakhstan, on Sept. 8, 2006. (See ACT, October 2006.) It is supposed to enter into force "30 days after the date of deposit of the fifth instrument of ratification."

The treaty reiterates the five countries' nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) commitment not to manufacture, acquire, test, or possess nuclear weapons and to use nuclear materials only for peaceful purposes.

It adds additional and unique requirements. All five countries must conclude an additional protocol to their safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) within 18 months of the treaty entering into force. This provision would make them the first countries in the world legally bound by a nuclear-weapon-free-zone treaty to adhere to versions of the 1997 Model Additional Protocol, which gives the IAEA greater authority to ensure that the countries are not diverting nuclear materials to weapons uses. The CANWFZ also requires its members to comply with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The treaty additionally recognizes the environmental damage caused by the Soviet nuclear program and commits to environmental rehabilitation.

Likewise, the treaty requires the states to meet international standards for the protection of physical material, which is particularly important given concerns that terrorists could steal nuclear materials from or smuggle them through the region. None of the members can export fissionable material to other non-nuclear-weapon states that have not concluded an additional protocol. None of the other nuclear-weapon-free-zone treaties requires such compliance from its members.

The treaty is particularly significant because neighboring countries China, India, Pakistan, and Russia have nuclear weapons.

The Central Asian states have been seeking to construct the nuclear-weapon-free zone, the first situated entirely 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. They held off on signing the pact in an attempt to gain support for relevant protocols from all 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.

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. France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States have wavered in their support as they tussled for influence in the five Central Asian states, all of which formerly belonged to the Soviet Union.

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 have not been able to meet one final concern of France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. These three countries 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 2006 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."

The CANWFZ will be the fourth nuclear-weapon-free zone to enter into force. The other three are the Treaties of Tlatelolco (Latin America and the Caribbean), Rarotonga (South Pacific), and Bangkok (Southeast Asia). The Treaty of Pelindaba (Africa) has yet to enter into force but only requires two more ratifications for it to do so.