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Halfway to a nuclear-weapons-free world?

August 20, 2009

On July 15 the entire Southern Hemisphere became a nuclear-weapons-free zone (NWFZ). That’s when the Pelindaba Treaty entered into force, obliging all African states to renounce nuclear weapons and to refrain from acquiring them, and prohibiting the nuclear weapon states from stationing them anywhere on the continent. All 52 African states have signed the Treaty (it  opened for signature in 1996), and last month Burundi became the 28th country to ratify – the magic number for entry into force.

NWFZ_Map_smallPelindaba now joins the Treaty of Tlatelolco (South America), the Treaty of Rarotonga (South Pacific), the Treaty of Bangkok (Southeast Asia), and the Antarctic Treaty in banning nuclear weapons south of the equator. Even better, most of Africa is north of the equator. So are substantial geographic areas covered by nuclear-weapons-free zones in Central Asia and Mongolia. In all, 114 countries – 60% of the world – have now banned nuclear weapons from their territories as a matter of international law.

That’s not a bad start.

One of the criticisms of NWFZ treaties is that they are largely symbolic – that the nuclear-weapon states will station and transport weapons wherever they want (especially on submarines) and that no treaty will protect the parties from the effects of a nuclear war between non-parties. The latter point is certainly correct, as the nuclear winter studies and more recent findings about the global climate effects of regional nuclear wars have made painfully clear.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that some nuclear-weapons states – including the two largest – have signed and ratified additional protocols to some of the NWFZ treaties and are being pressed to commit themselves to the terms of all of them. That may be symbolism, but it’s symbolism with the weight of international law behind it.

The texts of all the NWFZ treaties, lists of members, and other useful information for anyone wanting to learn more about the role of these zones in helping to achieve a nuclear-weapons-free world can be found at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

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