The Case for Senate Action on the Protocol to the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone

Volume 16, Issue 2
Feb. 9, 2024

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the U.S. signature on the protocol to the Treaty on a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in Central Asia (CANWFZ), also known as the Semipalatinsk Treaty. The CANWFZ treaty commits its five states-parties in Central Asia—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—from manufacturing, stockpiling, testing, developing, and possessing nuclear weapons. The CANWFZ is designed to reinforce the global nuclear nonproliferation system and safeguard the security of five key central Asian states that were once part of the Soviet Union and that now lie in the shadows of nuclear-armed Russia and China.

On May 6, 2014, the five nuclear-armed members of the UN Security Council signed protocols to the CANWFZ treaty. However, the United States remains the only one of the five nuclear weapon states that has not yet ratified the protocol to the CANWFZ treaty, which commits them to provide legally binding assurances that will not be used against the states in the zone.

Given the severe challenges facing the global nonproliferation and disarmament “architecture,” the United States can and should move expeditiously to ratify the protocol to the CANWFZ treaty to solidify legally binding negative security assurances against nuclear threats or attacks for key partners in Central Asia and to strengthen the global nuclear nonproliferation system.

As Yerzhan Ashikbayev, Kazakhstan's Ambassador to the United States said in a statement provided to the Arms Control Association, U.S. ratification of the protocol to the CANWFZ treaty "will become a clear demonstration of the United States' willingness to engage Central Asian States in the common objective to maintain peace, stability, and security in our part of the world." He noted that U.S. ratification of the protocol "will finalize the institutionalization of the Treaty" and "formalize the structure and legal status of the Zone" in which nuclear weapons are prohibited.

U.S. ratification of the protocol to the CANWFZ treaty would solidify its partnership with these states, which are home to some 78 million people, are located in a strategic region, and are leaders on nuclear nonproliferation. Kazakhstan, in particular, after securing independence in 1991, inherited the world's fourth largest nuclear arsenal but worked with the United States in the 1990s to dismantle it and protect nuclear material left on its soil from the Soviet era from terrorists.

To this day, and especially in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and President Vladimir Putin's threats of nuclear use, Kazakhstan, along with the other central Asian states, values strong ties with the United States. In 2023, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said Kazakhstan appreciates the “continuous and firm support of the United States for [its] independence, territorial integrity, and sovereignty.”

The growing tensions between nuclear-armed states, the breakdown of key nonproliferation and arms control agreements, including Russia’s 2023 de-ratification of the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), and the absence of meaningful nuclear risk reduction dialogue between the major nuclear-armed states have put increasing stress on the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Article VI of the NPT obligates them to "pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control." Article VII of the NPT acknowledges the value of establishing regional nuclear-weapon-free zones.

In these challenging times, the U.S. Senate should pursue all feasible and effective measures to reinforce the NPT and bolster the legal and political norms against the spread of nuclear weapons, nuclear testing, and threats of nuclear weapons use.

One such way is to begin the overdue process of reviewing and providing advice and to consent for the protocol to the CANWFZ treaty. This is not only achievable but also carries a significant benefit to both the U.S. national interests and international peace and security agenda by strengthening a norm that nuclear-weapon states should never use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states.

The Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty

Among the five existing nuclear-weapon-free zones in the world—the Latin American Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone, the South Pacific Nuclear-Weapon-Free- Zone, the Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone, the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone, and the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone—the CANWFZ is the newest. The CANWFZ treaty opened for signature Sept. 8, 2006, and entered into force March 21, 2009. The impetus for this nuclear-weapon-free zone, however, goes back even further to an international conference in 1997 “Central Asia- a Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons,” which took place in Tashkent, Uzbekistan in the aftermath of the extension of the NPT in 1995.

In order to keep the designated region under the treaty free from nuclear weapons, such nuclear-weapon-free zone treaties include protocols involving commitments by the five nuclear weapon states recognized in the NPT. The protocols to nuclear-weapon-free zone treaties are crucial to their success because they establish legally binding negative security assurances that five nuclear-weapons states under the NPT will respect the status of the treaty and will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices against the treaty parties.

Shortly after five nuclear-weapon states signed the protocol May 6, 2014, four of the five had completed their ratification processes by the end of 2015. The United States remains the only of the five nuclear weapon states that has not ratified the protocol to the CANWFZ treaty.

Apr. 27, 2015, then-President Barack Obama transmitted the protocol to the CANWFZ treaty to the U.S. Senate for advice and consent to ratification along with the U.S. State Department’s article-by-article detailed analysis of the protocol to the treaty.

For nearly a decade, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has failed to act, and neither the Obama, the Trump, nor the Biden administration have made its ratification a priority. Now is the right time to do so.


