Institute for Security Studies (Tshwane/Pretoria)

1 March 2013

Africa: The Continent and the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons

analysis

Although the use of nuclear weapons is widely recognised as being inhumane, and despite an international agreement reached some 40 years ago to further the goal of nuclear disarmament, some states continue to aspire to possess them as a symbol of their power.

However, developing or maintaining nuclear weapons is not a symbol of strength, but rather a constant reminder of the catastrophic humanitarian suffering they caused in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Their mere existence today is therefore also a continuous threat of this occurring again. According to the African Union (AU), the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems remains one of the greatest threats to international peace and security, and a nuclear weapon detonation, whether intentional or accidental, could have catastrophic short- and long-term humanitarian, economic, developmental and environmental effects. Such a detonation would have global implications.

No African country possesses nuclear weapons today, but there are still over 19 000 nuclear weapons in the world. Nine states are known to be armed with nuclear weapons: the United States (US), Russia, China, France, United Kingdom (UK), India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea.

Five more host US nuclear weapons on their soil - Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Turkey. The US and Russia have about 95% of the total stockpile.

Israel neither confirms nor denies that it has nuclear weapons, but is commonly counted among the nine nuclear-armed states. Iran is suspected of wanting to become a nuclear-armed state or to at least have the capacity to do so.

The potential catastrophic humani­tarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and the relevance of international humanitarian law (IHL) have in recent times once again been placed on the international agenda.

This follows recent resolutions by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and its affiliated Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, as well as the 2010 report of states parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which highlighted that in case of use, such consequences would be unavoidable and emergency relief could not be provided to affected areas.

The ICRC also called on all states to ensure that nuclear weapons are never again used and to pursue treaty negotiations to prohibit and eliminate them.

In a bold move, Norway, a non-nuclear-weapon state, will host an international conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons in Oslo from 4-5 March 2013 to directly and realistically address these issues.

The conference programme includes presentations by experts and discussions around three key aspects: first, the immediate humanitarian impact of a nuclear detonation; second, the possible wider developmental, economic and environmental consequences; and third, preparedness, including plans and existing capacity to respond to this type of disaster.

Civil society organisations representing global citizenry are, however, also hoping that through this process, nuclear-weapon states will be galvanised to take more concrete steps to fulfil the dream of many - a world without nuclear weapons in our lifetime.

According to the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), one of the reasons why Norway has called this conference is the considerable frustration among non-nuclear-weapon states at the conspicuous absence of progress towards nuclear disarmament in multilateral forums, and at the difficulties they face in influencing the nuclear-weapon states to reduce reliance on these arms.

In addition, approaching the issue of nuclear disarmament through a humanitarian lens (and not only an exclusively state-centric discourse) extends beyond the legal to encompass moral and political imperatives as well. It entails an emphasis on actual consequences and not only on the effect intended or claimed by users of these weapons.

In June 2012, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and the Oslo-based Institute for International Law and Policy (ILPI) convened a workshop in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to debate the potential role of African states and civil society in establishing a global ban on nuclear weapons and to discuss the applicability of IHL in this regard.

Through the processes of negotiating a ban on anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions, African states have shown that they can play a significant role in international negotiations, especially when acting together. As such, Africa could play a key role also in the process towards banning nuclear weapons.

African states bring legitimacy to this call because the African Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty (Treaty of Pelindaba) established the whole continent as nuclear weapon free.

Africa can also help shift the emphasis towards the effects of nuclear weapons, rather than just their technical characteristics and the (increasingly questionable) military and security doctrines propping up their possession, deployment and modernisation.

The Treaty of Pelindaba and other nuclear weapon-free zone treaties can act as important vehicles to contextualise the humanitarian approach and the need for a total and immediate ban on nuclear weapon possession, stockpiling and use.

The conference in Oslo presents a unique opportunity to develop rigorous arguments against nuclear weapon possession and, importantly, to expand the political space and hence the actors involved - including states, civil society and international organisations - in taking a humanitarian approach.

It allows for new actors (other than traditional arms control experts) to be galvanised, including humanitarian agencies; first responders; faith-based groups; doctors; human rights, food security, agricultural and climate change activists; economists and global financial planners; military strategists; development agencies; trade unions; parliamentary unions such as the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and the Pan-African Parliament (PAP); parliamentarians; diplomatic networks; musicians and artists; academics, etc.

The AU, as the depository of the Treaty of Pelindaba, also has a key role in mobilising its member states to articulate a humanitarian approach to the call for the banning of nuclear weapons.

The AU needs to be in Oslo in order to develop a process that will instil in Africa the notion that Africans can be international norm entrepreneurs, which could also include the African Court on Human and Peoples Rights pronouncing itself on the legality of the threat of use or actual use of nuclear weapons from an African perspective.

Noel Stott, Senior Research Fellow, Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, ISS Pretoria

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