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African NWFZ Treaty Enters Into Force
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Cole Harvey

Burundi became the 28th country to ratify the 1996 Treaty of Pelindaba July 15, meeting the pact’s requirement for entry into force and creating a nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWFZ) in Africa. The treaty prohibits the possession, development, manufacture, testing, or deployment of nuclear weapons on the African continent and associated islands.

The concept of such a zone was first endorsed in 1964 by the Organization for African Unity, the predecessor of the African Union (AU). Negotiations on a draft treaty began in 1994, and the agreement was opened for signature in 1996. All 53 members of the AU, plus Morocco, have since signed the treaty. South Africa, the only country on the continent that operates a nuclear power reactor, is among the 28 ratifying states. Algeria, Libya, and Nigeria, which run smaller research reactors, have also ratified the treaty.

Some challenges remain despite the entry into force of the treaty. Twenty-five African states have signed the treaty but not ratified it. Under international law, these states are committed “to refrain from acts which would defeat the object and purpose” of the treaty but are not as closely bound to the treaty as they would be under ratification. Among the nonratifiers, Egypt, Ghana, and Morocco operate research reactors and have plans to develop full-scale power plants, according to the World Nuclear Association, an industry group. Egypt has proceeded the furthest toward generating nuclear power, having contracted with a private company in June to select the site for a power reactor and to train personnel to staff it. Ghana’s and Morocco’s plans are less developed.

Like other NWFZ agreements, the treaty includes protocols intended for signature by the nuclear-weapon states. These protocols, once ratified, commit the states-parties not to use nuclear weapons against any member of the treaty, test nuclear weapons within the territory of the zone, or take any action that violates the terms of the treaty. China, France, and the United Kingdom have ratified these protocols. Russia and the United States have signed but not ratified the protocols due to a dispute over Diego Garcia, an Indian Ocean atoll.

Diego Garcia, a British possession, is home to a U.S. military base and airfield. The British and U.S. governments say Diego Garcia is not part of the zone created by the Treaty of Pelindaba. The AU, however, considers Diego Garcia and surrounding islands to be “an integral part of Mauritius,” an AU member. The AU’s position makes Diego Garcia part of the NWFZ under the terms of the treaty. Ratifying the protocols of the treaty would require the United States to refrain from stationing nuclear weapons on the atoll. Russia wants assurances that Diego Garcia will not, in fact, be used as a way station for nuclear weapons before it agrees to ratify the protocols.

The treaty calls for the creation of an organization to monitor compliance with the treaty, facilitate communication among the states-parties, and encourage cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The chair of the AU Commission, as depositary of the treaty, is required to convene a conference of all the parties “as soon as possible” to elect the members of the African Commission on Nuclear Energy and determine its budget.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei welcomed the entry into force of the treaty. In an Aug. 14 press release, he called the establishment of the zone “an important regional confidence and security-building measure.” The IAEA noted, however, that 21 African states have not completed safeguards agreements with the agency. Under the terms of the treaty, each party is obliged “to conclude a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA” in order to verify compliance with the agreement.

The Treaty of Pelindaba establishes the sixth NWFZ in the world and the second to enter into force this year. Similar zones cover Antarctica, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Central Asia. The Treaty of Semipalatinsk, which set up the Central Asian zone, came into force March 21.

Posted: September 4, 2009