Photo: Jayantha Dhanapala. Credit: CTBTO - Photo: 2017

Celebrating Tlatelolco – The First Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone

By Jayantha Dhanapala*

KANDY, Sri Lanka (IDN) – The commemoration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the signature of the Treaty of Tlatelolco could not have come at a more opportune moment. In the UN General Assembly last year, Mexico and a number of Latin American and Caribbean countries joined with countries from other regions – including my own Sri Lanka – to ensure the adoption of the Resolution “Taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations”.

This Resolution decided that a UN conference should be convened in 2017 “to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons leading towards their total elimination”. The Conference will meet from March 27-31 and from June 15 – July 7, 2017.

It has been a long journey over these fifty years but the commitment and dedication of non-nuclear-weapon states like Mexico has been steadfast and must eventually succeed. In 1967 the creation of the first nuclear-weapon-free zone in an inhabited continent of the world after the zones created in Antarctica, Outer Space and the Seabed and Ocean Floor and five years after the Cuban Missile Crisis was bold and groundbreaking.

As we embark on the undertaking of the UN Conference to prohibit nuclear weapons, it is relevant to quote from Ambassador García Robles’ Nobel Lecture of December 11,1982 tracing the history of the Treaty of Tlatelolco:

The Treaty of Tlatelolco has thus contributed effectively to dispel the myth that for the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone it would be an essential requirement that all states of the region concerned should become, from the very outset, parties to the treaty establishing the zone. The system adopted in the Latin American instrument proves that, although no state can obligate another to join such a zone, neither can one prevent others wishing to do so from adhering to a regime of total absence of nuclear weapons within their own territories.

His remarks equally apply to the creation of a nuclear-weapon-free world. We have the courage to negotiate a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons and the patience to wait until all nations join us in our endeavour. The last accession to Tlatelolco came with Cuba, in October 2002 – 35 years after the Treaty was concluded.

Ambassador García Robles concluded his lecture with the following comments on the treaty’s global implications:

…. the Latin American nuclear-weapon free zone which is now nearing completion has become in several respects an example which, notwithstanding the different characteristics of each region, is rich in inspiration. It provides profitable lessons for all states wishing to contribute to the broadening of the areas of the world from which those terrible instruments of mass destruction that are the nuclear weapons would be forever proscribed, process which, as unanimously declared by the General Assembly in 1978, “should be encouraged with the ultimate objective of achieving a world entirely free of nuclear weapons”.

To think in a new way

Ambassador García Robles referred in his acceptance speech at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony to the foundation document of Pugwash – the 1955 London Manifesto – and to its founder President Lord Bertrand Russell. Garcia Robles was an eloquent and persistent voice against the global threat posed by the very existence of nuclear weapons, and he reminded his audience in Oslo that in his words: “To correctly appraise that threat it will suffice to recall that the United Nations General Assembly unanimously declared in 1978, at its first special session devoted to disarmament, that it is ‘the very survival of mankind’ which finds itself threatened by “the existence of nuclear weapons and the continuing arms race.”

Similar reasons, no doubt, moved Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell to declare in their historic Manifesto of 1955, that they were speaking “not as members of this or that nation, continent, or creed, but as human beings, members of the species Man, whose continued existence is in doubt”. Their conclusion that we have “to learn to think in a new way” is, unfortunately, as timely and relevant today as when it was spoken over a half century ago.

The non-nuclear-weapon states, have long learned to think as human beings under an existential threat since the invention of the most destructive weapon and its uses by the USA in 1945 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The possession by nine countries of an estimated 15,395 nuclear warheads — over 4,000 of which are deployed — is a frightening reality.

The explosion of just one — intentionally, accidentally, by state or non-state actors — can have catastrophic consequences with far-reaching climatic and genetic results. Under pressure from world public opinion, the nuclear-weapon states have largely confined their negotiations to arms control with partial cuts of their arsenals, mainly in the form of negotiated caps on deployments of strategic nuclear weapons.

Bolder steps have been taken by the non-nuclear-weapon states. Tracing the history of disarmament, apart from the many nuclear-weapon free zones that have been concluded covering the Global South, it was the initiative of non-nuclear-weapon states in the 1976 Non-aligned Summit in Colombo that led to the historic First Special Session of the UNGA in 1978. The PTBT and eventually the CTBT though not in force as yet was achieved through pressure from the non-nuclear-weapon states.

The same states led the Humanitarian Initiative where three international conferences affirmed the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons. Two global Commissions on which I was privileged to serve – Canberra in 1996 and the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission of 2006 – published reports calling for the total elimination of nuclear weapons.

