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Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone: Nonproliferation Progress in Central Asia

Richard Weitz

Earlier this month, the government of Uzbekistan completed its ratification of the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (CANWFZ). The signatories of the so-called Semipalatinsk Treaty also include the former Soviet states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

Although the accord could provide timely support for international nonproliferation efforts, the signatories still need to satisfy the concerns of Britain, France, and the United States regarding possible loopholes in its underlying treaty.

Article 3 of the CANWFZ prohibits the signatories from researching, developing, manufacturing, stockpiling or otherwise trying to acquire a nuclear explosive device. Furthermore, they pledge not to allow other parties to conduct such activities on their territories or assist their nuclear activities elsewhere.

The content of the Protocol resembles those found in other NWFZ treaties. It provides a means by which the five “nuclear weapons states” recognized under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty pledge not to station or test nuclear weapons in the treaty zone. It also contains the standard clause in which the so-called “P-5” countries of Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States guarantee neither to attack nor threaten to attack the NWFZ signatories with nuclear weapons. Receiving these so-called negative security assurances provide a major incentive for countries to join an NWFZ.

The CANWFZ treaty also breaks new ground in several regards.

First, its geographic coverage is unique. It encompasses all five Central Asian countries, a significant accomplishment given that Turkmenistan has traditionally remained aloof from regional security initiatives.

Furthermore, Kazakhstan is the first former nuclear weapon state—it inherited the world’s fourth largest nuclear arsenal when it became independent in 1991—to adhere to a NWFZ. In addition, the Semipalatinsk Treaty establishes the world’s first NWFZ solely in the Northern Hemisphere, which contains most nuclear weapons states. Finally, the NWFZ borders two declared nuclear-weapon states, China and Russia, as well as two regions of intense nonproliferation concern, South Asia and the Middle East.

Second, the United Nations actively contributed to the treaty drafting process, which took nine years to negotiate. The Central Asian governments made a deliberate effort to ensure that the treaty text accords with the U.N. Disarmament Commission’s principles and guidelines regarding NWFZs.

Third, the treaty represents the first NWFZ to contain a provision recognizing the environmental damage associated with nuclear weapons production. Under Article 6, its members pledge to support rehabilitation of areas harmed by previous nuclear tests and other Soviet-era nuclear activities on their territories.

Fourth, the CANWFZ participants must allow for comprehensive supervision of their peaceful nuclear materials and activities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Article 8 explicitly requires treaty signatories to adopt the so-called Additional Protocol, which provides the IAEA enhanced inspection rights at members’ civilian nuclear facilities.

China and Russia have pledged to support the CANWFZ. France, Great Britain, and the United States, however, have declined to sign the Protocol, primarily for three reasons.

First, they complain that, rather than prohibiting the transportation of nuclear weapons through the CANWFZ outright, Article 4 of the Treaty allows each signatory to decide independently whether to allow such transit through its territory. Thus far, most of the CANFWZ signatories have refused to rule out the possible movement of foreign military vehicles (such as warplanes or warships) carrying nuclear weapons across their borders.

Second, the three governments cite the absence of a provision excluding additional countries from joining the CANWFZ later. They fear that Iran, which borders Turkmenistan and is suspected by Western governments of seeking nuclear weapons, might eventually sign the CANWFZ to strengthen its claims that its nuclear research and development program is motivated entirely by peaceful purposes.

Finally, Paris, London, and Washington have expressed apprehension regarding Article 12, which affirms the continued validity of existing international agreements. In particular, they worry about the continuing role of the Collective Security Treaty (CST), signed in Tashkent in 1992. Under Article 4 of the CST, members pledge to render each other “all necessary assistance, including military assistance” in case of external aggression. In the past, Russian government officials have suggested that some of their CST allies—which include Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan—could fall under the umbrella of Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

Negotiations over the Protocol continue. Although no country currently appears prepared to deploy or use nuclear weapons in Central Asia, recent developments in Iran and North Korea underscore the urgency of taking measures to bolster the fraying nuclear nonproliferation regime.

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