By Alfred Nurja
In a little noted section of a speech before the Conference on Disarmament, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller reiterated a commitment made last year by Secretary Clinton to submit for “Senate advice and consent the ratification of protocols to the nuclear weapons-free zones established for Africa and South Pacific.” It is indeed past time that the State Department submits these protocols and the U.S. Senate approves U.S. participation in these two important pillars of the nuclear nonproliferation regime.
Swift ratification of these protocols without reservations or conditions would underscore President Obama’s pledge to fulfill U.S. responsibilities as a nuclear power committed to the NPT. Nuclear Weapons Free Zones form an essential part of the non-proliferation regime and such ratification, while adding no additional burdens on the United States, would bring its legal position to par with international commitments already undertaken in its declaratory policy.
It is almost 15 years now since the United States signed the protocols to the African Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (the Pelindaba Treaty) and the South Pacific Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty (the Rarotonga Treaty). In these protocols, the United States has pledged not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against any party, territory of any party, to the treaties of Rarotonga and Pelindaba. These protocols also commit the United States not to test or assist in testing nuclear explosive devices within the zones established by the Treaty.
Historically, the United States has extended negative security assurances, (pledges not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons), to non-nuclear weapon members of the NPT in good standing and Nuclear Weapons Free Zones member states. First made in 1978, such pledges were reaffirmed in 1995 by President Clinton and incorporated in the UN Security Council Resolution 984. Until 2010, however, U.S. declaratory policy had carved out exceptions for using nuclear weapons in response to an attack with chemical or biological weapons by non nuclear weapon states. Many experts in the field had pointed out a potential incongruence between negative security assurances and U.S. declaratory policy pledges which undercut from the full impact of these commitments.
In April of 2010 the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review broke with past practice and announced that the U.S. would not use nuclear weapons in response to a potential attack with chemical and biological weapons by non-nuclear weapons states. Long before 2010 however, it had become clear that the massive and rapidly improving U.S. conventional weapons arsenal provided ample means of deterring and responding effectively to any threat or use of chemical or biological weapons. As former Defense Secretary Perry noted back in 1995, “in every situation that I have seen so far, nuclear weapons would not be required for a response.” And as Secretary Gates affirmed after the release of the 2010 policy, “Try as we might, we could not find a credible scenario where a chemical weapon could have the kind of consequences that would warrant a nuclear response.”
Ratifying the protocols to the Pelindaba and Rarotonga Treaties in a manner consistent with the new U.S. declaratory policy would only follow through on a U.S. commitment taken long ago and come at no cost to American security. But ratification would also visibly diminish the role of nuclear weapons in accordance with the objectives of the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. Moreover, by backing a U.S. policy declaration with legally binding assurances, the United States will enhance its standing in the international community.
Additionally, Protocol I to the Rarotonga Treaty, once ratified, would extend the application of the free zone to the American Samoa and the Jarvin island.