A large part of the world’s countries are nuclear-weapon-free zones. A nuclear-weapon-free zone is a number of countries, a region, or a country that has agreed not to manufacture, acquire, test, or possess nuclear weapons.
A nuclear-weapon-free zone leads to détente in the region by clearly distancing the region from nuclear weapons and nuclear threats. Being free from nuclear threats reduces the risk of nuclear acquisition and thus the declaration of nuclear-weapon-free zones is an important part of non-proliferation.
If countries can be assured that neighboring states they feel threatened by do not have their own or other states’ nuclear weapons stationed on their territory, they are less inclined to acquire nuclear weapons. Therefore, agreements on nuclear-weapon-free zones act as a barrier against nuclear proliferation.
Nuclear-weapon-free zones can be established by groups of states that make up entire continents or other large geographical areas, but also by individual states or smaller groups of states. The countries that have joined a nuclear-weapon-free zone are prohibited from manufacturing, test-detonating, stockpiling or acquiring nuclear weapons. Nor may they have nuclear weapons deployed on their territory, regardless of whether it concerns their own or other states’ nuclear warheads.
Nuclear-weapon-free zones today
Today, there are several areas of the world that constitute nuclear-weapon-free zones: Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, Mongolia, Central Asia and Austria. Currently, nuclear-weapon-free zones cover more than 50% of the Earth’s land surface (including 99% of all land in the Southern Hemisphere).
Individual states that have declared themselves nuclear-weapon-free zones are Austria (1999) and Mongolia (2000). Legally speaking, these one-state zones do not quite work in the same way as a nuclear-weapon-free zone agreement. Mongolia wants to achieve international status as a one-state nuclear-weapon-free zone and has received some international support for this. Austria has written into its legislation that the country is and must be free of nuclear weapons.
Other similar national initiatives include New Zealand banning foreign ships or aircraft powered by nuclear power or carrying nuclear weapons from entering its waters or landing on its territory.
The approval of the nuclear weapon states
The five official nuclear weapon states; France, China, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States are encouraged to agree to an Additional Protocol to the Zone Agreement committing to respect the area’s desire to be a nuclear-weapon-free zone, and not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against those areas.
The nuclear weapon states have dealt with this in different ways and sometimes reserved themselves to still be able to use nuclear weapons against countries in the regions under certain special circumstances. For example, the United States signed the protocol for a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Africa but declared that it reserved the right to respond with all possible means, which could include nuclear weapons, to a possible attack with chemical or biological weapons by a country in the region.
None of the nuclear-weapon states have signed the protocol for a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Southeast Asia because it would limit their right to move freely with their ships and aircraft in international waters and airspace. The principle of the nuclear weapon states is not to make public whether there are nuclear weapons on board their craft.
Nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East
Establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East is a hotly debated topic. Since 1974, the UN General Assembly annually adopts a resolution on a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East. But at a peace conference in Madrid in 1991, the foundations were laid for a multinational mechanism to work for a nuclear-free Middle East.
A prerequisite for negotiations on a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East to begin is that Israel places its nuclear energy facilities under the IAEA’s control mechanisms and disarms its nuclear weapons, which it has so far refused to do.
At the 2010 Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, consensus was reached that by the end of 2012 at the latest a conference on a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East should be held.
But it was not until December 2019 that the first conference on a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East took place. The second conference took place in December 2021 and the third conference took place in November 2022.
A nuclear-weapon-free Europe
The idea of one or more nuclear-weapon-free zones in Europe has been raised intermittently for several decades, but so far has not yielded results. In Europe, there is partly United Kingdom and France, which are official nuclear weapon states with their own nuclear weapons, and partly American nuclear weapons which are deployed in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. A nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Nordic countries and in the Baltic Sea is also sometimes discussed.
Sources and more information
Overview of Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones, United Nations, UN
Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones (NWFZ) At a Glance, Arms Control Association
Treaty of Tlatelolco, United Nations, UN
Treaty of Rarotonga, United Nations, UN
Treaty of Bangkok, United Nations, UN
Treaty of Pelindaba, United Nations, UN
Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty, United Nations, UN
Mongolia’s nuclear-weapon-free status, United Nations, UN
WMD-Free Middle East Proposal at a Glance, Arms Control Association
Work Continues on Middle Eastern WMD-Free Zone, Arms Control Association