The Obama administration’s recent submission to the Senate for ratification of two Nuclear Weapons Free Zones has prompted a backlash from Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ). The basis for the good Senator’s opposition is about as compelling as the reasons for his opposition to New START. In other words, not compelling at all.
Nuclear Weapons Free Zones are declared zones in which the presence, production, acquisition and use of nuclear weapons are banned by the signatory states. On May 2, President Obama submitted two requests to ratify the protocols of nuclear free-zone treaties- Pelindaba in Africa and Rarotonga in the South Pacific. The U.S. has signed the treaties, but has not yet ratified the protocols which commit us not to test or use nuclear weapons within the zones. The U.S. did sign and ratify, however, the Treaty of Tlatelolco (with Reagan’s support for ratification), the Latin American and Caribbean nuclear weapons free zone treaty, so ratification of Pelindaba and Rarotonga would not be a grand departure from policy.
As the Arms Control Association’s Peter Crail has laid out, the arguments for Senate approval of the protocols are strong.
The treaties can prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons usable technologies by requiring even stricter requirements than those in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Pelindaba, for instance, obligates members to follow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recommended standards of physical protection over nuclear facilities and material. Both Pelindaba and Rarotonga require that member states only engage in nuclear commerce with countries that have applied IAEA safeguards over all of their nuclear activities. This is significant because the two treaties’ members include some of the world’s key suppliers of uranium, including Australia, Namibia and Niger. The treaties, therefore, contribute to non-proliferation beyond the core prohibition on acquiring nuclear weapons.
Nonetheless, a terse press release from Sen. Kyl immediately followed the submission, condemning ratifying the treaties because:
1) signing would support the President’s “flawed nuclear policy” as outlined in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which limits the circumstances under which the U.S. would use nuclear weapons, and
2) the treaties do not address the proliferation threats posed by Iran, Syria and North Korea
Sen. Kyl’s first argument is moot because President Clinton already signed Pelindaba and Rarotonga in 1996, giving our assurance not to test or bomb treaty members. Is Sen. Kyl suggesting that there are circumstances under which the U.S. should renounce its political commitment and threaten to use nuclear weapons against one of the members? If so, he should be asked to name them.
Any future threat posed by members of these zones is addressed in the Nuclear Posture Review, which states that any country using chemical or biological weapons against the U.S. or its allies would still face a devastating conventional military response, and the leaders of the accountable countries would be held personally responsible. This is a far more credible threat – especially as no country has used nuclear weapons since the end of World War II – and thus, a more effective deterrent than Sen. Kyl’s preferred theoretical U.S. nuclear strike.
Also, contrary to Sen. Kyl’s second argument, the fact that Pelindaba and Rarotonga are not directly tasked with curtailing the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs is not an argument against the zones. Senate approval of the protocols of these treaties would actually strengthen the U.S. ability to reign in rogue states because members of the treaties have demonstrated active commitments to arrest proliferation. For instance, Nigeria and South Africa have halted shipments of Iranian arms and ammunition bound for Gambia and North Korean tank parts bound for the Republic of Congo. Australia has employed stronger sanctions against Iran than the U.N. recommended.
“U.S. failure to ratify the [Nuclear Weapons Free Zones] protocols has not prevented such cooperation from occurring, but doing so would be a cost-free way to bolster the case made by the United States that more countries should cooperate in such nonproliferation efforts in the future,” Crail argues.
For fifteen years we have supported these treaties and now, we can only benefit from ratifying them. Ratify-away, Senate.