Nuclear Watch

Nuclear disarmament – South Africa remain an example

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While North Korea has the world on tender hooks, a new effort to free the world of nuclear weapons has started, with South Africa as one of its driving forces.

On 7 July 2017 in New York, 122 of the UN’s 192-member states voted for a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) – an event which “have managed to sow the first seeds of a world free of nuclear weapons” and was “… a profound international statement,” took place in New York at the United Nations.

South Africa was one of the driving forces behind this event, and rightfully so, having the distinguished credentials as the only country thus far that has voluntarily destroyed its nuclear weapons.

South Africa can confidently take its rightful place as a frontline campaigner in any nuclear disarmament crusade.

Background

In 1993, when it was evident that South Africa was on a no-return political reform path towards democracy and majority rule, the government of President FW de Klerk decided to dismantle the country’s nuclear arsenal.

Some people view the decision with a fair amount of skepticism, stating that the decision was taken to prevent a black majority government having control over a nuclear weapons arsenal – a view President De Klerk denies.

What cannot be denied was that international pressure, particularly by the US, helped to convince the De Klerk government to sign the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

It nevertheless, it remains an epic decision and one on which the current and future South African governments can continue to use to promote nuclear disarmament.

Almost unnoticed

Against the background of North Korea’s nuclear posturing, and America’s angry response, the of 7 July 2017 event went by almost unnoticed. However, as one observer remarked: “With North Korea openly continuing to test its arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles the decision couldn’t be more timely.”

Under the TPNW, signatory states must agree not to: develop, test, manufacture; possess nuclear weapons; threaten to use them; allow any nuclear arms to be stationed on their territory; or transfer, and station nuclear weapons in a different country.

The TPNW will be open for signature by any UN member state starting on 20 September 2017 and, under UN rules, will become part of international law 90 days after being ratified by 50 countries.

Frustration

The TPNW, and the large number of states approving it, clearly reflect a frustration among non-nuclear states that the original NPT has been ineffective. Signed in 1968, it is described by critics as discriminatory in the extreme, giving only the five original nuclear powers – the US, Russia, Britain, France and China — the right to keep their nuclear arsenals.

While the US and other nuclear states have been eager to enforce the non-proliferation aspects of the NPT, they have failed to fulfill their own NPT commitments to make real efforts to reduce their own nuclear stockpiles.

The US refutes the criticism and said they have reduced their nuclear arsenal and will continue to do so pending circumstances. According to Robert Wood, US Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament, “You can't divorce disarmament from the prevailing security environment, and currently conditions don’t exist for disarmament.”

Resistance

Expectedly, resistance to the TPNW from the nuclear weapons club is strong and these states, particularly the US, France and Britain are arguing for a strengthening of the NPT and not the TPNW.

Supporters of the TPNW are equally firm in their belief that the NPT must be replaced and argue that initial resistance does not limit a treaty’s value nor does it lessen the stigma attached to a state not signing on to it.

Driving this argument home, reference is made to the Mine Ban Treaty which bans the production, use, and stockpiling of land mines. Only 89 states signed the treaty in 1997. Today, 162 states are formally committed to ensuring a world free of land mines by 2025.

Similarly, treaties that banned biological and chemical arms and cluster bombs have shown how weapons once regarded as acceptable are now widely, if not universally, reviled.

TPNW a different ball game

Currently there is no indication that the nine nations with nuclear weapons are going to voluntarily disband their arsenals.  In a joint statement the UN ambassadors for the US, Britain, and France said they have no intention of joining the treaty.

Their argument: “… a purported ban on nuclear weapons that does not address the security concerns that continue to make nuclear deterrence necessary cannot result in the elimination of a single nuclear weapon and will not enhance any country’s security, nor international peace and security.”

 Of particular concern, they said, was the fact that the TPNW failed to address how to handle the growing threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Proponents of the TPNW on the other hand use the same North Korean threat, and the international tension it created, to illustrate the importance of a ban on nuclear weapons to safeguard the world against the terror locked up in nuclear weapons.

Fifteen thousand nuclear weapons around the world have not deterred North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and a new approach is needed, starting with the TPNW as a first step.

TPNW advocates claim they do not expect that any nuclear-armed country would sign the treaty — at least not at first. However, they hope the treaty’s widespread acceptance will eventually increase public pressure, and coupled with the stigma of harboring and threatening to use nuclear weapons, will ultimately lead to a change in policy.

Many claim this is a naïve and unrealistic understanding of the world.  Cynics say many of the states approving the TPNW have nothing to lose and all to gain as they are in no position to even consider a nuclear option, lacking both the knowhow and money.  

Possible trail blazer

Critics say the TPNW will have no practical disarmament value until one of the countries that possess nuclear weapons, or depend on them for their security, sign it.

Proponents of the treaty believe that they have started a train that all nuclear weapons states will eventually have to board.

South Africa has boarded the train and could show others how it could be done.  

by Garth Cilliers

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