Several years ago I participated in a seminar on nuclear-weapon-free zones in Stockholm in my capacity as UN Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs. Here is how I described the various responses of the non-nuclear-weapon states to the global nuclear threat, in words that remain valid today:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that nuclear weapons are the most destructive weapons invented and that their use can imperil all human civilization and the planet on which we live. Faced with this awful reality some non-nuclear weapon states, which have legally renounced the nuclear option, have huddled under the nuclear umbrella of nuclear powers. Others remain without any protection or legally binding assurances, relying on the campaign for nuclear disarmament leading to the total elimination of nuclear weapons – a goal that sometimes appears to be a mirage. Still others in a collective act of self-reliance have sought protection in nuclear weapon-free zones. Interestingly, such zones are mainly in the southern hemisphere further widening the gulf between the North and the South in today’s global political realities.

Nuclear-weapon-free zones as stepping-stones to a nuclear-weapon-free world

This is an opportune moment to examine the impressive record of historical achievements of existing zones, and to explore how this can be a basis for future progress. In these days of increasing uncertainty fuelled by populism; when so many other issues are competing for public attention – on both the domestic and international political agendas – it is all the more important to recall some of the inspirational heritage – in particular of the preamble of the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America signed in 1967.

It explains both eloquently and succinctly why such zones are so vital. The text, in particularly acute terms, refers to the existence of nuclear weapons as ‘an attack on the integrity of the human species’ and recognizes that the use of such weapons ‘may even render the whole earth uninhabitable’.

Yet what makes the history of nuclear weapon-free zones so impressive, is not the terror of nuclear war evoked in the preambles of their respective treaties, but the hope they inspire – hope based on both ideals and self-interests. The ideal is clear: these zones are stepping-stones to a world free of all nuclear weapons. They are a sophisticated means whereby the world can advance in common cause against the production, possession or deployment of a weapon that is inherently incapable of distinguishing between civilian and military targets – a weapon whose use would unquestionably violate international humanitarian legal principles as it destroys millions of innocent civilian lives and property. They have also progressively shrunk the area of the world’s surface where nuclear weapons can be stationed, thereby placing restrictions on the strategic plans of nuclear weapon states.

The ideal of global nuclear disarmament is already reason enough for action, but when this ideal is combined with concrete benefits that are responsive to practical concerns of even the most cynical of realists, the case for nuclear-weapon-free zones becomes formidable. This is the reason why such zones have grown both in variety and in popularity since their inception fifty years ago.

These zones clearly do not exist as ends in themselves. They exist because they serve genuine security interests, promote international peace and security, and inspire collective action for the good of each and the good of all. At a time when nuclear weapons remain in the hands of a few states – and reportedly remain in hands of a few others – these zones offer one of the few sustained activities open to non-nuclear-weapon states not just to quarantine themselves from the nuclear contagion around them, but also to pool their efforts to resist it.

Some people say that countries that do not possess nuclear weapons have no business seeking to encourage the nuclear-weapon states to change their nuclear policies. Indeed, that is the thinking of those who resist nuclear disarmament being negotiated in the world’s only multilateral negotiating forum for disarmament – the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. Some even object fervently to proposals – including, most recently, the resolution at the United Nations – for international conferences to consider measures to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Yet as a matter of conscience, policy and law, global nuclear disarmament is in no way the exclusive domain of those states that have chosen to possess such weapons. Though Article VII of the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) acknowledges the right of any group of States to create nuclear-weapon-free zones,

Article VI of that treaty commits all of its 187 states parties to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament”. Regional nuclear-weapon-free zones are one of the most important of such measures. It is also worth recalling that the 1996 ICJ Advisory Opinion – to which the late Judge Weeramantry of Sri Lanka contributed – cogently argues that the pursuit of negotiations under Article VI cannot be open-ended.

Nuclear-weapon free zones are in fact quarantine zones to protect countries from the nuclear weapon contagion. They have no nuclear umbrellas. They have no extended deterrence. But, they have, through a policy of self-reliance, adopted a nuclear weapon-free zone in order to protect themselves.

It is quite significant that – with the exception of the Central Asian zone – all of these zones are in the global south. And indeed – with the exception of Australia and New Zealand – all of the members of these zones are developing countries. This testifies to the extent that opposition to nuclear weapons has become very much part of the political identity of the southern hemisphere.

It is also important to bear in mind that all of these zones were conceived as a national security measure. Together, they share a common – and very conscious – rejection of nuclear weapons as part of the armory which countries wish to use for their national security. In many ways, they also serve environmental or conservation purposes, as some of their treaties prohibit the dumping of radioactive waste.

