Africa’s contribution to a treaty banning nuclear weapons

August 24, 2015

By Arafat Abi 

On May 22, the Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) ended. Success or failure, the results are quite mixed. What has been an obvious failure is the impossibility to have a final text due to the refusal the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada to agree on the proposal about the Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East. On the other hand most non-nuclear weapon states gave cause for optimism, best represented by the success of the Humanitarian Pledge, now supported by 114 States, which affirms their commitment to “fill the legal gap to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons.”

Promoting the ban in the African agenda

Although most African states have signed and ratified various treaties on weapons of mass destruction, their impact in many discussions remain limited. For many states, nuclear disarmament and related issues are not a top priority. While nuclear weapons may not be on the African continent, they remain an important problem not only in regards to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences they cause, but also in light of the insufficient international response to these threats. The conferences on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in Oslo, Nayarit, and Vienna have played an important role in increasing broader participation. These conferences have allowed various stake holders, including African diplomats, to regain ownership over issues in nuclear disarmament as well as related risks and consequences, but addition work is needed.

Another significant challenge is the low representation of African countries in international conferences on nuclear disarmament. This is the logical consequence of the non-prioritization of disarmament issues, in Africa, as mentioned. Indeed, several African states have great difficulties sending a sufficient number of representatives to various international meetings, particularly meetings and negotiations on nuclear disarmament, as was the case at the 2015 NPT Review Conference. This situation puts African states in the position of spectator and not actor, making them the first victims of decisions made in their absence. And this phenomenon, present also in the lack of civil society representation in international meetings, should encourage broader changes in democratizing these international processes.

Preserving and consolidating achievements

We must first start by focusing on the fact that the Treaty of Pelindaba, making Africa a zone free of nuclear weapons, expressed the commitment of the African region to move towards a world free of nuclear weapons. This treaty was guided by the Tlatelolco Treaty for Latin America and the Caribbean by stressing the need to destroy any facility dedicated to nuclear weapons. Given the number of states parties (38) not all provisions in the treaty have been fulfilled, but almost all states have signed it. It is therefore important to continue this virtuous dynamic by continuing advocacy for the ratification of other States.

The commitment of African states to achieving a world without nuclear weapons has grown since the 2010 NPT Review Conference. This conference helped to launch a new basis of discussion based on the catastrophic humanitarian impact of the use nuclear weapons. It has also allowed a growing number of African states to appropriate the issue relating to humanitarian disarmament. Whether in this 2010 Review Conference, or in Oslo, Nayarit, or Vienna, African states have taken advantage of the opportunities available to them to express their deep concern for the consequences of nuclear weapons and finally hope there will be soon a banning treaty. These meetings provided valuable opportunities to revitalize the African Group and realise the key role it can play in this historic process.

Hopes for a more active Africa

At the first line of actions, we can have the revitalization of the Treaty of Pelindaba with regard to what is done in the framework of the Treaty of Tlatelolco. This revitalization could, in addition to ratification by missing states, strengthen the African Commission on Nuclear Energy, the implementation and monitoring organ of the Pelindaba Treaty.

Additional progress will also demand that states include the prohibition of nuclear weapons in national and continental policies. In compliance with their NPT obligations, and for their collective security, states parties must implement incentive measures for the achievement of nuclear disarmament.

Regarding African states that have endorsed the Humanitarian Pledge, they must now consider the latter as the basis for a new process to develop a binding and comprehensive legal instrument prohibiting nuclear weapons. The 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should thus be an opportunity for them to reaffirm their attachment to that pledge and express their desire to make the prohibition of nuclear weapons a priority in their national, regional and international policies.

The 2015 NPT Review Conference has further underpinned the fact that the NPT is not an effective way to achieve nuclear disarmament. It is important, nevertheless, to remain optimistic and continue to hope that states endorse the Humanitarian Pledge and act with the purpose to bridge the existing legal gap. This is also an opportunity to remind these states that forgetting humanitarian engagement would be the abandonment of the struggle of civil society.

At the end of the NPT Review Conference, the main conclusion to be drawn by African states remains this: if the nuclear-weapon states refuse to move toward a comprehensive ban treaty, it is obvious that African States, with the other states involved in the process, move to achieve it. And it is exactly where the responsibility of those African states lies, with regards to the great progress they have made in terms of denuclearization.

This excerpt was adapted from a longer article.



  • aiweiwei

    “Let’s act up! Ban nuclear weapons completely and unconditionally.”

    Ai Weiwei Artist and activist

  • sheen

    “If Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr were alive today, they would be part of ICAN.”

    Martin Sheen Actor and activist

  • bankimoon

    “I salute ICAN for working with such commitment and creativity.”

    Ban Ki-moon Former UN chief

  • yokoono

    “We can do it together. With your help, our voice will be made still stronger. Imagine peace.”

    Yoko Ono Artist

  • jodywilliams

    “Governments say a nuclear weapons ban is unlikely. Don’t believe it. They said the same about a mine ban treaty.”

    Jody Williams Nobel laureate

  • desmondtutu

    “With your support, we can take ICAN its full distance – all the way to zero nuclear weapons.”

    Desmond Tutu Nobel laureate

  • herbiehancock

    “Because I cannot tolerate these appalling weapons, I whole-heartedly support ICAN.”

    Herbie Hancock Jazz musician

  • dalailama

    “I can imagine a world without nuclear weapons, and I support ICAN.”

    Dalai Lama Nobel laureate