It now appears it will be signed by October, said Tsutomu Ishiguri, a facilitator of the talks for the UN’s department of disarmament affairs. The signing ceremony is to take place in the Kazakh city of Semipalatinsk, the site of nearly 500 Soviet nuclear tests.
Ishiguri, who directs the UN’s center for peace and disarmament in Asia and the Pacific, told RFE/RL that aside from a 2002 agreement reducing U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear warheads, the October signing would mark one of the few successes in nuclear nonproliferation in the past five years.
“Except [for the] Moscow Treaty, nothing happened during then in the field of nuclear disarmament," Ishiguri said. "This is only one concrete result and it should be really highlighted, the importance of this agreement.”
The Central Asian zone, which would still require parliamentary ratification in each of the countries, would be the fifth in the world and significant for a region which once housed thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons.
It forbids the development, manufacture, stockpiling, acquisition, or possession of any nuclear explosive device within the zone. Peaceful uses of nuclear energy are permitted, under enhanced safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
One unsettled issue is whether the five nuclear powers in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) -- China, Russia, France, Britain and the United States -- will sign a protocol on security assurances for the Central Asian signatories.
The five powers have voiced support in principle for nuclear weapons free zones but in nearly every case have raised practical concerns.
Ishiguri said this highlights the effectiveness of such zones.
“I think it works very well, because the nuclear weapon states in general don’t like nuclear-weapon-free zones because -- if I really simplify it -- because they have to make a commitment not to threaten to use nuclear weapons," Ishiguri said. "In other words, as far as they are concerned, [the] zones, the areas where they can use nuclear weapons really [are] shrinking.”
Ishiguri said China and Russia support, in principle, the text agreed on by the Central Asian states. Britain, France, and the United States, he said, have raised concerns about issues of transit and the relationship of the treaty with existing treaties.
It was not immediately clear whether the issues will be resolved before the treaty signing. The deputy director for the U.S. State Department’s office of multilateral nuclear affairs, Dean Rust, declined to discuss the details but said more talks were sought.
“I think we’re in the position of hoping that there will be additional consultations between the Central Asian states and the P-5 (ed's note: the five permanent members of the UN Security Council) prior to any decision, but nothing has been scheduled,” Rust said.
The security assurances, while important, do not seem to be the chief concern of the Central Asian states, said William Potter, director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the independent Monterey Institute.
Potter, who has advised the Kyrgyz government on nuclear nonproliferation issues, told RFE/RL that Central Asian officials are more focused on alleviating the environmental consequences of their roles in Soviet-era nuclear testing, mining and production.
"They see the zone, among other things, as serving an important purpose in trying to marshal international assistance in remediating the environmental consequences of various stages of the nuclear weapons production process," Potter said.
Potter said that when discussions on the zone were announced in early 1997, a primary purpose was to address environmental issues. While that remains a key concern, Potter said, the zone has also become magnified in importance for other reasons.
“What’s happened since these negotiations began is that what was an abstract concern has become a very real one," Potter said. "You now have many of the nuclear weapons states in the region. You have U.S. and Russian forces and bases in the region, you do have nuclear weapons states on the borders of many of the five states in the region and the world has changed, I think, for the most part in a negative direction, in terms of the security concerns of the states in the region.”
There are currently treaties for nuclear weapons free zones in Latin America, Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, and Africa, although not all have been fully ratified.