Infrastructure and Verification

There is also a great deal of infrastructural support for these nuclear-weapon-free zones which have been created through their treaties. We have Tlatelolco, the first of the nuclear-weapon-free zones, creating OPANAL, the Spanish acronym for the Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America, with its seat in Mexico City.

There is the consultative committee of the Treaty of Rarotonga, and an executive committee for the Treaty of Bangkok and so on. But, more importantly, there are also verification procedures that are legislated for within these zones, and special inspections are possible by the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, as a result of the close links between nuclear-weapon-free zones and the IAEA.

There are also bilateral arrangements, as the one that exists within Latin America between Argentina and Brazil, ABACC, where a provision is made for officials and technical officers of both countries to visit each other’s sites where the peaceful uses of nuclear energy are conducted. Some of them prohibit armed attack on each other’s installations for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

All this implies that there is a very sophisticated mechanism within the nuclear-weapon-free zones for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy to be conducted through IAEA inspections and safeguards as well. That has provided members of the zones the practical experience of verifying the prohibition of nuclear weapons.

Another very important feature is, of course, the protocols. In addition to the treaty which is signed by the member states of that particular zone, there are protocols open for signature by non-members, in particular by nuclear-weapon states, and there is through these signatures of the protocols, a respect that is tendered by the nuclear-weapon states towards these zones.

It is regrettable that not all these protocols have been signed by all the nuclear-weapon states, with the sole exception of the Treaty of Tlatelolco. In the case of the Treaty of Tlatelolco, all five nuclear weapon states of the NPT have signed and ratified the protocols. But, in the case of all the other nuclear weapon-free zones, we have not had all of the nuclear-weapon states sign the protocols, nor have we had them ratified.

The reason behind this is, of course, sometimes related to concerns and reservations that nuclear-weapon states have about the freedom of the high seas, about the ability of their vessels to carry nuclear weapons freely in parts outside the territories of these nuclear-weapon-free countries. But, whatever the reasons may be, I think it is important for negotiations to be conducted between countries within the nuclear-weapon-free zones and the nuclear-weapon states in order to disentangle the problems and to make progress with regard to making these protocols effective and viable.

Fundamental to the signature and the ratification of the protocols is the fact that by their signature, the nuclear-weapon states are extending to the members of these zones guarantees of their nuclear security, and these are guarantees that the non-nuclear weapon states have been requesting the nuclear-weapon states to give them by treaty for a very long time. “Negative security assurances” is the technical term that is used, and this remains a demand of the non-nuclear-weapon states at every NPT review conference.


The path of nuclear disarmament is strewn with missed opportunities. Non-nuclear-weapon states are less likely to miss future opportunities than nuclear-weapon states. They have a choice of the legal route and have had partial success with the Advisory Opinion of the ICJ. Of course the brave attempt of the Marshall Islands failed and efforts to persuade the International Criminal Court that the use of nuclear weapons is a crime against humanity have not succeeded. But at the United Nations the diplomatic route available with a new Secretary-General at the helm. And there is civil society working in solidarity with the nonnuclear weapon states.

Last year we observed the 30th anniversary of the Reykjavik Summit between Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev. Reykjavik has been widely regarded as one of the most important missed opportunities in the history of nuclear disarmament. We were then tantalizingly close to a nuclear-weapon-free world with the stroke of a pen – a vision of which another U.S. President would announce 23 years later albeit with the discouraging caveat that it would not be in his lifetime.

However, the boldness of the Reykjavik vision remained as a lodestar. The policy remained that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”. It must continue in the road ahead.

It is six years since the last nuclear arms control agreement between the U.S. and Russia. Disputes over Ukraine, the Crimea and Syria have caused a sharp deterioration of relations between the U.S. and Russia. New START expires in 2020. During the Cold War the Soviet Union’s overwhelming conventional arms superiority was said to be neutralized by a U.S. nuclear capability.

The situation seems to have reversed today. With a new administration in Washington DC there are prospects of the two major nuclear-weapon states – who together own over 90% of the nuclear weapons in the world – resuming negotiations on arms control. That should not make the non-nuclear-weapon states relax their efforts.

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Tlatelolco Treaty, let us together reaffirm the vital roles played by non-nuclear-weapon states everywhere in working for the day when nuclear weapons will be nowhere on this fragile planet.

* Jayantha Dhanapala is a former United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs, and a former Ambassador of Sri Lanka. He currently serves as the 11th President of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. This is an adaptation of his remarks at a recent seminar in Mexico City. [IDN-InDepthNews – 20 February 2017]

Photo: Jayantha Dhanapala | Image credit: UNODA

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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