6 weeks: Happy Anniversary Tlatelolco!

Its hard to believe that there are only six weeks remaining until negotiations begin on a nuclear weapons prohibition. This week is also the 50th anniversary of the first regional nuclear weapons ban- the Treaty of Tlatelolco. The Latin American Nuclear Weapon Free Zone agreement pre-dates the NPT, and This week’s blog will look at some lessons that can be learned from Nuclear Weapon Free Zone agreements as we prepare for the global nuclear ban.

What is currently out there?

There are five regional nuclear weapon free zone (NWFZ) treaties in place-

Mongolia is also a self-declared free zone, recognised by the UN General Assembly in resolution 55/33S. There are also treaties that deal with the Antarctic, Outer Space, the Moon, and the Seabed.

A significant part of the world is covered by these agreements. However, nuclear weapons do not limit themselves to any borders, and the use of nuclear weapons by states in the northern hemisphere could have catastrophic consequences- even on the citizens of States living in the nuclear weapon free zone areas.  This video from 2006 is a good reminder of why regional prohibitions don’t do enough when it comes to a weapon that knows no borders.

What is consistent across the zones?

Reaching Critical Will and Article 36 published this cool overleaf in April 2015 that gives a quick look at what is consistent across the zones, as well as highlighting what is missing. The Nuclear Threat Initiative also has a publication comparing the different zones.

All of the five regional zones prohibit the production of nuclear weapons, stationing or deployment, acquisition or control of nuclear weapons. Each of these treaties also includes prohibitions on assisting with any of these acts, though these vary in detail depending on the different treaty (and also likely depending on when it was negotiated).

All of these five zones also request signature and ratification by not only the regional parties, but also contain special protocols for the nuclear weapon states. This continues the practice of a two tiered systems of nuclear weapons law- and reinforces the need for a global prohibition that does not distinguish between past possession practices of States parties.

The Central Asian treaty (Semipalatinsk) is the most recently negotiated. It sums up the consistency across the five zones in its preamble:

Recognizing that a number of regions, including Latin America and the Caribbean, the South Pacific, South-East Asia and Africa, have created nuclear-weapon-free zones, in which the possession of nuclear weapons, their development, production, introduction and deployment as well as use or threat of use, are prohibited, and striving to broaden such regime throughout the planet for the good of all living things

What is different?

As time progressed from the 1967 Tlatelolco treaty to the 1985 Raratonga, 1995 Bangkok, 1996 Pelindaba and on through the 2006 Semipalatinsk treaty several issues emerged that were not in the agreement conducted fifty years ago this week. This is far from surprising, and reinforces the notion of disarmament law as evolving and adapting to new circumstances.

An example of this is the prohibition in the Pelindaba Treaty of research nuclear weapon research. This goes further than the other treaties, and is likely a result of lessons learned from the experience with South African decommissioning of their nuclear weapons programme.

The Semipalatinsk treaty also requires assistance towards remediation of areas contaminated as a result of past activities. The treaty gets its very name from the highly contaminated former Soviet nuclear test site. The development of nuclear weapons left behind more than traces of toxicity. In some places, you can still see the pockmarked landscape from nuclear testing. Those living near nuclear test sites, and other nuclear weapon development facilities- in Australia, Algeria, China, the Pacific Islands, Russia and the US for example, continue to be impacted by the legacy of nuclear weapon development. Only the Central Asian NWFZ treaty starts to address these questions.

Another difference across the treaties are the enforcement mechanisms. Tlatelolco established the Organisation for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (OPANAL), while Pelindaba would bring questions to the African Commission on nuclear energy. Three of the five agreements would refer disputes to the International Court of Justice, while the IAEA, UN Security Council and UN General Assembly are mentioned as possible arbiters in the Bangkok treaty.

What next?

In six weeks, when negotiations on a global prohibition begin, States will need to go figure out how to deal with some of the differences that have emerged in the fifty years of regional nuclear weapon prohibitions, but it is clear that the baseline for those negotiations must build on the existing prohibitions. Lessons from later negotiations can and should strengthen the new treaty. Currently, some NATO members are party to Nuclear Weapon Free Zone agreements because of some territories lying within the geographical zones. In some cases this has likely been confusing  and difficult for some States (like those with overseas territories within the zones). There are a lot of opportunities to regain global consistency with the upcoming negotiations, and ensure that this prohibition seizes the opportunity to build a legal basis for achieving and maintaining a world without nuclear weapons.

This blog is part of a countdown series, leading to the start of negotiations on a new nuclear weapon prohibition treaty. Previous blogs covered themes including what are we banning, making nuclear weapons and getting nuclear weapons. Stay tuned for more about having and using nuclear weapons as well as a deeper look at how to make a prohibition on assisting with these elements a forceful part of the new treaty.