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The Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty Protocols and U.S. National Security

Volume 2, Issue 4, May 20, 2011

Reducing the threats posed by nuclear weapons and proliferation is a global challenge that requires active U.S. leadership. Given that curbing the spread of nuclear weapons is one of the nation's highest security imperatives, it stands to reason that the United States should support efforts by other countries to reinforce their commitments not to pursue nuclear weapons and to prevent proliferation.

This is just what the Obama Administration asked the Senate to do earlier this month when it  submitted the protocols to the nuclear-weapon-free zones (NWFZs) in Africa and the South Pacific for ratification. Under those protocols, the United States would pledge not to use nuclear weapons against, or place nuclear weapons in either of those regions. In doing so, the United States would match words with deeds, demonstrating clear backing for such initiatives, and promote the principle that states forgoing nuclear weapons are enhancing their security.  

The African and South Pacific NWFZs (established by the Treaties of Pelindaba and Rarotonga, respectively) are two of the five such zones that have been created. Together with similar zones in Central Asia, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, NWFZs encompass more than 100 countries, covering nearly the entire Southern Hemisphere and beyond.

Members of these zones have made additional commitments not to seek nuclear weapons and created regional mechanisms to prevent proliferation. Although all of these countries have already pledged not to seek nuclear weapons under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the zones serve as an additional demonstration of the commitment all of the members have made, and foster regional cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation.

Benefits Beyond the NPT
In many cases, the zones include nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear security obligations that go beyond those of the NPT. For example, the African NWFZ requires that members maintain internationally-recommended standards of physical protection over nuclear facilities and material, a key U.S. national security goal highlighted during the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit. The African zone also creates a regional mechanism, the African Commission on Nuclear Energy (AFCONE), to ensure compliance with the zone's obligations.

Another critical nonproliferation benefit that both the African and South Pacific zones provide is a requirement that members only engage in nuclear transfers with countries that have applied International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards over all of their nuclear activities. Since the two zones contain some of the world's key suppliers of uranium, including Australia, Namibia, and Niger, such a stipulation helps to cut off any country that does not comply with basic IAEA full-scope safeguards requirements from importing nuclear material.

In addition, by supporting the NWFZ protocols and fulfilling an arms control goal of states in the region, the United States has greater standing to seek the cooperation of NWFZ member countries to achieve its key nonproliferation goals, including taking steps to address proliferation by countries such as Iran, North Korea, and Syria. In particular, countries in Africa remain key pathways for illicit trafficking by Iran and North Korea.

Last year, Nigeria halted a shipment of Iranian arms and ammunition believed to have been bound for Gambia, and the year before, South Africa intercepted tank parts North Korea tried to smuggle to the Republic of Congo. In the South Pacific, Australia has been a major partner in efforts to sanction Iran and North Korea, going beyond the requirements of the UN Security Council resolutions against both countries by applying additional restrictions on the two proliferators. U.S. failure to ratify the NWFZ protocols has not prevented such cooperation from occurring, but doing so would be a cost-free way to bolster the case made by the United States that more countries should cooperate in such nonproliferation efforts in the future.

Negative Nuclear Security Assurances
The principle that assurances against the use of nuclear weapons by NPT nuclear-weapon states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) are part of a trade-off for nonproliferation commitments by non-nuclear-weapon states is not new. After all, so long as these countries fulfill their obligations not to seek nuclear weapons, they do not pose a threat that would warrant the use of nuclear weapons against them. Non-nuclear-weapon states have sought so-called "negative security assurances" since the 1960s, and the precedent that NWFZs would include security assurance protocols for the nuclear-weapon states to join began when the first zone was established in Latin America in 1968.

Recognizing this trade-off, the five nuclear-weapon powers also issued broad, politically-binding negative security assurances to non-nuclear-weapon states in 1978. The reaffirmation by the five-original nuclear-weapon states of these assurances in 1995 helped pave the way for the indefinite extension of the NPT later that year. Although the United States has been reluctant to engage in negotiations over making those security assurances legally binding, U.S. officials have said that Washington prefers to make such binding commitments through NWFZ protocols.

Ratifying the security assurances in the African and South Pacific NWFZ protocols would pose no real limitations on U.S. national security prerogatives. Washington signed the protocols for both zones in 1996, making a political commitment to abide by them, and there are no plausible scenarios in which the United States would need to use nuclear weapons against any members of the two zones. Opponents of ratification would be hard pressed to devise a situation in which the United States would have a credible need to use nuclear weapons against any member in good standing with either zone's obligations. U.S. national security interests certainly have not suffered from its ratification of the Latin American NWFZ negative nuclear security assurance protocol in 1971, and in fact, the United States' support for the that zone, created by the Treaty of Tlateloco, has strengthened U.S. nonproliferation diplomacy in the region over the years.

Moreover, the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which outlines the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security strategy, states that the United States "will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations." Therefore, not only is there no foreseeable need to use nuclear weapons against any of the countries in the two zones, it is U.S. policy not to use such weapons against any country that has satisfied its nuclear nonproliferation commitments.

U.S. ratification of the African and South Pacific NWFZ protocols would further U.S. and global nonproliferation goals at no cost to other U.S. national security objectives. The Senate should review and support ratification of these NWFZ protocols in short order, and the Barack Obama administration should make good on its own pledge to work with the members of the two other zones in Central and Southeast Asia to sign and seek the ratification of those protocols as well. -PETER CRAIL