"Alfonso Garcia Robles....possessed the courage to face the reality created by nuclear weapons."
Egil Arvile, President of the Norwegian Nobel Committee
Alfonso Garcia Robles dedicated his life to the cause of peace in Latin America. His signature accomplishment, the 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco, has kept Latin American and the Caribbean nuclear weapons-free to this day. Garcia Robles’ unwavering dedication throughout his career to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation was made potent by his noted persistence and his exceptional diplomatic skills. His name is inscribed in gilt on the Wall of Honor of Mexico's congress, the Palacio Legislativo de San Lázaro; he was the first Mexican awarded a Nobel Prize and is the only Mexican Peace Prize laureate.
ALFONSO GARCIA ROBLES
Born in Zamora, Michoacán, in 1911, Garcia Robles studied law at the National Autonomous University of Mexico followed by postgraduate legal training at the Institute of Higher International Studies in Paris and the Hague Academy of International Law in the Netherlands. In 1939 he joined the Mexican Foreign Service and was posted to the Mexican delegation in Sweden.
Rising through the diplomatic ranks, Garcia Robles served as a Mexican delegate to the 1945 Conference on International Organization in San Francisco that created the United Nations, an organization where he was to spend so much of his career. In 1948 he served as a Mexican delegate to the pivotal Ninth International Conference of American States in Bogota that created the Charter of the Organization of American States (OAS). As a director general in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he played a major role at the Law of the Sea conferences of the 1950s. In 1962 he was appointed Mexican ambassador to Brazil, where he served two years, returning to Mexico to serve as under-secretary of foreign affairs to Mexican president Gustavo Diaz Ordaz.
THE TREATY OF TLATELOLCO
The post-war years in which the diplomatic career of Alfonso Garcia Robles advanced were also years of growing international anxiety as the Cold War simmered. This anxiety came to a boil in the fall 1962 as the Cuban missile crisis unfolded. In September the CIA confirmed their suspicions that Soviet nuclear missiles had been installed on Cuba. After two weeks of terrifying brinkmanship, disaster was averted by a combination of intense back channel negotiations and the show of American force. Khrushchev announced on October 28 that the weapons would be dismantled, and eventually they were withdrawn.
The horrific threat of atomic war just 300 miles from the Mexican coast hardened the resolve of Mexican President Adolfo Lopez Mateos and of Alfonso Garcia Robles to make Latin America nuclear free. In March 1963 President Mateos invited the Presidents of Bolivia, Brazil, Chile and Ecuador to join Mexico in committing to a multilateral anti-nuclear agreement. This led to a formal meeting of the Latin American republics in November 1964 to begin work on denuclearization (‘REUPRAL’), just as Mateos was leaving office. Garcia Robles, now Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs under incoming President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, made the formulation of an anti-nuclear treaty his personal crusade. Over the following three years Garcia Robles worked tirelessly and skillfully on the intricate architecture of the treaty, while also conducting the delicate and complex negotiations that led to its acceptance. William Epstein, director of the Disarmament Division of the UN Secretariat and also involved in the treaty’s drafting, described Garcia Robles as “the most morally committed to disarmament of [all the people with whom I have ever worked].”
“When Alfonso Garcia Robles began promoting a treaty to ban nuclear weapons from Latin America in the mid-1960s, he was met as much by indifference as by resistance. But no obstacle was greater than his stubbornness – and the Mexican diplomat eventually got his way: in 1967, 22 nations of the region signed the Treaty of Tlatelolco.”
Alan Riding, The New York Times, 14 October 1982
LEGACY OF THE TREATY
The Treaty of Tlatelolco, named for the plaza beside the Mexican Foreign Ministry where it was announced, was opened for signing 50 years ago, on 14 February 1967. It was the first agreement to prohibit nuclear weapons in a populous region of the world, preceded only by a 1959 twelve-nation agreement to protect Antarctica. A towering landmark in non-proliferation and disarmament, the Treaty’s principles, safeguards and verification measures remain highly influential today. Perhaps most significant are its two Protocols. The first binds nations with territory in the region (the U.S., the U.K., France and the Netherlands) to its provisions, while the second prohibits the world’s declared nuclear weapons nations from undermining the Treaty, signed and ratified by the U.S., U.K, France, China and Russia.
“The Treaty of Tlatelolco…paved the way for other similar zones that now cover 114 countries in four other regions of the globe, as well as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty…We celebrate the wisdom of its drafters fifty years ago.”
U.S. Department of State, 14 February 2017
Alfonso Garcia Robles continued at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs through 1970 and remained dedicated to the cause of nuclear disarmament with such efforts as work on the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, adhered to as of 2016 by 191 states. From 1971 through 1975 he served as Mexican ambassador to the United Nations; in 1976 he was appointed Foreign Minister under President Luis Echeverria Alvarez. Asked by incoming President Jose Lopez Portillo late that year to name the post he preferred, Garcia Robles chose to return to the UN and to his life’s work on denuclearization. He became Mexico’s permanent representative to the United Nations Commission on Disarmament in Geneva, leading the first ever UN session on general nuclear disarmament in 1978. His important work within the framework of the Commission included the launching, with his co-laureate Swedish disarmament expert Alva Myrdal, the 'Group of Six', a multilateral body represented by six Presidents to jointly promote peace in Central America. At the UN he was known as “Mr. Disarmament.” He wrote countless articles and 20 books, including the 1977 work 338 Days of Tlatelolco. Garcia Robles retired in 1990 with the rank of ambassador emeritus; he died in 1991. In 1999 his widow donated a significant part of Garcia Robles’ 1100-volume library and archive to the University of Virginia Law Library.
"The world has lost one of the great inspirers and fighters for the denuclearization, not just of Latin America, but of the entire planet."
UN Secretary General, Javier Perez de Cuellar, September 1991
THE NOBEL PRIZE
Alfred Nobel (1833-1896) left his enormous fortune to be used for five prizes, including one for peace. He wrote that the peace prize should be awarded to the person who “shall have done the most or the best work for the fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and for the holding of peace congresses.” The peace prize – the most prestigious Nobel – was set apart from the beginning. By the decree of Nobel’s will, it is awarded by a committee of Norwegians, not Swedes, and in Oslo, not Stockholm, home to the Nobel Foundation. The peace prize medal design differs from the other Nobels, not just on the reverse, but in the portrait head, more classical and less modern on the peace prize.
Alfonso Garcia Robles was awarded the 1982 Nobel Peace Prize for his extraordinary efforts over two decades to keep the world safe from nuclear weapons. Knowledgeable observers saw the award not just as recognition of his enormous contributions to peace, but also as a bow to the painstakingly slow, methodical and patient behind-the-scenes work of effective diplomacy. Garcia Robles was the first Mexican to be awarded a Nobel Prize. As Physics Prize laureate Frank Wilczek has observed of the award ceremony, the “…ritual was a celebration of shared Enlightenment values. They will endure, and triumph.”
NOBEL PRIZES AWARDED TO CITIZENS OF MEXICO
Alfonso Garcia Robles (1982) PEACE
Octavio Paz (1990) LITERATURE
Mario J. Molina (1995) CHEMISTRY
SOME NOTABLE NOBEL PEACE PRIZE LAUREATES
Nelson Mandela (1993)
Elie Wiesel (1986)
Lech Walesa (1983)
Mother Teresa (1979)
Albert Schweitzer (1952)
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1964)
Dag Hammarskjöld (1961)