Photo: Dr Jargalsaikhan Enkhsaikhan (Credit: Global Peace Foundation) against the backdrop of Chinggis Khaan (Sükhbaatar) Square in Ulaanbaatar, the capital and largest city of Mongolia. Source: Hostelman ID

Viewpoint by Dr Jargalsaikhan Enkhsaikhan

The writer is Chairman of Blue Banner NGO, Former Mongolian Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

ULAANBAATAR (IDN) — In preparation for the 10th Review Conference (Revcon) of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in August, a group of NGOs met in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, to exchange views and discuss the challenges and prospects of nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWFZ) regimes that are recognized as important practical regional measures of non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWSs) that contribute to non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament. [2022-06-16-07] JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF

All agreed that the most effective way to prevent nuclear weapons threat and their proliferation was the total elimination of such weapons. They had underlined that the entry into force of the Treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons (TPNW) provides a legal framework to delegitimize further nuclear weapons and strengthen the global norms to abolish such weapons. However, that was not enough. In today’s rapidly changing geopolitical landscape NWFZs need to play a larger and more active role than before since there still exists enormous constructive potential in the concept and actual practice of NWFZs.

At present, the sea-bed, Antarctica and the outer space are considered as uninhabited NWFZs. There are also five NWFZs in inhabited areas: Latin America and the Caribbean, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, the entire African continent and Central Asia. These include 116 states covering about 84 million km2 of the world’s landmass representing 39% of its population and making up 60% of the membership of the United Nations. The regional zones are known as traditional zones. Mongolia is recognized as a state with special nuclear-weapon-free status.

As the number of traditional NWFZs increases, their joint voice will become more weighty and would contribute further to the goal of establishing a nuclear-weapon-free world. To make NWFZs more credible and effective, all five recognized de jure nuclear weapon states (the P5) need to sign or ratify without delay the protocols to NWFZ treaties and withdraw their reservations or unilateral interpretative statements that affect the statuses of NWFZs. The states that have assumed international responsibility over dependent territories need to make sure that their responsibilities do not affect the NWFZs or the legitimate interests of the peoples of those territories.

When reviewing the role of NWFZs, the participants of the Ulaanbaatar conference underlined that one of the main weaknesses of the current NWFZ concept was connected to Article VII[i] of the NPT that excluded individual states in establishing NWFZs and the 1975 UNGA definition of NWFZs reflecting in its resolution 3472 (XXX) followed the NPT’s approach. The definition that the zones needed to be established “on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at among the states of the region concerned”[ii].

That approach excluded individual states in becoming part of regional zones, even though the 1975 first “comprehensive study of NWFZs in all their aspects” had recognized that zones could be established not only by groups of states but also by entire continents and even by individual states. Today this is not an academic issue anymore but has far reaching practical geopolitical implications. Cumulatively these individual states and their sovereign territories far exceed Central Asian and Southeast Asian states and their sovereign territories.

Moreover, the exclusive group approach contradicts the very spirit of the sovereign equality of states reflected in the United Nations Charter and the fundamental principles of international law, including the right to security. An advisory opinion of ICJ can be sought on the issue. When defining NWFZs the General Assembly in the same resolution has conceded that it “in no way impaired the resolutions which the General Assembly had adopted or may adopt with regard to specific cases of NWFZs or the right emanating for the Member States from such resolutions”[iii]. No wonder that resolution was adopted by voting with some voting against and some abstaining in its adoption.

Currently under consideration is the issue of the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. Informal exchanges of views and ideas to establish a Northeast Asian NWFZ and a zone in the Arctic are also underway. However, there are numerous small states that due to their geographical location or for some credible political or legal reasons cannot be part of a group, i.e. traditional zones. We all know and recognize that the nuclear-weapon-free world would be as strong as its weakest link(s).

Hence there is a need to review the outdated definition of NWFZs so that these NNWSs are not excluded from joining the nuclear-weapon-free world. Otherwise, political vacuums and international legal loopholes would be created in international relations that may be seen and used by the competing nuclear-weapon states to acquire geopolitical advantages with all the ensuing destabilizing consequences not only for that particular region but even broader at a time when in this fast-changing world space and time are becoming important, if not decisive, geostrategic factors.

Excluding some NNWSs based on their geographical location would only widen the division among NNWSs with the majority being protected by international law while some few not. Therefore, a second, this time truly comprehensive study of NWFZs in all their aspects needs to be undertaken, which should be inclusive in its approach to allow for further expansion of NWFZs, as has been pointed out in the statement adopted at the Ulaanbaatar conference.

This second study, which Mongolia proposed in 2013, should make practical use of the more than four decades of accumulated state practices, rich experience and lessons learned that could be helpful in negotiating the second generation of zones, closing all possible legal and political vacuums and loopholes that would weaken the NWFZ regime.  

The second study is undertaken with the participation of all interested states and should include, as mentioned earlier, unconditional security assurances to be provided by the P5 of NWFZ-related protocols, the role of the de facto nuclear-armed states, etc. It should also pronounce itself on the issue of establishing single-State zones and providing by the P5 to NNWSs not parties to traditional zones of pledges to respect their status and not to contribute to any act that would violate their status, known as security assurance lite.

If there is a decision by the NPT Revcon to agree to undertake the second study on NWFZs it will be a practical contribution of NNWSs to strengthening further the NPT regime and the next NPT Revcon can review its implementation on par with other issues reflected in the Revcon agenda. [IDN-InDepthNews – 16 June 2022]

Photo: Dr Jargalsaikhan Enkhsaikhan (Credit: Global Peace Foundation) against the backdrop of Chinggis Khaan (Sükhbaatar) Square in Ulaanbaatar, the capital and largest city of Mongolia. Source: Hostelman ID

[i] NPT’s Article VII regarding NWFZs says that “nothing in the treaty affects the right of any group of States to conclude regional treaties” is still being recognized as accepted norm of contemporary international relations and international law. However, the question is whether that is enough today in moving towards a nuclear-weapon-free world.

[ii] UNGA resolution 3472 (XXX) B of 11 December 1975

[iii] Ibid.