During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union bristled with nuclear weapons. There were times when the world stood on the brink of a war that could destroy humanity. For instance, during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the autumn of 1962. What kept global peace at nuclear levels, though the two superpowers were engaged in proxy-wars, was the concept of "Mutually Assured destruction (MAD)". Protagonists contented that the weapons were not meant for actual use but to deter the other, and, therefore, were to be viewed as stabilizing. But the danger of a horrendous miscalculation was ever present.
When the Soviet Union disintegrated in early 1990s, many of its constituent Republics had nuclear weapons in their territories. As did Kazakhstan. This article is about how this Central Asian country, upon achieving independence, dealt with this enormously complex problem. August marks an important month in this connection. It was on 29th August, thirty years ago, that the country closed its last test site for nuclear weapons at Semipalatinsk, in the steppes of at its north-east.
Progress is more than a scorecard of passive data and cold numbers. A better mode of assessment is by naked eyes. Kazakhstan is an example. Yes, breathtaking scenic marks splendour marks its terrain. But I was able to feel the pulsating throb of remarkable achievement and see for myself the marvelous fruits of human endeavor. I was able to do so, because it was my privilege to be a member of the Astana Club. It is a unique platform of idea sharing, the creation of the wisdom of the Kazakh leadership.
The same sagacity is reflected in many of Kazakhstan's policy-packages that are tilted towards peace, stability, and development. This includes the area of arms control and non-proliferation.
During the Soviet era, Kazakhstan had 1410 Soviet strategic warheads in its territory and undisclosed smaller tactical weapons. This was the world's fourth largest nuclear arsenal. From 1992 t0 1995 all have been either removed or destroyed. The entire armoury is thus eliminated.
It was on the Kazakh steppes that the first atomic weapon test occurred. From 1949 to 1989, more than 468 tests were conducted at the Semei site. At least 616 thermonuclear devices were detonated. Till on 29 Aug 1991 First President Nursultan Nazarbayev issued a decree closing the test site, a decision cheered by not just the Nevada-Semei anti-nuclear movement but by the world.
Fissile material was similarly handled. As part of the Nunn-Lugar Program of the US Senate, the US assisted Kazakhstan in removing 1322 Lbs. of heavy uranium from the Ulba Metallurgical Plant at Ust-Kamenogorsk. Instead, an IAEA-controlled light uranium fuel bank was constructed in Ulba which became operational in October 2019.
These actions were a part of the country's wider nuclear related policies. Kazakhstan is party to all major arms control and non-proliferation agreements: such as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START 1), the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and the more recent UNGA's Treaty on the Prohibition of nuclear weapons. Kazakhstan was instrumental in in the creation of a Nuclear-weapon free zone in Central Asia.
The Kazakh capital has hosted some significant relevant conferences., such as the one on the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism in 2010, and the International Conference on Building a World Without nuclear weapons in 2016 to mark the 25th anniversary of the closure of Semei.
At the Astana Club meeting in 2019 a unique platform was created, the Global Alliance of Leaders for Nuclear Security and a World Free of nuclear weapons. A call emanated from this Group of leaders urging requisite measures, to which I have also lent my name.
President Kasim -Jumart Tokayev has continued the tradition of his esteemed predecessor. On the 75 th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, he underscored the serious challenge the world is confronting in the areas of non-proliferation and disarmament.
For decades, I have been involved with multilateral disarmament and non -proliferation negotiations. These have included those within the First Committee (aka Disarmament Committee) of the United Nations in New York and the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. Despite several impressive treaties and agreements, these have failed to bring about substantive reduction in the numbers of nuclear weaponry. Under these circumstances, Kazakhstan's voluntary actions stand out as an example worthy of emulation.
Unfortunately, the same perceptions are not global in the contemporary world. On the contrary, we have witnessed the proliferation of deadly weapons creating a milieu where big powers are hurtling towards confrontation rather than conciliation. Some see as the second cold war just round the corner. But should it happen, we may not be as lucky to escape our destruction as we did during the first one. This is time for reason and restraint. Kazakhstan is behaving as a responsible State in the international scene, and this surely merits high praise. All countries should act now than later. If there is a hill to climb, waiting will not make it any smaller.
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Honorary Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, NUS. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President and Distinguished Fellow of Cosmos Foundation. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg
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