During his distinguished career, Mexican diplomat Alfonso García Robles (1911-1991) was a strong advocate of banning nuclear weapons. Educated in international universities as a lawyer, García Robles rose through the ranks of Mexico's diplomatic service to become a well-known and highly respected international spokesperson on nuclear disarmament. He was instrumental in bringing about the Treaty of Tlateloco, an agreement among 22 Latin-American countries that banned nuclear weapons in that part of the world. It was because of this outstanding achievement—and García Robles's tireless efforts toward global nuclear disarmament—that he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1982.
Alfonso García Robles was born in Zamora, Mexico, on March 20, 1911. Showing intellectual promise, he studied law at the Independent National University of Mexico. Later he travelled to Europe and earned a postgraduate degree at the Institute of Superior Studies at the University of Paris. García Robles went on to earn a second postgraduate degree at the Academy of International Law in the Netherlands.
In 1939 García Robles became a member of his country's foreign service, first working as a secretary of the Mexican delegation in Sweden. In 1945 he was Mexico's delegate at the San Francisco Conference, a global summit that involved the founding of the United Nations. As a result of his efforts at this pivotal conference, he obtained a position at the United Nations Secretariat for several years.
In the late 1950s García Robles served as director general in the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In this capacity he played a major role in his country's Law of the Sea conferences. In 1962 he was appointed Mexican Ambassador to Brazil and first became aware of a proposal that aimed to prohibit the use of nuclear weaponry in Latin America. The proposal originated in the anxiety created during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when the United States, Cuba, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) were involved in a standoff many feared would lead to a nuclear war. The crisis had been sparked when the USSR attempted to secretly establish a base for nuclear missiles in Cuba, one of its communist allies. In October the missile site was discovered by CIA operatives who reported its existence to U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Because of Cuba's proximity to the southern shores of the United States, Kennedy imposed a naval blockade around the island and demanded that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev remove the missiles. The crisis came to an end on October 28, 1962, when Khrushchev accepted Kennedy's promise to decrease the number of U.S. missiles in Turkey. Although a major conflict had been averted, for two tension-filled weeks the whole world had held its breath.
In the wake of the crisis García Robles persuaded the Mexican government to support the proposed plan of nuclear non-proliferation in Latin America. He tirelessly advocated this position for several years, after which his efforts resulted in the 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco.
Since 1964 García Robles had served as under-secretary of foreign affairs to Mexican president Gustavo Diaz Ordaz. In this position, he was able to effectively champion the cause of international nuclear disarmament— particularly disarmament for Latin America—and this directly led to his key role in the formation of the Treaty of Tlateloco. His role in creating a nuclear-free Latin America was an extremely important and high-profile one, his efforts so integral to the cause that he became known as the "father" of the Tlatelolco treaty. This agreement, which was concluded on March 12, 1967, had been first proposed by Adolfo López Mateos, who was president of Mexico at the time. The basic idea of the agreement was that a ban on nuclear weapons in Latin America would prevent that part of the world from becoming involved in any conflicts—and potential full-scale warfare—that could arise between the world's superpowers. García Robles conducted the negotiations, which went on for several years and called on his diplomatic skills to bring about a conclusion. Although the agreement was finalized, its ultimate goal of the agreement remained unrealized into the next century; several Latin American countries, among them Brazil and Argentina, signed the agreement but never implemented it. Still, 22 countries in that part of the world banned nuclear weapons from their territories as a result of García Robles' efforts.
The Tlatelolco Treaty was the crowning achievement of García Robles's distinguished career. In all, the negotiations lasted four years and were concluded in the Tlatelolco Plaza in Mexico City. While García Robles's role eventually led to his receiving the Nobel Prize in 1982, this honor was not bestowed for the Tlatelolco Agreement alone. The Nobel Prize committee recognized the Mexican diplomat's numerous efforts toward achieving nuclear disarmament worldwide. He advocated for global disarmament in session at the United Nations, thereby gaining a reputation as one of the most reasonable and knowledgeable advocates for a nuclear weaponry ban. In 1968 he helped draft the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
In the late 20th century García Robles became a major diplomatic player in world affairs. From 1971 to 1975 he served as Mexico's permanent representative to the United Nations and from 1974 to 1975 was chairman of Mexico's delegation to the General Assembly. During this time he also held the post of director in the Political Affairs Division of the U.N. Secretariat, serving as principal secretary of the special committee on Palestine and as secretary of an ad hoc committee on the Palestine question.
