Five former republics of the Soviet Union in Central Asia have created a nuclear-free zone. The agreement is an important step forward for the global nonproliferation regime at a time when that order is under assault on multiple fronts.
The governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan signed the treaty, which bans the production, acquisition or deployment of nuclear weapons or their components as well as nuclear explosives, and forbids the hosting or transport of nuclear weapons or materials for third parties. In essence, it creates a nuclear-weapons-free zone that is about 3.8 million sq. km in size and includes some 60 million people. In addition, the five nations committed to enhanced International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards regarding security of nuclear facilities and radioactive waste.
The treaty makes a great deal of sense. The five Central Asian governments recognize that nuclear weapons do not enhance their security. In fact, at the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan inherited many weapons of the former Soviet arsenal; for a brief period it was the fourth-largest nuclear-weapons state. To his credit, President Nursultan Nazarbaev quickly gave up those weapons and had them returned to Russia.
Mr. Nazarbaev knows well the effect of such programs. Kazakhstan is the home of the Semipalatinsk, the Soviet Union’s largest nuclear-test site. There were 458 air, ground and underground nuclear tests at the site during the four-plus decades it was in use, contaminating over 300,000 sq. km and affecting an estimated 1.7 million people.
Equally compelling for the heads of governments is the renewed strategic competition over Central Asia, driven in part by its vast energy reserves and the region’s location at the crossroads of Asia, Europe and the Middle East. China and Russia have staked out their claims to leadership in the area, and are exercising it through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which aims to enhance regional security. The United States, Japan and other major powers are keeping an eye on the region, too. A nuclear-free zone is one way of limiting the potentially dangerous effects of a quiet, but growing, competition for influence.
The governments should be applauded for their decision. The nuclear-free zone is an important contribution to the international nuclear nonproliferation regime when most attention is focused on North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs that show contempt for the global order. There are three other nuclear-free zones — in Latin America, the South Pacific and Southeast Asia (one in Africa is still pending and Mongolia has declared itself a nuclear-weapons-free state). The treaty, the result of a decade of international negotiations and quiet behind the scenes work by the United Nations, is a vital reminder that there are still powerful constituencies that support the nonproliferation order. It is important that other like-minded individuals, organizations and governments speak up and reinforce a tottering structure. A world that devalues nuclear weapons is not a fantasy of idealists and dreamers.
There are other advantages to the deal. The prohibition on production, acquisition or deployment of nuclear weapons or their components as well as their transport will help prevent terrorist groups from acquiring such materials or using the region as a transportation corridor. It sends a plain signal that there is nothing for terrorists to buy or steal. With a number of Islamic groups in the region, that danger is not imaginary.
Ironically, only Russia and China among the five acknowledged nuclear powers, have backed the Central Asia treaty. The U.S. and Britain worry that the treaty could block the transportation of nuclear-capable ships and aircraft that might be needed in the region or nearby. There are also some concerns about consistency with other security agreements and treaties.
The agreement is another indication of the ability of the Central Asia governments to work together to tackle regional issues. The negotiation of the treaty helps build habits of cooperation among bureaucracies that share many common objectives, yet often lack the resources and the wherewithal to work together.
The signing of the nuclear-free zone is a testimony to the vision of Central Asian leaders and their patience and tenacity in getting it signed. It is a welcome reminder that the world is not yet on the brink of a new nuclear age, and that those who believe such weapons are not inevitable can find common cause with politicians and strategists. It is a sentiment that must be encouraged, especially when the daily news seems to suggest the return to a world of nuclear dominoes and their seemingly inexorable spread.
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