Ratification Would Strengthen Partners in Central Asia

There are several reasons why this issue requires urgent attention. U.S. partners in Central Asia, located in a strategic region sharing borders with Russia and China, are in need of legally binding negative security assurance as soon as possible. Given President Putin's attempts to use nuclear coercive rhetoric in the context of Russia's war on Ukraine, the importance of the CANWFZ treaty and its protocol is more important than ever. When and if it does, the five major nuclear-weapon states, including Russia, will be legally prohibited from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against the five non-nuclear-weapon states in the CANWFZ. The United States can thereby help to push back against Putin’s territorial ambitions and unacceptable nuclear threats.

States-parties to the CANWFZ treaty are important U.S. partners, and these partners place high value on this treaty and the protocol. Since the early days of the establishment of the CANWFZ treaty, they have repeatedly endorsed the treaty through multilateral nonproliferation negotiations, such as resolutions at the UN General Assembly First Committee meetings. They called for international support in the initial phase, then later for the ratification of the protocol. At the 2022 NPT Review Conference, their joint statement emphasized “the hope to secure the earliest ratification of the Protocol by the United States so as to finalize the institutionalization of the nuclear-weapon-free zone in Central Asia.” The United States should heed this call to further strengthen partnerships with states-parties.

Particularly with Kazakhstan, “U.S.-Kazakh cooperation in security and nuclear-nonproliferation is a cornerstone of the relationship,” according to the State Department. That cooperation includes participation in the Nuclear Security Summit, bilateral cooperation for the removal of the former Soviet nuclear program, and the Highly Enriched Uranium minimization initiative.

Coincidentally, this year, Kazakhstan will play a crucial role in multilateral nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation negotiations. In 2024, Kazakhstan will preside over the second preparatory committee for the 2026 NPT review cycle and will convene a joint meeting of representatives from states-parties to all of the world's nuclear-weapon-free zones.

In 2025, Kazakhstan will also serve as a president for the third meeting of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). The United States' ratification of the protocol to the CANWFZ treaty would help Kazakhstan build momentum for the nuclear-weapon-free zones, strengthen the NPT, and more broadly, solidify legally binding negative security assurances against nuclear attack or threats of attack against non-nuclear weapon states.

“The establishment of CANWFZ will provide legally-binding security assurances…thus strengthening the global nonproliferation and disarmament regime, especially in the current turbulent geopolitical environment. It will also result in positive externalities by fostering the intra-regional engagement among Central Asian states,” Kazakhstan’s ambassador Yerzhan Ashikbayev said in a Feb. 8 statement.

U.S. Ratification Would Guard Against Russian Attempts to Undermine the Treaty

Not only has Russia threatened the potential use of nuclear weapons in the context of its war on Ukraine, but it has walked back its commitments to important nonproliferation agreements, including the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). In November 2023, Putin decided to rescind Russia's ratification of the (CTBT), in part, to highlight the fact that the United States has not yet ratified the CTBT.

Although Russia says it will not resume nuclear explosive testing as long as the United States does not resume nuclear testing and, as a signatory to the CTBT Russia remains legally obligated not to test and to support the treaty's International Monitoring System, Russia's de-ratification of the CTBT is nonetheless a clear setback to long-running efforts to achieve entry into force of the treaty.

In light of Russia's cynical tactics on the CTBT, it is important that the United States denies Russia the same option with respect to the CANWFZ by ratifying the protocol to the treaty. It is conceivable that Russia might, in the near term, withdraw its ratification from the CANWFZ, which would weaken its commitments under the treaty not to threaten neighboring Central Asian states with nuclear weapons. As it took only a month for Russia to de-ratify the CTBT, it is imperative for the United States to ratify the CANWFZ protocol as soon as possible.

The Ratification Enhances Security for All at No Cost

The ratification of the protocol to the CANWFZ treaty is “in the best interests of the United States,” President Obama wrote to the Senate Apr. 27, 2015. “[E]ntry into force of the Protocol for the United States would require no changes in U.S. law, policy, or practice,” he wrote in his transmittal letter on CANWFZ protocol to the Senate.

On the day that the United States signed the protocol, May 6, 2014, the State Department released a media note that “the Administration is satisfied that the CANWFZ Treaty is consistent with U.S. and international criteria for such zones. The United States believes that such zones, when fully and rigorously implemented, contribute to our nonproliferation goals and to international peace and security. The United States has concluded that the CANWFZ Treaty and its Protocol will not disturb existing U.S. security arrangements or military operations, installations, or activities.”

The ratification of the protocol to the CANWFZ treaty is consistent with the U.S. security policy causing no negative impact. Rather, it will “promote regional cooperation, security, and stability and provide a vehicle for the extension of legally binding negative security assurances, consistent with the strengthened negative security assurance announced in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review,” the State Department assessed. Subsequent NPR updates have also reaffirmed these negative security assurances.

At the time of heightened nuclear danger --the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' Doomsday Clock stands at only 90 seconds to midnight--it is more important than ever that the United States does what it can to strengthen the barriers against nuclear proliferation, nuclear use, and nuclear coercion. Senators across the political spectrum should be able to agree that U.S. ratification of the protocol to the CANWFZ treaty is not only possible, but also beneficial, and it is overdue.—SHIZUKA KURAMITSU, research assistant