Negative Security Assurances: Revisiting the Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Option

By Spector, Leonard S.; Ohlde, Aubrie | Arms Control Today, April 2005 | Go to article overview

Negative Security Assurances: Revisiting the Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Option


Spector, Leonard S., Ohlde, Aubrie, Arms Control Today


A perennial subject of contention at review conferences of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), held every five years, has been the desire of the non-nuclear-weapon states-parties to the treaty to obtain "legally binding negative security assurances" from the five nuclear-weapon states-parties: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

In the context of NPT diplomacy, negative security assurances are guarantees by the five NPT nuclear-weapon states not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against states that have formally renounced them. The non-nuclear-weapon states have traditionally pressed for such assurances in the form of a free-standing treaty.

Negative security assurances will surely be a controversial subject at the May 2005 NPT Review Conference in New York. Before the rhetoric obscures the reality, however, it is worth revisiting one approach for addressing this issue: the extension of binding negative security assurances by means of protocols to treaties establishing nuclear-weapon-free zones (NWFZs). To be sure, this strategy falls short of a universal approach. Yet, for the states it would cover, I extending negative security assurances by means of NWFZs promotes the core value associated with a universal non-use treaty: the fundamental principle that nations that have renounced nuclear weapons should be protected from being the targets of such arms.

The NWFZ approach is also far more likely to win favor from NPT nuclear-weapon states. Currently, only China has indicated its unreserved support for broader guarantees based on a new treaty.1 Russia supports an international agreement on the subject but "with reservations concerning cases in which nuclear weapons may be used."2 The other NPT nuclear-weapon states have resisted such binding, universal undertakings. The United Kingdom argues, for example, that "the way forward is to make further progress with nuclear-weapon-free zones, which will provide, on a credible, regional basis, the internationally binding legal instruments on [negative security assurances] that many are looking for."1

Underlying the reluctance of these NPT nuclear-weapon states is concern that a binding, universal negative security assurances treaty might unduly constrain military options and weaken the perceived strength of commitments to defend allies in conflict-prone regions. The region-by-region extension of binding negative security assurances via NWFZs permits the NPT nuclear-weapon states to accept added restrictions more selectively, as circumstances warrant. It also provides non-nuclear-weapon states with a practical path by which they can move forward with the realization of such guarantees.

A Heated but Sterile Debate

During the past decade, the diplomatic clash over negative security assurances has heated up, with actions unfolding predominantly during the review conferences themselves, as well as in related UN fora, such as the annual preparatory sessions for these events; the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva; and the "First Committee" of the UN General Assembly, covering disarmament and international security.4

The dispute is also reflected in the associated unilateral political declarations containing non-use pledges that the NPT nuclear-weapon states have made with a view toward influencing the debate at these various meetings. Most notably, in 1995, in conjunction with the NPT Review and Extension Conference, the five NPT nuclearweapon states reiterated their pre-existing unilateral negative security assurances, and the UN security Council adopted a unanimous resolution welcoming these declarations and incorporating them.5

Some have argued that this action, along with the fact that the NPT non-nuclear-weapon states relied on such assurances in accepting an indefinite extension of the treaty in 1995, have made the assurances legally binding. The United States disputes this, arguing in part that the assurances are not binding "international agreements" because the assurances were not adopted domestically in accordance with the procedures mandated by the U. …

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