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DISARMAMENT: Africa Joins the Nuclear-Free Club

CAIRO, Aug 26 2009 (IPS) - Africa, the second-largest continent after Asia, has now become the world’s largest nuclear-free zone comprising 53 countries with about a billion people. This means denuclearisation of one of the richest uranium producing regions.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the African Union (AU) announced mid-August that the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (NWFZ) Treaty has come into force.

This was after Burundi became the 28th African state to ratify the treat Jul. 15. Algeria and Burkina Faso were the first African countries to ratify it in 1998, two years after its signature.

Its entry comes amidst reports of intensive exploitation of uranium mines in Africa by European and Chinese-backed multinational corporations. It now ensures that the southern hemisphere is now free of nuclear weapons.

Under the treaty all parties are required to conclude comprehensive safeguards agreements with the IAEA. These agreements are equivalent to those required under the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

The treaty also commits its parties “to apply the highest standard of security and physical protection of nuclear material, facilities, and equipment to prevent theft and unauthorised use, as well as prohibits armed attacks against nuclear installations within the zone.”

The treaty officially declares Africa a nuclear weapons free zone. It was drafted in Johannesburg and Pelindaba in June 1995, and opened for signature in Cairo Apr. 11, 1996.

The treaty is also called the Treaty of Pelindaba after the Pelindaba nuclear research facility near the Hartbeespoort dam west of Pretoria in South Africa. Pelindaba is South Africa’s main nuclear research centre run by the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa. This is where South Africa’s atomic bombs were built and stored in the 1970s.

“The African NWFZ, similar to other nuclear weapons free zones in Latin America and the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, South Pacific and Central Asia, is an important regional confidence and security-building measure and would contribute to our efforts for a world free from nuclear weapons,” said IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei.

He said the IAEA welcomed the treaty’s support of “the use of nuclear science and technology for peaceful purposes, and trusts that the use of nuclear technologies in Africa would contribute to the continent’s economic and social development.”

The process of declaring Africa a nuclear weapons free zone was launched at the former Organisation of African Unity (OAU) heads of state and government meeting in Cairo in 1964. The African leaders declared their readiness “to undertake, through an international agreement to be concluded under United Nations auspices, not to manufacture or acquire control of nuclear weapons.”

The leaders based their position on international agreements such as the UN General Assembly resolution of Dec. 11, 1975 that considered “nuclear- weapon-free zones one of the most effective means for preventing the proliferation, both horizontal and vertical, of nuclear weapons.”

The African leaders agreed “the need to take all steps in achieving the ultimate goal of a world entirely free of nuclear weapons, as well as of the obligations of all states to contribute to this end.”

They said “the African nuclear-weapon-free zone will constitute an important step towards strengthening the non-proliferation regime, promoting cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, promoting general and complete disarmament and enhancing regional and international peace and security.”

The African leaders said an “African nuclear-weapon-free zone will protect African states against possible nuclear attacks on their territories.” It would also “keep Africa free of environmental pollution by radioactive wastes and other radioactive matter.” The treaty commits members not to dump nuclear waste.

But the leaders also expressed their support for Article 4 of the NPT that recognises “the inalienable right of all states parties to develop research on production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination.”

The leaders agreed to promote regional cooperation for the development and practical application of nuclear energy.

Africa has some of the richest uranium mines. Many industrialised countries depend on uranium from Africa. France relies entirely on uranium exploitation in Niger to operate its 58 nuclear power plants.

Other uranium producers on the continent are Algeria, Botswana, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Gambia, Guinea, Malawi, Mali, Morocco, Namibia, Tanzania, and Zambia.

Africa is also reported to be one of the largest nuclear, radioactive and toxic waste-dumping sites, together with Southeast Asia. Somalia is reported to be a major nuclear waste dumping site.

Another treaty creating a zone free of nuclear weapons in Central Asia came into force Mar. 21 this year. Five countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – are parties to the treaty.

This treaty was the first of its kind comprising states of the former Soviet Union, and is the first such zone in the Northern Hemisphere. Each of the five states hosted former Soviet nuclear weapons infrastructure. They now confront common problems of environmental damage resulting from the production and testing of Soviet nuclear weapons.

Like the African Treaty, the Central Asian pact forbids development, manufacture, stockpiling, acquisition or possession of any nuclear explosive device within the zone.

Similar treaties are in force in South America (the treaty of Tlatelolco), the South Pacific (the treaty of Rarotonga), Southeast Asia (the treaty of Bangkok), and Antarctica (the Antarctic treaty).

(*This article is a part of an IPS-Soka Gakkai International (SGI) project on nuclear abolition. The writer is a correspondent of the IDN-InDepthNews service.)

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