Nuclear Weapons Free Zones

Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zones (NWFZs), in general, ban the production, testing, stockpiling, and acquisition of nuclear weapons, and prohibit nuclear-armed states from deploying or transporting nuclear weapons in territories defined by treaty and associated protocols. Recognized by the UN General Assembly, NWFZs work to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and create models for a nuclear-free world.

Nearly two billion people in 119 of the world’s 195 states reside in NWFZs, which have been established in Latin America and the Caribbean, the southern Pacific, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and Africa. Read more here.

NWFZs and the nuclear-weapon states


The five NPT nuclear-weapon states (the US, Russia, the UK, France, and China) have been invited to sign protocols in which they commit to honoring the terms of the NWFZ and explicitly provide negative security assurances. The nuclear-weapon states have dealt with these protocols in different ways, and sometimes have signed only with reservations.

For example, the US signed the protocol for an NWFZ in Africa in April 1996, but declared the right to respond with all measures available – which includes nuclear weapons – to a possible attack with chemical or biological weapons by a state in the region.

None of the nuclear-weapon states has signed the protocol for an NWFZ in Southeast Asia, as they fear this would limit their right to move naval vessels and airplanes freely through international waters and airspace. The nuclear-weapon states do not officially announce which of their vessels carry nuclear weapons and when.

The first regional Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone, established by the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (Treaty of Tlatelolco), was opened for signature in 1967 and entered into force in 1968 (33 States Parties). Cuba, which has signed the treaty, is the only participating country that has not yet ratified it. The treaty’s two protocols have been fully ratified.

The South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty (Treaty of Rarotonga) opened for signature in 1985 and entered into force in 1986. The treaty has been signed and ratified by all but three countries in the region (13 States Parties). The United States, though it has signed the two additional protocols, remains the only country that has not ratified the protocols. The Treaty of Rarotonga differs from the Treaty of Tlatelolco in that it includes an unequivocal ban on nuclear explosions and explosive devises for peaceful purposes, and prohibits its members from dumping nuclear waste into the zone’s waters.

The Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (Treaty of Bangkok) opened for signature in 1995 and came into force in 1996 (10 States Parties). No nuclear-armed State has signed the additional protocol, which calls for respect for the Treaty and negative security assurances. This may be due, in part, to the fact that the zone includes the continental shelves and Exclusive Economic Zones of the member states and that the protocol prohibits threat or use of nuclear weapons within the zone.

The African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty (Treaty of Pelindaba) opened for signature in 1996 and entered into force 2009 (50 signatories, 39 States Parties). Protocols I & II have been signed by the P-5 nuclear-weapon states and have been ratified by France and China. The Protocol Parties are obligated not to contribute to the violation of the treaty; not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons agaist the zone’s Member States; or to test nuclear weapons within the zone. Protocol III is open only to France and Spain, which have dependent territories within the zone. France signed thie Protocol with a reservation that it would not apply to nuclear explosive devices in transit between French territories within the zone. The Pelindaba Treaty uniquely bans any attack on a nuclear facility within the zone.

The Treaty on a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in Central Asia (CANWFZ) opened for signature in 2006 and entered into force in 2009 (5 States Parties). The P-5 nuclear-armed states have signed a Protocol to the treaty; France and the UK have ratified it.

The Sea Bed Treaty (1971), the Outer Space Treaty (1967) and the Antarctic Treaty (1959) are additional multilateral treaties aimed at prohibiting nuclear weapons from specific areas. The Antarctic Treaty specifically prohibits nuclear explosions of any kind, as well as the disposal of radioactive waste materials, in Antarctica,

National legislation, declarations, or constitutional mandates can create Single-State Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zones. Some countries, such as Mongolia and Austria, have declared their nuclear-weapon-free status in the absence of any regional treaty while others, such as New Zealand and the Philippines, have used domestic legislation to go beyond the obligations of the regional treaty to which they are a party.

Austria (1999) and Mongolia (2000) have both declared their nuclear-weapon-free status through enacting domestic legislation, Both States prohibit the manufacturing, storage, transport, and testing of nuclear weapons within their territory. Mongolia’s legislation also prohibits the transportation, dumping and storage of weapons-grade nuclear waste within its territory, and mandates the National Security Council of Mongolia to co-ordinate the international institutionalizing of its NWF status.

The single-nation zones lack formal agreements from nuclear-armed states respecting their NWF status. Mongolia, however, is seeking to achieve such international recognition as well as some negative security assurances from the NWS.

New Zealand’s Nuclear-Free Zone domestic legislation prohibits any foreign ship that is nuclear powered or is carrying nuclear weapons from entering its internal waters, and likewise prohibits any foreign aircraft carrying nuclear weapons from landing in its territory. This goes beyond New Zealand’s obligations under the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, which permits port visits of nuclear ships. The Philippines, a member of the South East Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone, has declared its territory free of nuclear weapons through a change in its constitution.

In January 1992, the Republic of Korea (South) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North) signed a Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Under this declaration the two countries agree not to test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy, or use nuclear weapons; not to possess nuclear reprocessing or uranium enrichment facilities; and to use nuclear energy solely for peaceful purposes.

The entry into force of this declaration has been delayed indefinitely since neither state has fulfilled its undertaking to establish a bilateral inspection program to control nuclear development in both states. The DPRK announced its withdrawal from the NPT in 2003 and conducted its first nuclear test in 2006.

Challenges and problems

The establishment of NWFZs is one of the most promising disarmament mechanisms to date, even though many challenges remain. One of these challenges is to get all states in a region to sign and ratify the treaty establishing the NWFZ.

Establishing an effective system for verifying all states’ compliance with the treaties is another challenge. Though the Treaty of Tlatelolco specifies a nuclear-free region in Latin America, for instance, there has been debate among nations in the region over whether fissile material can be transported through the zone by nuclear-weapon states.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is creating new NWFZs. Groups of states that include a whole continent or a particular large region, or even single states or small groups of states can establish an NWFZ. Most of the regions in which this can be accomplished relatively easily have already done so. The task is far more difficult in regions dominated by nuclear-armed states (e.g., Europe), or where extended deterrence relationships prevent key states from cooperating in the establishment of an NWFZ (e.g., North Asia), or where the zone itself is held hostage to regional animosities (e.g., the Middle East).

NWFZ in the Middle East

Establishing a nuclear-weapons and WMD-free zone in the Middle East has long been a priority for the international community. A peace conference in Madrid in 1991 established a multinational mechanism for a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East. For many years, the UN General Assembly has adopted a resolution calling for a Middle East NWFZ, but so far without results.

With nuclear weapons in Israel, suspicions about nuclear activities in Iran, the war in Iraq, the protracted conflict between Israel and Palestine, and the use of chemical weapons in Syria, it should be in the interest of all States in the region to pursue a Middle East NWWMDFZ. Yet these are precisely the conditions that have blocked progress on such a zone.

The action plan adopted at the 2010 NPT Review Conference called for a conference about a Middle East Zone Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction, to be held before the end of 2012. Plans for that conference, which was to have taken place in Helsinki in December 2012, were suspended because of Israel’s refusal to participate, and were never resumed. The 2015 NPT Review failed over lack of consensus on the process for pursuing a nuclear-weapon and WMD-free zone in the Middle East,


Last update: August 24, 2015