In 1975 García Robles became Mexico's secretary of Outer Relations, a position he held for two years. That position evolved into something larger when, in 1977, he became his country's permanent representative to the U.N. committee on disarmament, which was based in Geneva, Switzerland.
During the U.N. session on general nuclear disarmament held in Geneva in 1978—the first-ever session of its kind—García Robles became known and respected for his patient and skillful diplomacy in helping to stem a global arms race that, by that point in time, had approached alarming levels. It was largely because of his tireless efforts that the U.N. General Assembly adopted the "Final Document" that resulted the session. As one of the international representatives seeking to initiate a world-wide campaign to ban nuclear weapons, García Robles assumed the prodigious task of coordinating all of the various views from different countries and incorporating those views, along with the accompanying proposals, into this document.
In 1977 García Robles published 338 Days of Tlatelolco, a book documenting the creation and adoption of the Latin American non-nuclear agreement. It was one of several books on international affairs he would publish during his career.
García Robles continued his untiring efforts toward global nuclear disarmament during the U.N. disarmament sessions held in 1982 as the second of three scheduled sessions (a third was held in 1999). This second session turned out to be less positive than the first. While supporting his idea of a world disarmament campaign, the assembly failed to adopt it.
In presenting him with the 1982 Nobel Peace Prize, the Nobel committee stated that García Robles's main contribution was in helping to create the agreement that made Latin America a nuclear-free zone. It went on to acknowledge his other efforts as well, citing the diplomat for "not only … almost 20 years of work on disarmament, but also vindication of the virtues of patient and methodical negotiation." García Robles shared the prize with Sweden's Alva Myrdal, a former cabinet minister, diplomat, and writer whose efforts toward world nuclear disarmament matched those of García Robles. Like García Robles, Myrdal played an active role in nuclear non-proliferation negotiations and emerged as one of the world leaders on that issue. Also like García Robles, she attempted to pressure the United States and the USSR to demonstrate greater concern for the dangers of nuclear weaponry and to come up with workable solutions to disarmament.
Following their award, García Robles and Myrdal worked together in another important effort toward world peace: the creation of the Contadora Group, which was established in 1983 to deal with the highly volatile situation in Central America. The group's main goals are to bring to an end the terrible suffering endured by the people of Central America due to the ongoing military conflicts; to recognize the basic human rights of all citizens; and to help solve a the local crisis before it could negatively impact global peace. The idea for the group was developed by another Nobel Prize winner: Gabriel García Marquez, the Colombian writer who received the award for literature. Also contributing to the creation of the group Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme. Together, the Contadora Group founders called for the presidents of Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, and Panama to mediate in the Central American conflict.
In 1983 the foreign ministers of these countries met on the island of Contadora and agreed to combine their efforts in the Contadora Act on Peace and Co-operation in Central America. Reviewing the political and economic situation in this region, they then drew up a detailed plan for the formation of the Group. The plan met with the support of the U.N. Security Council and its General Assembly, as well as with that of many regional and international governing bodies. In 1985 Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and Uruguay organized groups to support the Contadora Group's advisers. That same year, the Group was awarded the Simon Bolívar Prize.
In 1990 the Fulbright-García Robles scholarship honoring García Robles and U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright was established to help both Mexican and U.S. citizens. García Robles passed away the following year on September 2, 1991, in Mexico City, Mexico. After his death his widow, Juanita García Robles, gifted her husband's personal 1,100-volume library to the University of Virginia. In appreciation of the donation, the university erected an exhibit to honor García Robles. The exhibit included documents, articles, and photos and emphasized the Nobel Peace Prize.
Latin American Lives, Macmillan, 1998.
"Alfonso García Robles Biography," Nobel e-Museum, http://www.nobel.se/peace/laureates/1982/robles-bio.html (March 15, 2003).
"Contadora Group and the Central American Crisis," Global Security.com, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/report/1985/SA.htm (March 15, 2003).