Twilight Zones:  Keeping a Fading Light on Disarmament Obligations

7 Sep

A line in the UN Journal for September 8 invites diplomats and observers to an ‘informal’ meeting of the Disarmament Commission, a body that has, by the admission of most who participate in it, fallen short of any reasonable expectations for its performance.

A reputation like the one attributed to this Commission, rightly or wrongly, has led increasingly for calls to pursue disarmament outside of existing international structures.   Such structures clearly add value to certain weapons-related processes – cluster munitions come immediately to mind — but are not without their detractors.  Indeed there is legitimate concern that self-selected policy settings tend to accelerate the pace of ‘like mindedness’ that crowds out the thoughtful and critical assessments of weapons policies that can help eliminate policy errors and create new disaramament consensus among all UN member states.  Reservations, as many others have noted, should not automatically imply efforts to demean or weaken.

That said, there is one area that has a tenuous relationship to the disarmament policy grid, that can and should attract more diplomatic interest, and that might even help to revitalize interest in more formal disarmament structures of the UN – the Nuclear Weapons (and proposed WMD) Free Zones.

The inspiration for this post derives much from the policy work and strategic thinking of UNODA’s Michael Spies.   He correctly identifies the ‘highly fragile and weak’ international regime governing the possession and spread of nuclear weapons.  He also identifies ways in which the zones can help to close loopholes that allow non-nuclear weapons states to continue to contribute in varying ways to (and derive the benefits from) the arsenals of the nuclear weapons states.   And he identifies the different ways in which the common strengthening of the zones can help promote a safer, nuclear free world.

Spies makes clear that paying closer attention to the zones can clarify responsibilities for non-nuclear weapons states in confronting the inability of the nuclear weapons powers (those acknowledged by the NPT and those not) to honor disarmament obligations.  Such attention can also help solidify standards of policy and infrastructure that can both elevate the effectiveness of individual zones and more directly ensure that states participating in any of the zones can speak with a clear and unified voice when seeking due diligence on security and disarmament from the nuclear weapons powers.  Such ‘consolidation of standards,’ to use a term favored by Spies, can also help states monitor each other to ensure that they are not condemning nuclear weapons possession on the one hand while simultaneously providing cover or support for states committed to keeping nuclear weapons as a signature feature of their military doctrines.

Another value from our standpoint is that states participating in more robust zones can thereby enhance their capacity to work together on a wide variety of security matters affecting conditions both within and between regional states.   While we have no data to support this assertion directly, it has always seemed to us that the relatively robust structure of Latin America’s OPANAL (Treaty of Tlatelolco) could be a particularly useful starting (not an end) point for the creation of common standards of zone organization and conduct.  Clearly there are other factors promoting Latin America’s leadership in this area including growing economies, the relative absence of armed violence and grave human rights violations, and excellent interventions by international organizations including the UN’s regional disarmament office in Lima (UNLiREC).  As the Latin American region becomes more politically stable, efforts to create and sustain regional security frameworks (ie. UNASUR) that distance themselves from the US and other larger powers  provide additional hope that Latin American states can forthrightly examine OPANAL’s own strengths and limitations while promoting commonly adhered standards for zone conduct that are very much in the interests of the global commons.

In so many respects, the international security situation seems to be moving steadily towards a dark place.   But the zones represent a lengthening (if fading) light, a chance for the regions – especially those regions not currently drowning in insurgencies or groaning under bloated military expenditures — to make their case for alternatives to a world awash in illicit (or profoundly destructive) weapons and the weapons-dependent doctrines of possessor states.

The nuclear weapons free zones have not, in our view, gotten the attention they deserve from the UN’s mostly-stalemated disarmament architecture.   Before the disarmament sun sets entirely, there are many more opportunities to promote more effective, robust, common standards for the zones that can leverage more integrated regional security arrangements and especially close loopholes that needlessly accommodate the needs of nuclear weapons powers.  Such opportunities must be seized while the twilight remains.

Dr. Robert Zuber

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