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Total nuclear ban: civil society sets tone for major global conferences

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by Jo-Ansie Van Wyk and Isabel Bosman

It’s a daunting task, but one that must proceed. This was the consensus of civil society movements from across the world, which met recently to discuss working towards global nuclear disarmament.

The Nuclear Ban Forum took place on June 18 and 19 in Vienna and brought together civil society organisations from Europe, the US, Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. It was hosted by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).

The Forum was held in preparation for two other recent conferences: the Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons and the First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), also known as the Ban Treaty.

Nuclear-armed states – China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the UK and the US – collectively still maintain approximately 13 100 nuclear weapons. Some of these states have tacitly undertaken not to use these weapons, but merely keep them as a deterrent. Yet nuclear weapons still pose a threat to international security, as seen in recent threats by Russia and North Korea.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February this year was underpinned by rhetoric on nuclear weapons. During the course of the war, the Russian military targeted nuclear installations like the Chornobyl and Zaporizhzhia power plants in Ukraine.

Devastating humanitarian consequences

The development, testing and use of nuclear weapons have devastating humanitarian consequences. Victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear attacks during the Second World War, as well as those affected by French nuclear tests in Polynesia, Oceania and Micronesia, have testified to the devastating effects of exposure to high levels of radiation.

Besides high incidences of cancer, intergenerational effects include genetic mutations, stillbirths and other illnesses ascribed to radiation exposure have also been reported. For these communities, the Ban Treaty is important.

It not only bans nuclear weapons but also calls for compensation for victims and environmental rehabilitation. However, nuclear weapons states have not signed up to the Ban Treaty, leaving victims in the lurch. Despite this, international civil society movements are resolving to change this.

Focus on Africa

Africa featured in key discussions during the Ban Forum in Vienna arranged by ICAN, which focuses on achieving global peace through the abolition of nuclear weapons. A speaker from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) explained how nuclear weapons impact his country, a large uranium producer.

Increased uranium mining has resulted in considerable deforestation in the Congo River Basin. This has had at least three major impacts. The DRC is an unstable African state that relies on income from mineral resources such as uranium exported to nuclear weapons states and others.

Second, deforestation has caused a loss of habitat for indigenous forest-dwelling communities whose identity, culture and livelihoods are closely linked to these forests. A third impact has been the exposure of communities to uranium and radiation, which is affecting human and environmental health.

Africa’s colonial past was also mentioned in the context that nuclear weapons states, which are permanent members of the UN Security Council, have all been colonial powers. In the past, colonies typically provided the mineral resources for nuclear weapons programmes and bombs. Africa has a long history of advocating for the abolishment of nuclear weapons.

In 1964, the Organisation of African Unity (now the African Union) adopted the Cairo Declaration to ensure the continent becomes a nuclear weapons-free zone. This pre-empted the entry into force of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1970, which mentioned these zones as important denuclearisation instruments.

However, it was only in 2009 that the African Union’s African Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty (the Pelindaba Treaty) entered into force. The Treaty has been innovative in at least two ways. First, it established the African Commission on Nuclear Energy (AFCONE), and second, it obliges states to protect and respect nuclear installations by securing radioactive material and not attacking nuclear installations.

The Pelindaba Treaty is unique in this instance.

Nuclear disarmament and nuclear weapons ban treaties such as the Pelindaba Treaty, the NPT and the TPNW have been ratified by numerous African states. The universalisation of these treaties in Africa reiterates the continent’s commitment to a world without nuclear weapons. However, several challenges face Africa. The peaceful application of nuclear energy in health and agriculture remains underutilised and hampers the continent’s efforts toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and the African Union’s Agenda 2063.

The high cost of utilising nuclear energy in these fields is also challenging as appropriate equipment and installations are key requirements. External funding to meet these costs is not guaranteed due to post-Covid donor fatigue and the war in Ukraine – the latter taking priority for European and other partner states.

The plight of Algerians affected by France’s nuclear tests in the Sahara Desert in the 1960s is another stark reminder of Africa’s challenges. Article 6 of the TPNW obliges signatories to compensate victims of nuclear bombs and rehabilitate the environment. Sadly, France is not a signatory to the TPNW and has been slow to recognise the humanitarian impact of its tests in Africa and elsewhere.

In addition, Africans remain exposed to the dangers of uranium mining that may feed and maintain nuclear arsenals elsewhere. However, other multi-stakeholder governance approaches hold important lessons for Africa to consider. The ban on trade in diamonds from conflict areas (blood diamonds) could be a helpful example of how to mitigate the dangers of irresponsible uranium mining.

A focus on banning so-called ‘blood uranium’, i.e. uranium that ends up being used for military purposes, could contribute to global nuclear disarmament efforts.

*Bosman is a researcher at The South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) African Governance and Diplomacy programme

*Van Wyk is a Foreign Policy expert working on the Atoms for Development project at the same institution.

*This article was originally published in The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.