Make Africa no-nuke zone

October 17, 2006|By Charles D. Ferguson and Lisa Obrentz

North Korea apparently has tested a nuclear weapon. Iran is moving ahead with its nuclear program. Given this bad news, it would seem that soon, every country that wants nukes will get them. But the good news is that dozens of countries in the developing world have renounced nuclear arms by forming nuclear-weapon-free zones.

During Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev's visit last month to the United States, President Bush praised Kazakhstan for renouncing nuclear arms. On Sept. 8, Kazakhstan joined other Central Asian nations to create the world's newest nuclear-weapon-free zone. Latin America, the Caribbean, the South Pacific and Southeast Asia have formed these zones, which go beyond the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty by, for example, banning all nuclear tests within the zones.

Africa is next in line. Ten years ago, most of Africa's 53 countries signed the Treaty of Pelindaba to create a nuclear-weapon-free zone. But to enter into force, the treaty needs 28 countries to ratify it. To date, eight more ratifications are required. With problems such as crushing poverty, public health crises and armed conflict, it is no surprise that many African countries have delayed ratification. Still, they have made a stride in the right direction.

By creating a nuclear-weapon-free zone, African nations would benefit in four fundamental ways: preventing nuclear threats from countries, guarding against radiological and nuclear terrorism, protecting the environment, and promoting economic development. Let us consider these benefits in order:

Threats from countries. The treaty would bar storage of nuclear explosives in Africa and would prohibit nuclear-armed countries from testing or threatening to use nuclear weapons on this continent. But the United States has not ratified the treaty's protocol banning nuclear threats. And yet since Libya gave up its weapons of mass destruction programs in December 2003, no other African country is apparently holding the U.S. back from fully supporting the treaty.

Terrorism. Faced with post-9/11 fears of radiological and nuclear terrorism, the treaty would help Africa protect against these threats by requiring that nuclear materials and facilities meet international standards of protection.

The environment. The Pelindaba Treaty would protect Africa against dumping of radioactive waste. In addition, the treaty would usher in the African Commission on Nuclear Energy, which could promote peaceful uses of uranium and allow African countries to exert more control over their natural resources.

Development. Economic development usually trumps environmental protection in the developing world. Climbing uranium prices have recently stimulated a rush to expand uranium mining and prospecting in Africa. This could offer a monetary windfall for a number of African countries with uranium. Prospectors outside of Africa, however, are primarily driving this expansion. But without adequate financial and environmental protections, Africa could suffer from a form of new colonialism.

The nuclear energy commission could also investigate shady acquisitions of uranium resources. For example, in the lead-up to the Iraq war, the Bush administration charged that Saddam Hussein was attempting to acquire uranium from Niger. But on further investigation, that claim proved false. In the future, with an African nuclear-weapon-free zone, the commission could become a credible investigator of such allegations.

With an African nuclear-weapon-free zone, the entire Southern Hemisphere would become a nuclear-weapon-free club. Perhaps more important, creating an African zone would put more pressure on the Middle East to prevent the proliferation of nuclear arms.

Egypt, as part of both Africa and the Middle East, could serve as a linchpin. It has long supported a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone, which would ban nuclear as well as chemical and biological weapons. An exclusively nuclear-weapon-free zone singles out Israel's nuclear arsenal but would not address fears of chemical weapons stockpiled in Iran and Syria, for instance.

On Sept. 24, Egypt revived the moribund Supreme Council for Energy to look closely at building commercial nuclear reactors. Many analysts have interpreted this move as a means of hedging against a future nuclear-armed Iran. This potential development provides another reason for Africa-wide consultation and coordination on nuclear power.

The idea of creating nuclear-weapon-free zones was born in Africa in the early 1960s. During the 1970s and 1980s, South Africa built six nuclear bombs. In 1989, South African President F. W. de Klerk helped halt an outbreak of arms races by ordering the dismantling of his country's nuclear arsenal. South Africa remains the only country to have entirely dismantled its nuclear stockpile.

To stop future nuclear arms races, African countries should move quickly to strengthen disarmament and global security by enacting a nuclear-weapon-free zone.

Charles D. Ferguson is a fellow for science and technology and Lisa Obrentz is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations. Their emails are and

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