Keep the Arctic free of nuclear weapons

by Ramesh Thakur

WATERLOO, Ontario — As a nonnative speaker of English, I have always been intrigued by the phrase “polar opposites.” Fact is, nothing so resembles the North Pole as the South Pole. Based on this polar symmetry, there exist the opportunity and an increasingly urgent need to emulate Antarctica and establish an Arctic nuclear-free zone. Such a step would have significant environmental and conservation benefits, while working to avoid conflict and foster scientific cooperation.

The urgency of the need arises from the existing unsatisfactory legal situation on territoriality, military practices and the faster-than-expected rate of Arctic ice cap shrinkage. Global warming is opening up the prospect of navigating the sea surface of the Northwest Passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and the potential for military clashes.

Recently there has been a flurry of declarations (for example, by Canada), activities (by Russia) and counter-responses from others that use the Arctic perimeter or its waterways for their navies.

Many proposals have been advanced in the past for the creation of nuclear weapons-free zones in central Europe, the Baltics, Middle East, South and East Asia. The only success on paper in the Northern Hemisphere has come for Central Asia, but obstacles remain in the way of its operationalization. By contrast, almost the entire Southern Hemisphere is already covered by such zones: Latin America (1967), the South Pacific (1985), Southeast Asia (1996), Africa (1997), and of course Antarctica (1959).

These are all based on multilaterally negotiated treaties among the countries in the zone and protocols whereby the nuclear powers accept their responsibilities vis a vis the regional zones. The zones were crafted to complete a significant gap in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty whose nonnuclear members were legally permitted to host and base on their soil nuclear weapons owned and operated by foreign allies. All nuclear-free zones prohibit this and so deepen and complement the nonproliferation regime.

The Antarctic Treaty goes much further in freezing in perpetuity conflicting territorial claims, prohibiting any militarization and nuclear activity, protecting the continent’s fragile ecosystem, guaranteeing scientific cooperation, and instituting a complex system of shared regime management that has actually worked wonderfully well.

The motivation behind all such zones is disengagement before the fact: Legal regimes and oversight mechanisms are put in place that prevent disputes and problems from arising in the first place.

In Antarctica, many countries have long-standing claims on pieces of its territory, some of which overlap. Many others could make claims based on various legal grounds, haven’t actually done so, but have not renounced their claims. Many more reject the idea of Antarctic colonization, arguing that its uninhabited status and critical role in the global ecosystem make it a common heritage of mankind.

Several states take part in scientific activities without asserting or rejecting territorial claims.

The Antarctic Treaty “froze” the territorial status. Claimant and would-be claimant states did not renounce their rights. They agreed not to engage in military activities, although the military forces could take part in exploratory and research activities. They agreed to protect the flora and fauna and to make common decisions with respect to the unknown but potentially vast treasure-trove of minerals, with conservation trumping exploitation.

On Aug. 24, Canada’s Pugwash — the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization with a proud record of active engagement on nuclear disarmament — called on governments to emulate Antarctica and establish an Arctic nuclear-free zone.

The legal regime on the ownership of Arctic seabed resources and transit rights is ambiguous and incomplete. On one hand, there are conflicting principles based on laws of territoriality, exclusive economic zones, continental shelves and historical practices, as well as the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention.

On the other hand, scientists have proven to be overly conservative in estimating the rapidity with which the ice cap is shrinking. Accelerated global warming will enable commercial ship navigation through Arctic waters and permit exploitation of seabed resources. Countries with legal claims and economic resources, the material capacity to exploit them and the military capacity to defend them may not be able to resist the temptation to create new facts on the ground now in order to protect their future interests.

An AFNZ would be an exemplary means of foreclosing competitive militarization — and perhaps even competitive nuclearization — without treading on the existing status of claims over territory, resources and transit rights. It could reverse the disquieting drift to weaponized nuclearization that seems to be occurring in parallel with global warming. It would reflect, adapt and add to the precedents of all other nuclear-free zones, and to the 1971 Seabed Treaty, which forbids the stationing of nuclear weapons and support facilities on the seabed outside territorial waters.

Some 113 countries are already party to nuclear-free zones around the world. Who will take up the slack in the Arctic to educate all relevant countries about the nature of such a zone, convince them of the merits and universal benefits, and persuade them to negotiate a multilateral treaty to establish it?

We can but hope that the proponents of aggressive national force projection in the U.S. now acknowledge the folly of using unilateral military might and the wisdom of rules-based regimes in which the net benefits to all outweigh the marginal costs to each. If America doesn’t buy into the idea of an AFNZ, the proposal will be a nonstarter.

Ramesh Thakur, distinguished fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation and professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, is the editor of Nuclear Weapons-Free Zones.