The Treaty of Tlatelolco

(This is the text of a speech given before the Organization of American States on March 15, 2007.)

It is a great honor to celebrate with you the 40th anniversary year of the Treaty of Tlatelolco, officially called the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean. This Treaty was a great achievement, and has served your region well.

Many years ago, I had the pleasure of knowing and working with Alfonso Garcia Robles, the great Mexican diplomat who was so instrumental in creating this treaty. For his vision and commitment, he shared the 1982 Nobel Peace Prize with Swedish diplomat Alva Myrdal.

The Treaty of Tlatelolco paved the way and was a model for other Nuclear Weapon Free Zones ­ those in the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Central Asia. Today, virtually the entirety of the southern hemisphere is covered by Nuclear Weapon Free Zones. Latin America and the Caribbean led the way in this important achievement.

But, as great as the achievement has been in creating first the Nuclear Weapon Free Zone for Latin America and Caribbean, and then the southern hemispheric series of Nuclear Weapon Free Zones, it is not enough. While regional efforts are useful, they cannot fully protect the people of the region from the effects of nuclear wars in other parts of the world.

Latin America and the Caribbean cannot rest easy in the belief that your region can be protected against nuclear devastation. So long as there are nuclear weapons in the world, your region, although it has acted with such reason and sanity, remains endangered. Nuclear weapons anywhere are a threat to people everywhere.

In 1995, the parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) agreed at the Treaty’s Review and Extension Conference that they would pursue “systematic and progressive efforts” to achieve nuclear disarmament. Among the commitments made in 1995 was one to the creation of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The international community moved quickly from that point, and the CTBT was opened for signatures in 1996.

At the 2000 NPT Review Conference the parties reached agreement on 13 Practical Steps for Nuclear Disarmament, including on “[t]he importance and urgency of signatures and ratifications, without delay and without conditions and in accordance with constitutional processes, to achieve the early entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.” The parties further agreed to an “unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals.”

More than 10 years have passed since the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, and this critical Treaty has not yet entered into force. To do so, the Treaty requires the signatures of the 44 nuclear-capable states. As of now, there are still 10 nuclear-capable states that have not ratified the Treaty, including two NPT nuclear weapons states, the United States and China. Israel, not a party to the NPT, also has not ratified the CTBT. Other nuclear weapons states that are not parties to the NPT ­ India, Pakistan and North Korea ­ have not even signed the Treaty. Some of the nuclear weapons states that have signed the CTBT, such as the United States, have continued to evade the spirit of the treaty by conducting nuclear weapons tests by other means, including computer simulations and sub-critical tests.

Now, more than 15 years after the end of the Cold War and some 37 years after the entry into force of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the commitments to nuclear disarmament made by the nuclear weapons states in Article VI of the Treaty remain unfulfilled. We must conclude that these states are failing in their obligations to the international community and to humanity as a whole. One of these states, the most powerful one, is a member of the Organization of American States. It is my own country, the United States.

Viewed objectively, the United States has made some progress in reducing its nuclear arsenal, but it has also demonstrated its commitment to maintaining its nuclear arsenal for the indefinite future. The United States has shown no leadership toward fulfilling its obligations under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty ­ the principal obligation being good faith negotiations to achieve complete nuclear disarmament. This obligation was unanimously confirmed by the International Court of Justice in its 1996 Advisory Opinion on the Legality of Nuclear Weapons, which stated that the Article VI obligation was to “bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects.”

Certain questions must be posed:

Do non-nuclear weapons states have a responsibility with regard to the failure of the nuclear weapons states to act to fulfill their obligations for nuclear disarmament?

Do non-nuclear weapons states have self-interest in the success or failure of the nuclear weapons states to fulfill their Article VI obligations for nuclear disarmament?

What can non-nuclear weapons states do when the nuclear weapons states fail to fulfill their obligations to achieve nuclear disarmament?

I would say that the answer to the first two questions is certainly Yes. It is, in a sense, analogous to the idea that “friends do not let friends drive drunk.” There is both a responsibility and self-interest in keeping drunks from driving. By preventing a drunken friend from driving, you serve their interest as well as your own.

What can be done to take away the keys to launch the nuclear-armed missiles from a drunken nuclear weapons state poses a more difficult problem. In one sense, the nuclear weapons states are the most powerful states in the world ­ in terms of the damage they can inflict on others. But in another sense, they are the most vulnerable states because they expose their citizenry to retaliatory nuclear annihilation.

I suggest to you that this issue of nuclear vulnerability is a serious one. In today’s world, all states, including the nuclear weapons states themselves, could be held hostage to nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorist groups. Thus, there must be zero tolerance for nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. But in a world in which some countries rely upon nuclear weapons for their security, there is always the possibility for these weapons to fall into the hands of criminals and extremists; terror-minded individuals and organizations that could not be deterred from using them. In such a situation, even a country with thousands of nuclear weapons would be helpless against a nuclear attack.

When we consider the possibility of nuclear terrorism, it is hard not to think that nuclear weapons in any hands, including those of the nuclear weapons states, do not constitute a form of such terrorism. The mere possession of these weapons constitutes an implicit threat to use them under certain but not defined circumstances.

One thing should be clear: Nuclear weapons cannot provide protection against a nuclear attack. They can only deter such an attack if a country is subject to being deterred. Nuclear weapons cannot protect against accidents, miscalculations, false alarms, or terrorist attacks. The only way to assure that such attacks do not occur is to verifiably eliminate all nuclear weapons, and to place the materials and technologies to create these weapons under strict international control.

