Africa as a nuclear-weapon-free zone

The entry into force on July 15 of the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty, also known as the Treaty of Pelindaba, was largely ignored by the world’s mainstream news media.[i] That’s too bad. It is a significant development and a further nudge toward a world without nuclear weapons.

It was South Africa’s historic decision to destroy its nuclear arsenal of up to six warheads and to accede, in 1990, to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapon state that made possible the realization of the decades-old African objective of formalizing its status as a zone free of nuclear weapons. Already in 1964 the heads of State of the OAU had issued a “Declaration on the Denuclearization of Africa,” affirming their “readiness to undertake in an International Treaty to be concluded under the auspices of the United Nations not to manufacture or acquire control of nuclear weapons.”[ii]

The Treaty was agreed to in 1995,[iii] and since then all 53 African states have signed on and it entered into force when Burundi became the 28th nation to ratify it.

The Pelindaba Treaty, named after South Africa’s central nuclear research complex, confirms key provisions of the NPT, including the pledge of all signatories not to develop, produce, or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons, as well as the commitment to enter into comprehensive safeguard agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency as ongoing verification of each state’s non-nuclear-weapon status (21 states have yet to conclude such agreements). But the Treaty also creates legally-binding obligations that go further. It prohibits testing of any nuclear explosive device and in effect fulfills the basic conditions of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty on the African continent. The Treaty also prohibits the stationing of nuclear weapons on the territory of any state party to the treaty – the kind of key provision which, if it were in place in central Europe, would require the removal of all US nuclear warheads from the territories of non-nuclear-weapon states in Europe. In Africa it raises serious questions about Diego Garcia.

Diego Garcia is the largest Island in the Chapos Archipelago, which is considered by its parties to be bound by the provisions of the Pelindaba Treaty as a part of the territory of Mauritius. Its sovereignty is in dispute in that the UK regards Diego Garcia as part of its British Indian Ocean Territory and has of course given the US leave to build a major US military base there. The Americans in turn use it as, among many other things, a staging base for strategic bombers. These are nuclear-capable bombers with the US neither confirming nor denying the presence of nuclear weapons. That puts Mauritius in violation of its Treaty obligations.[iv] The Treaty establishes the African Commission on Nuclear Energy to manage the Treaty and see to its full implementation – meaning that we will be hearing more about Diego Garica now that the Treaty has entered into force.

The Treaty also prohibits the dumping of radioactive waste in Africa and requires African states to apply the “highest standards of security and effective physical protection of nuclear material, facilities and equipment to prevent theft or unauthorized use and handling” of such materials and facilities. It prohibits any armed attack on nuclear installations within the African nuclear-weapon-free zone.

Africa’s nuclear-weapon-free status is given added importance by virtue of it being one of the world’s prominent uranium producing regions.[v] Africa currently holds something like 20 percent of exploitable uranium reserves, concentrated in Niger, Namibia, and South Africa,[vi] but deposits are also found in[vii] Algeria, Botswana, Central African Republic, DRC, Gabon, Guinea, Malawi, Mali, Morocco, Tanzania, and Zambia.

The Pelindaba Treaty’s entry-into-force is also especially noteworthy in that it means to all sovereign territories in the southern Hemisphere, plus Antarctica, are now within legally-binding nuclear-weapon-free zones – South America through the Tlatelolco Treaty, the South Pacific through the Rarotonga Treaty, Southeast Asia through the Bangkok Treaty, and Antarctica through the 1961 Antarctic Treaty. In the northern Hemisphere the  Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone came into force in 2008 and covers Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.

The Treaty of Pelindaba was a long time in the making, a process that was kept alive at least in part by persistent civil society attention – the South African Institute for Security Studies and the Monterey Center for Nonproliferation Studies maintained a continuing watch on and encouraged the Treaty’s slow progress. A visit to Burundi and Namibia earlier this year by a delegation of the World Council of Churches and the Africa Peace Forum, specifically to encourage ratification of the Treaty, helped to spur the Burundi action, and there are indications that Namibian ratification is close at hand.

The nuclear-weapon-free zone question is not as directly linked to the security and stability of the Africa continent as it is to the Middle East, but Sola Ogunbanwo, a Nigerian non-proliferation expert, makes compelling points that the Treaty’s entry into force will yield significant security benefits by reducing proliferation risks and improving verification measures.[viii] Most notably, Protocol I of the Treaty provides for assurances from states with nuclear weapons that they will “not…use or threaten to use a nuclear explosive device against…any Party to the Treaty,” and Protocol II provides for assurances that they will “not…test or assist or encourage the testing of any nuclear explosive device anywhere within the African nuclear-weapon-free zone.” China, France and the United Kingdom have ratified both protocols. The US has signed, but along with Russia, has not ratified.[ix]

The Blix Commission on weapons of mass destruction called the concept of nuclear-weapon-free zones “a success story.” They “complement and reinforce” the non-proliferation commitments made through the NPT, and they fill in “gaps” left by the NPT.[x] In other words, the entry-into-force of the Pelindaba Treaty should be registered as a significant advance in nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament efforts.


[i] IAEA, “Africa Renounces Nukes: Treaty’s Entry Into Force Makes Entire Southern  Hemisphere Free of Nuclear Weapons,” International Atomic Energy Agency News Center, 14 August 2009.

[iii] Noel Stott, Amelia du Rand, and Jean du Preez, A Brief Guide to the Pelindaba Treaty: Towards Entry-into-Force of the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty, Institute for Security Studies, South Africa, 2008, 36 pp.

[iv] Peter H. Sand,  “African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in Force: What Next for Diego Garcia?,” ASIL Insight, 28 August 2009. The American Society of International Law.

[v] Fareed Mahdy, “Africa Becomes World’s Nuclear Free Continent,” IDN – In Depth News,

[vi] “Uranium in Africa,” World Nuclear Assoaciation, August 2009.

[viii] Sola Ogunbanwo, “Accelerate the Ratification of the Pelindaba Treaty,” The Nonproliferation Review, Spring 2003, p. 132.

[ix] Liviu Horovitz, “African nuclear-weapon-free zone Enters into Force,” 12 August 2009, Center for Non-Proliferation Studies.

[x] Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission Report, p. 79. The full text is available at

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