UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hosts a meeting between US President Obama and Russian President Putin

Over the past few years, tensions between nuclear-armed blocs have re-surfaced, increasing the risk of a nuclear assault by accident or miscalculation, and hindering the prospects for multi-lateral nuclear disarmament. These include the conflicts between Russia and the West (especially over the Ukraine), and between China and the U.S. alliance in East Asia (especially over disputed islands and territorial waters in the South China Sea).

In looking at past conflicts between nuclear states, it is clear that countries such as Kazakhstan, and international organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union, have played a key role in enabling successful diplomacy and achieving significant agreements. This includes the agreements to eliminate nuclear weapons in former Soviet countries, negotiation of the Central Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone, and most recently the Iran deal.

The International Conference ‘Building a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World’ in Astana on August 29th will bring together experts in diplomacy who will explore, among other things, the role that third party leadership can play to facilitate conflict resolution, nuclear risk-reduction and disarmament between the nuclear armed blocs.

Nuclear disarmament diplomacy – the example of Kazakhstan

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan inherited what was, at the time, the 4th largest arsenal of nuclear weapons in the world.

In one of the most significant steps of disarmament the world has ever seen, Kazakhstan, followed by Ukraine and Belarus, decided to renounce the nuclear weapons entirely and join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  However, this measure required cooperation between Russia and the USA.

President Nazarbayev, in particular, outlined conditions to renounce the weapons, including progress by Russia and USA on START 1 reductions, security assurances from the nuclear weapon States that they would not target a nuclear-weapons-free Kazakhstan, and assistance from US and Russia in destroying the nuclear weapons.

To implement this decision in accordance with the conditions, the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program was established. This program facilitated cooperation between the US and Russia to dismantle the weapons, destroy the delivery systems, repatriate the warheads to Russia and secure all remaining fissile materials.

The program paved the way for additional cooperation between the USA and Russia on nuclear security issues, including the safe destruction of Russian chemical weapons, and measures to prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This program is still active, although some aspects of cooperation in sensitive areas have been cancelled in the wake of the new conflicts and increased tensions between USA and Russia.

Central Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone – the role of the United Nations

In 1993 the government of Uzbekistan proposed the establishment of a Central Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (CANWFZ), which would include Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In the beginning the proposal did not make much headway due to a mix of complex regional security issues, one of which being the intersecting relationships with Russia and the US.

In 1997, the Foreign Ministers of each the five Central Asian States requested that the United Nations pull together a group of experts to guide the states through the creation and implementation of an agreement on the establishment of a CANWFZ. The UN Under-Secretary General for Disarmament Affairs and the UN Department of Disarmament Affairs established such a group. Together they played a leading role in mediation and guidance throughout the 10 years of negotiation, adoption and implementation of the CANWFZ treaty, which was signed on September 8, 2006 in Semipalatinsk.

The UN also helped promote ratification of the protocols by the nuclear weapon states. The result is a great achievement of multilateral diplomacy using the assistance of third parties, in particular the United Nations.

Iran nuclear deal – the role of the European Union

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), adopted in Vienna on 14 July 2015 and commonly known as the ‘Iran Deal’ is a shining example of the important contribution of 3rd parties to resolving critical nuclear conflicts.

Suspicion over Iran’s nuclear program, and continued lapses by Iran in fully implementing IAEA and Security Council measures, were giving rise to threats of military attacks against Iran which could have been disastrous for security in the region as well as globally. The principal protagonists – Iran and the USA – have a long history of conflict and suffered from a lack of diplomatic relations. In the wings was Israel, which was also considering military attack against their long-time enemy.  If they were left to themselves, the conflict could have easily escalated into war.

A number of third parties assisted in bringing the protagonists together, most notable of which was the European Union (EU). In 2003 the EU began initial involvement in the Iran nuclear conflict. It successfully played the role of a mediator between Iran and the international community. Through the talks, the role of the EU grew from a mediator and into an active policy maker and enforcer. The EU took a strong position that military action against Iran should not be taken, and achieving this outcome is proof of the powerful position the EU is capable of holding in international conflict.

When finally on July 14th, 2015, Iran and the six world powers came to an agreement the European Union’s High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini announced, “What we have achieved is the result of the strong political will of all parties, and the combined commitment of many. But it is mainly thanks to the extraordinary work of an extraordinary team, the European one, that we made it.”

Other third parties also played an important role in the Iran deal, including Kazakhstan. In 2014 foreign minister Erlan Idrissov explained that it was Kazakhstan’s good relations with the involved states that had enabled them to host critical talks between Iran and the international community in 2013. The talks paved the way for progress to be made through negotiations.

Six Nation Initiative

In 1983 relations between the Soviet Union and the USA experienced their worse deterioration since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Nuclear war was narrowly averted on at least two occasions during this period of high conflict.

In order to help re-instate dialogue and reduce tensions between them, the leaders of Argentina, Greece, India, Mexico, Tanzania and Sweden established the Six Nation Initiative. Over the next few years, the leaders held joint meetings with the presidents of the Soviet Union and USA and discussed proposals for a nuclear test ban, nuclear weapons freeze, risk reduction measures and nuclear disarmament.

President Gorbachev has credited the Six Nation Initiative with playing a vital role in reducing tensions between the two power blocs, and in paving the way for the historic Reykjavík meeting between himself and President Reagan.

A similar leaders’ initiative now of non-nuclear States has been proposed to the UN Open Ended Working Group on Nuclear Disarmament. If initiated, it could again help restore dialogue and pave the way for the adoption of nuclear risk reduction and disarmament measures by the nuclear-armed States.


Time and time again we have witnessed agreements made peacefully through the involvement of third party countries or organizations, such as Kazakhstan, the Six-Nation Initiative, the United Nations, or the European Union.

These examples illustrate the fundamental value that third party involvement can play in facilitating dialogue and negotiations between antagonist governments, and to support the adoption of nuclear disarmament agreements, including between Russia and the US. Not only does the involvement of a suitable third party help promote peaceful diplomacy and ease tensions, but it also strengthens global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.

By Rachel Day. Research Officer, Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament.
A food-for-thought paper for the International Conference ‘Building a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World’.