The United States wants to develop a new type of nuclear warhead, one it calls the “Reliable Replacement Warhead.” Why? Because the United States seems to want to rely upon nuclear weapons for its security forever ­ and it wants these weapons to be able to reliably defeat any enemy, regardless of the financial and human costs.

The United States has pushed Russia into an unfortunate agreement, the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT). This treaty will reduce deployed strategic nuclear warheads in both countries’ arsenals to 2,200 or less by 2012. However, the Treaty does not require the reductions to be irreversible, transparent or verified, and after 2012 these countries can expand their nuclear arsenals as they please.

The United States has developed contingency plans for the use of nuclear weapons against both nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states, and Mr. Bush seems to favor preventive war and keeping all options on the table. The United States is pressing forward with missile defenses, forcing Russia and China to strengthen their offensive nuclear forces. Add to this that the United States has blocked nearly every proposal for multilateral progress on nuclear disarmament and you can see that the United States is driving drunk. It needs the help and intervention of its friends.

The world has come close to nuclear weapons use in the past. Perhaps the closest was the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. But it came close again in 1995 when Boris Yeltsin was awakened in the middle of the night and told that Russia was facing a US nuclear attack. In fact, a US-Norwegian Weather Satellite had been launched from Norway, and the Russian command had misinterpreted this as an attack on Russia. The Russian black box with launch codes was placed before Yeltsin, and he was given only moments to decide whether to launch a “counter-attack” against the US ­ an attack that could have led to an all-out nuclear war. Fortunately Yeltsin waited and it became apparent that the missile was not headed toward Russia. I ask you to consider, though, the immense dangers involved in leaving the decision to initiate a nuclear war in the hands of any individual, even those who do not drink themselves to sleep at night.

As a citizen of the United States, I would pose the question: In the Americas, why should only Latin American and Caribbean citizens have the advantages of living within a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone? The idea of a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone is so powerful that all citizens of Earth should aspire to this. The needed Nuclear Weapon Free Zone is, of course, that of the Earth itself. So I am here to solicit your help in pushing my country into a leadership role to achieve this great goal.

It can only be hoped that the United States will not always be as short-sighted and reckless in its use of force as it has been in recent years under the current administration. After World War II and the trials at Nuremberg, it should be unacceptable for leaders anywhere to engage in aggressive war without being held to account by the international community.

Please add your official voices to those of the many citizens of the United States who work with vigor and persistence to achieve the goal of a nuclear weapons-free planet. I believe it is the shared duty of all non-nuclear weapons states to exert maximum pressure on the United States and the other nuclear weapons states to urgently take the following steps toward achieving a nuclear weapons-free world:

1. Immediately take all nuclear weapons off high alert status and take all necessary precautions to assure that nuclear war could not commence by accident.

2. Make legally binding commitments not to use nuclear weapons first under any circumstances, nor to use them under any circumstances against non-nuclear weapons states.

3. Repatriate all nuclear weapons from foreign soil and from the seas to the territory of their possessors. It is time to stop accepting the misuse of the oceans, the common heritage of humankind, as a hiding place for nuclear arms.

4. Bring the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty into force, cease seeking to evade the spirit of the CTBT by conducting computer simulations and sub-critical tests, and close the Nevada Test Site in the US and Novaya Zemyla Test Site in Russia, as China has closed Lop Nor and France has closed its Pacific Test Site.

5. Enter into a treaty to ban all nuclear weapons and other weapons from outer space.

6. Convene a meeting of all states, including all nuclear weapons states, for the purpose of negotiating a Nuclear Weapons Convention for the phased elimination of all nuclear weapons.

The former vice president of the United States, Al Gore, has awakened tens of millions of people across the planet to the dangers of global warming with his film, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Another “inconvenient truth” is that more than 27,000 nuclear weapons, over 95 percent in the arsenals of the United States and Russia, continue to threaten our cities, our countries, our civilizations, and life on Earth.

In Latin America and the Caribbean you have been leaders in carving out a portion of the planet to be free from nuclear weapons. As you celebrate the 40th anniversary year of the Treaty of Tlatelolco, please keep firmly in mind that this great accomplishment is not the fulfillment of the final goal. Finishing the job requires assuring that the rest of the Earth, the northern as well as the southern hemisphere, also be made nuclear weapons-free before our common human future is assured.

I fear that there exists far too much complacency about nuclear weapons, and I ask for your leadership as though the future of our precious planet depended upon it. Such leadership is now needed, as it was when you created the Treaty of Tlatelolco. In the spirit of Alfonso Garcia Robles and also your great Latin American poet, Pablo Neruda, I ask for your leadership to break out of this complacency and to challenge those nations and leaders that continue to hold humanity hostage to the threat of nuclear annihilation. It is not enough to limit the sphere of nuclear weapons or their testing; we must eliminate the weapons themselves ­ all of them. This is the great challenge of our particular time on Earth.

As Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell wrote in their famous Manifesto in 1955: “There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.”

DAVID KRIEGER is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation , and a leader in the global effort to abolish nuclear weapons. This speech was delivered at OAS Headquarters on Washington, DC on March 15, 2007 in a “Special Meeting on Consolidation of the Regime Established in the Treaty of Tlatelolco and on the Worldwide Comprehensive Test Ban.”


David Krieger is president emeritus of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (