The Central Asian Nuclear Free Zone Agreement: A Russian End Run?

10/20/12 by Richard Weitz

Although less well known than Kazakhstan, the government of Uzbekistan also has strong nuclear nonproliferation credentials.

The country’s leaders have accepted the legally binding arms control obligations of the former USSR, acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapons state, worked with the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction (CRT) program to demilitarize and clean up former WMD-related facilities in Uzbekistan (Nukus and Vozrozhdeniye Island), prevent the illicit movement of WMD-related materials across its borders, made clear they oppose Iran’s acquiring nuclear weapons, and, most prominently, launched the campaign to establish a Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (CANWFZ) in 1993.

The government has Drafting of the treaty began after the five Central Asian presidents unanimously endorsed the proposal in their February 1997 Almaty Declaration. In September 2002, their negotiators provisionally agreed on the language of the treaty and its protocol. They then circulated the draft to other countries for comment. After modifying the text in response to their observations, the foreign ministers of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan signed the Treaty of Semipalatinsk establishing the Central Asian Nuclear Free Zone on September 8, 2006.

From the perspective of nuclear nonproliferation, the CANWFZ stands as a landmark development for several reasons. But does it allow Russia to deploy nuclear weapons in the zone or to transit the zone with nuclear weapons? Credit Image: Bigstock

The signatories timed the ceremony to coincide with the fifteenth anniversary of the closure of the nuclear testing ground at Semipalatinsk, where prior to September 1991 the USSR had conducted almost 500 nuclear explosions. All five States Parties then ratified the treaty. The treaty entered into force after the Kazakh parliament approved the agreement on December 11, 2008, and Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbaev officially signed the ratification decision on January 5, 2009.

The CANWFZ agreement consists of a preamble and 18 articles. Article 3 obligates the signatories not to research, develop, manufacture, stockpile or otherwise try to acquire a nuclear explosive device. The members also agree not to allow other parties to conduct such activities on their territories—which cover more than 3.8 million square kilometers—or assist them to do so elsewhere.

From the perspective of nuclear nonproliferation, the CANWFZ stands as a landmark development for several reasons.

First, the treaty established the world’s fifth NWFZ solely in the Northern Hemisphere, which contains the preponderance of nuclear weapons states. Central Asia also borders South Asia and the Middle East, regions at risk of further nuclear proliferation and catastrophic terrorism. The accord is also the first multilateral security agreement to embrace all five Central Asian countries—an important accomplishment in light of Turkmenistan’s traditional aloofness from such regional initiatives.

Second, Kazakhstan is the first former nuclear weapon state to adhere to a NWFZ. By some accounts, the country inherited the world’s fourth largest nuclear arsenal—consisting of over 1,400 nuclear warheads deployed on heavy bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles—when the USSR disintegrated in 1991. The other Central Asian nations also hosted elements of the Soviet nuclear program. During the next few years, Kazakhstan worked with the international community to eliminate this unwelcome Soviet legacy. Since then, Kazak leaders have taken a strong position in favor of nuclear nonproliferation efforts.

Third, the United Nations, including the General Assembly and members of the UN Secretariat, directly participated in drafting the CANWFZ Treaty’s provisions. The Central Asian governments made a deliberate effort to ensure that the treaty conforms to the principles and guidelines on establishing NWFZs adopted by the UN Disarmament Commission in 1999. For example, the treaty obligates the Central Asian states to adhere to the Additional Protocol, which gives the International Atomic Energy Agency enhanced inspection rights regarding their possible nuclear activities. In addition, the accord requires its parties to adhere to international standards for the physical protection of nuclear material. All the other NWFZs currently in force were negotiated before the drafting of these provisions.

Fourth, the Semipalatinsk Treaty represents the first NWFZ to contain a provision recognizing the environmental damage associated with researching, developing, manufacturing and testing nuclear weapons. Under Article 6, its members pledge to support rehabilitation of areas damaged by past nuclear tests and other Soviet-era nuclear activities on their territories. They further commit not to import radioactive waste. The Central Asian governments also agree to support the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits all nuclear weapons tests, as contributing to environmental and nonproliferation goals.

Fifth, the CANWFZ participants must allow for comprehensive supervision of their peaceful nuclear materials and activities by the IAEA. In addition to the standard NWFZ obligation that treaty parties conclude a safeguards agreement with the IAEA, Article 8 explicitly requires treaty signatories to adopt the so-called 1997 Model Additional Protocol, which grants the IAEA enhanced inspection rights at members’ civilian nuclear facilities, within 18 months of the treaty’s entry into force.

In recent years, the United States, Russia, and other governments have sought to strengthen the IAEA’s ability to counter nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism by encouraging all countries to adhere to the Additional Protocol.

The treaty signatories also pledge to maintain standards of physical protection for their nuclear and radiological materials that equal or exceed those outlined in the Convention for the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (thereby contributing to counterterrorism). They further commit not to export fissionable material to other non-nuclear weapons states that have not adopted IAEA safeguards agreements and the Additional Protocol (thereby furthering nuclear nonproliferation).

The last unique feature of the Semipalatinsk Treaty is that the CANWFZ borders two declared nuclear-weapon states, China and Russia, as well as two countries (India and Pakistan) that have developed nuclear weapons outside the NPT.

This condition has meant that the nuclear free zone could limit the spread of nuclear weapons in a volatile neighborhood.

Yet, trying to ban nuclear weapons from such a nuclear-saturated environment has required the Central Asian states to adjust their treaty requirements in ways that have aroused concern among the Western powers. The Central Asian governments needed years to reach a consensus on these issues, and they have never been able to overcome Western objections to the resulting compromises.

Beijing and Moscow have pledged to support the CANWFZ. At the August 2007 heads of state summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes China and Russia as well as all the Central Asian countries except for Turkmenistan, the SCO governments endorsed the CANWFZ in their main political statement.

The Bishkek Declaration stressed the importance of bringing the Semipalatinsk Treaty into force and cited a resolution adopted by the 61st session of the UN General Assembly to illustrate how the international community “highly values the contribution of Central Asian states to the cause of consolidating the regime of nuclear non-proliferation, advancing cooperation on peaceful use of nuclear energy, as well as strengthening the international and regional peace and security.”

The declaration also affirmed the support of the SCO heads of state for “the efforts of the participating states of the Central Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty on concluding a Protocol on Security Guarantees with the nuclear-weapon states, which would ensure genuine existence of a nuclear free zone in the region.”

France, Great Britain, and the United States have declined to sign the CANWFZ Protocol until the treaty signatories address certain objections.

These governments are most concerned that the treaty text allows Russia to deploy or move nuclear weapons in or through the zone.

Article 12 of the Semipalatinsk Treaty declares that the proposed NWFZ would not affect the rights and obligations that its members might have assumed under prior accords, which could include the Collective Security Treaty (CST), signed in Tashkent in 1992 by members of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Under Article 4 of the CST, members pledge to render each other “all necessary assistance, including military assistance” in case of external aggression. Four of the five CANWFZ signatories (Turkmenistan being the sole exception) still adhere to the CST, which underpins the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). In the past, Russian military officials have made statements suggesting that their CST/CSTO allies—which include Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan—could fall under the umbrella of Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

In addition, some interpretations of the CST would allow Russia to deploy nuclear weapons of the other parties.

Rather than categorically prohibiting the transit of nuclear weapons through the CANWFZ, Article 4 of the treaty permits each signatory to decide independently whether to allow such transit. American, British, and French officials believe that these CST/CSTO provisions call into question the establishment of an effective and equitable NWFZ in Central Asia.

Another Western concern is the absence of a treaty clause excluding other countries from later joining the CANWFZ.

An earlier draft of the text explicitly provided for possible expansion of the treaty’s scope. Some Western analysts fear that Iran, which borders Turkmenistan, might eventually sign the CANWFZ to strengthen its claims that Tehran’s nuclear program is motivated entirely by peaceful purposes. The CANWFZ explicitly permits the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Despite Tehran’s professions, Western officials widely suspect that Iran aspires to develop the capacity to produce nuclear weapons.

Although the government of Mongolia initiated the process that culminated in the treaty by declaring itself a nuclear-weapon-free zone in 1992, was recognized as a nuclear-weapon free state in 1998, and has expressed interest in joining the CANWFZ, the existing treaty signatories have indicated they do not consider Mongolia, which does not share a border with any CANWFZ party, as falling within the treaty’s intended geographic scope.

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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