Weapons of Mass Destruction and the Latin American Solution

BY THOMAS WHITE–In the early morning of 21 August 2013, the farmers living in the region of Ghouta, Syria, arose to an unexpected and horrific reality: sarin gas rained from the sky.[1]  Although the Syrian civil war had been raging for more than two years prior to the chemical weapons attack, the use of weapons of mass destruction (“WMD”) prompted great international upheaval.[2]  That outcry eventually led to a weapons inspection conducted by the United Nations and subsequent agreement between the United States and Russia, providing for the surrender and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons.[3]  But the horrific use of chemical weapons against the civilian population of Syria left many wondering, “How do we prevent this from ever happening again?”  To find one solution, one might have to look half-way around the world—to Latin America.  There, South and Central America have been kept free of WMDs for nearly fifty years, largely due to the creation of the Latin America Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, provided by the Treaty of Tlatelolco.  That treaty has provided the foundation and template for several nuclear weapons free zone treaties worldwide and could potentially lay the foundation for a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (“WMDFZ”) over the Middle East.

In 1962, the Cold War visited the Caribbean, where it was believed that Cuba was in the process of becoming a station for nuclear weapons.[4]  Just days after the Cuban Missile Crisis was averted, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, and Ecuador introduced a resolution in the UN, seeking to declare “the territory of Latin America as a denuclearized zone.”[5]  One year later, the UNGA adopted Resolution 1911 encouraging the creation of a nuclear weapons free zone in Latin America.[6]  The Treaty of Tlatelolco was opened for signature on February 14, 1967,[7] and was welcomed “with special satisfaction” by the UNGA in December of that year.[8]  Since it’s signing in 1967, the Treaty of Tlatelolco has been ratified by all 33 nations of Latin America,[9] becoming universal in the zone of application in 2002 with ratification by Cuba.[10]  Establishing the first nuclear weapons free zone in an inhabited territory, the Treaty of Tlatelolco “prohibit[s] and prevent[s] the ‘testing, use, manufacture, production or acquisition by any means whatsoever of any nuclear weapons’ and the ‘receipt, storage, installation, deployment and any form of possession of any nuclear weapons.’”[11]

Following the Treaty of Tlatelolco, the Southern Pacific, Southeast Asia, Africa, Central Asia, and Mongolia, each followed Latin America’s lead, using the Treaty of Tlatelolco as a template to create a nuclear weapons free zone (“NWFZ”) in their own regions.  Spurred by the fear of nuclear testing, the dumping of nuclear waste, and the threat of nuclear weapons programs developing within the regions, each of those zones are now covered by treaties prohibiting, among other things, the possession, manufacturing, or testing of any nuclear explosive device, and the dumping of radioactive material or waste within the region.[12]

While there have been many set-backs in the journey toward the creation of a weapons of mass destruction free zone in the Middle East, the adoption of such a zone has enjoyed broad support from the United Nations General Assembly, since the proposal was first recognized in 1974.[13]  More recently, the election of Iran’s moderate President, Hassan Rouhani, has led to a surprising about-face in Iran’s policy regarding its nuclear weapons program.[14]  The recent agreement between Iran and the P5+1 provides for important reductions in Iran’s nuclear production and stockpiles, as well as “unprecedented international monitoring” of Iran’s nuclear program, in exchange for “the beginning of the end of sanctions” in Iran. [15]  Although the deal between Iran and the West remains a temporary solution, and each side admits that “[t]here are lots of things, regrettably, that we still have to work on,” the plan does demonstrate the possibility for the creation of a WMDFZ in the Middle East, more so than ever before.[16]

 In contemplating a WMDFZ in the Middle East, Dr. Hans Blix[17] has stated that diplomats should not “start with a blank page,” but “look back” to models of NWFZs that could provide guidance.[18]  Since its adoption in 1967, the Treaty of Tlatelolco has provided that guidance, resulting in critical steps towards non-proliferation throughout the world.  With any luck, the legacy of Tlatelolco will continue to grow through the application of that treaty in the Middle East, thus strengthening non-proliferation around the globe.

[3] Id.

[6] Id.

[13] Id. at 436.

[15] http://www.cnn.com/2013/11/24/world/meast/iran-nuclear-deal/index.html?hpt=hp_t1; http://eeas.europa.eu/statements/docs/2013/131124_03_en.pdf; http://www.cnn.com/2013/11/24/world/meast/iran-nuclear-deal/index.html?hpt=hp_t1.

[17] Dr. Hans Blix is Director-General Emeritus of the IAEA and the Executive Chairman of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) for Iraq between 2000 and 2003, and has chaired the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission since it was established in 2004.

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