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Diplomat reflects on world's first nuclear free zone treaty 50 years later

Sergio Gonzalez Galves speaks about the process that led to the signing of the Treaty of Tlatelolco, at his home in Mexico City, on April 5, 2018. (Mainichi)

MEXICO CITY -- Fifty years ago, the first step toward the abolition of nuclear weapons was negotiated and signed here, creating a nuclear weapon free zone that encompasses all of Latin America and the Caribbean.

    Named for the district of Mexico's capital where it was signed, the Treaty of Tlatelolco, or officially the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean, was the first agreement of its kind denuclearizing an entire region. One Mexican diplomat who was instrumental in its adoption recounted the previously unheard-of process that led to the treaty to the Mainichi Shimbun.

    The impetus for the penning treaty was the rising tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis, recalled 83-year-old Sergio Gonzalez Galves at his home in Mexico City. It was 1962, in the midst of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union had built a nuclear missile base in the "backyard" of the United States -- on the Caribbean island nation of Cuba, putting U.S. navy vessels equipped with nuclear weapons in the region on high alert.

    Regardless of whether the U.S. or Cuba became the target of nuclear weapons, the geographically close Mexico would be unable to escape getting caught up in the crossfire.

    "(The nuclear power nations such as the) U.S. and Soviet (Union) all claimed they would not accept any proposal from non-nuclear countries to denuclearize them, and that they (would be) the only ones to decide what to do," said Galves. "Based on this, the establishment of a nuclear weapon free zone was the only way to advance... eliminating nuclear weapons."

    To raise global awareness about the issue, Mexico and other states led a movement in the United Nations General Assembly in 1963 to adopt a resolution calling for the denuclearization of Latin America. Galves, who was the liaison to the United Nations at the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Canadian nuclear issues experts, were chosen by the U.N. to handle the negotiations to draw up the treaty.

    Galves believed that it was necessary to completely remove nuclear weapons from Central and South America. To accomplish this, he aimed not only for agreement from all the governments in the region, but also a promise from the five nuclear nations at the time -- the United States, Britain, France, the Soviet Union and China -- not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons on the participating denuclearizing nations.

    With the exception of China, which was willing to cooperate from the get-go, Galves made many trips to the remaining four countries for negotiations. In the end, all of the nuclear nations agreed to the terms, but Galves said, "Negotiation with the United States was the most difficult."

    Among the proposed conditions under the treaty, the U.S. was opposed to the prohibition of its nuclear warships from passing through the national waters or docking at the ports of the participating nations. This was an especially crucial issue as U.S. ships had to pass through the Panama Canal in Central America to reach the Pacific Ocean from eastern part of its territory.

    Still, Galves refused to give up, making his rounds in Washington to officials related to the Department of State, the navy, and the army to make his case. While he was unable to get total prohibition into the final document, he managed to reach a compromise with Washington by watering down the clause to state that member nations can declare a ban on passage through national waters and the docking of nuclear vessels.

    Sergio Gonzalez Galves and his wife stand on either side of Cuban leader Fidel Castro in a photo taken sometime around 1966 in Havana. (Photo courtesy of Sergio Gonzalez Galves)

    To prevent a recurrence of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Galves could not go without getting Cuban leader Fidel Castro to also agree to the terms. Already wary of an invasion by the U.S., Castro was a charismatic anti-U.S. leader. There were times when direct negotiations would last more than seven hours at a time, but Castro was finally persuaded by the addition of a stipulation to create a committee to handle claims of troubles caused by threats to national sovereignty.

    "He likes much more to listen than to talk," Galves recalled of Castro. "When I asked for opinions, he responded exactly. He was very well informed. I was very impressed (by) his knowledge (of what was) going on around the world."

    The Treaty of Tlatelolco came into force as an international treaty on April 22, 1968. Now, there are five regions around the world that have adopted treaties outlining no nuclear weapon zones, and these treaties have been ratified by over 100 countries in total.

    "The Treaty of Tlatelolco became the model for the four treaties that followed it, playing an extremely important role," said President Sergio Duarte of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, an international group of scientists and others aiming to stamp out nuclear weapons and war.

    Galves, who served as the Mexican ambassador to Japan for roughly six years during the 1980s, said that he will never forget the meetings he had with the atomic bomb survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the time. It was those survivors that taught him that nuclear weapons did not serve as a so-called conflict deterrent during the 1982 Falklands War between nuclear nation Britain and non-nuclear power Argentina and other armed conflicts.

    Even now, nuclear nations continue to tout the power of nuclear weapons as deterrents, -- a recent example being North Korea with its nuclear testing -- underscoring the fact that total eradication of these weapons is still far away.

    Half a century has passed since a 30-something Galves was involved with the draft of the treaty, and his will to fight for the elimination of nuclear weapons as only gotten stronger.

    "We have to keep the world peaceful," he said, "and the most dangerous threat is nuclear weapons."

    (Japanese Original by Taichi Yamamoto, San Paulo Bureau)

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