Faith communities in Africa support a ban on nuclear weapons

By Linnet Ngayu, African Council of Religious Leaders – Religions for Peace

Religious leaders, women, and youth representatives from different faith communities across Africa have called on their governments and the African Union to uphold their responsibility to protect and defend their citizens by endorsing the humanitarian pledge and supporting a total ban on nuclear weapons.

The religious leaders noted that the existence of nuclear weapons is a constant threat to the ‘fabric of life’ and the sanctity of human life. In addition, faith communities have a duty and responsibility as stewards of creation to defend the sustainability of life and protect the earth. The religious leaders under the auspices of the African Council of Religious Leaders pledged their support to the realization of a ban treaty.

This position was taken during a roundtable meeting to discuss the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in July 2015. The roundtable was in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It sought to increase the engagement of religious representatives in their understanding of disarmament and to increase their involvement in the campaign to ban nuclear weapons.

The history of the African continent and nuclear weapons can be traced to uranium mining in the Shinkolobwe mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It has been stated that uranium from these mines was used in the Manhattan project which manufactured the first atomic bomb that was used in World War II in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Nuclear weapons testing was conducted by the French in the Hoggar Mountains of Algeria from 1960 to 1967. In addition, South Africa is the only country in Africa to have stockpiled nuclear weapons and the only nuclear-armed state in the world to voluntarily decommission its nuclear weapons program.

Africa is a nuclear weapon free zone (NWFZ) with the Africa Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty, also known the Treaty of Pelindaba, which entered into force in 2009. Currently 38 countries have ratified the treaty which provides for the prohibition of research, manufacture, acquisition, stockpiling, possession, testing, control or stationing of nuclear explosives in the NWFZ by states parties.

Protocol I of the treaty calls on nuclear weapon states (NWS) not to use or threaten to use a nuclear explosive device against any state party or territory within the Pelindaba Treaty Zone. This protocol has been ratified by China, France, the United Kingdom and Russia; the United States has signed but not ratified this provision. Protocol II provides that NWS will not test, assist or encourage testing of any nuclear device within the territory of the Pelindaba zone. This protocol has been ratified by China, France, the United Kingdom and Russia; the United States has again signed but not ratified.

The irony is that a nuclear detonation is devoid of geographical boundaries. Therefore, Africa is vulnerable in the event of intentional or unintentional use of nuclear weapons despite being a NWFZ.

To the general populace and even policy and lawmakers in Africa, banning nuclear weapons is not an ‘everyday’ topic, in view of the numerous challenges on the continent. The fact that it is not a priority cannot eliminate the threat posed by nuclear weapons. It is a matter of global concern not only for the western and nuclear-armed states to resolve.

The role of faith communities in Africa is imperative in this debate to add their voice and be heard by policy-makers. About 80 percent of Africa’s population is religious –including Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Bahai, Jewish and traditional religious practitioners. The involvement of faith communities will ensure an informed citizenry and increase the momentum on a ban.

Faith communities in Africa have been involved in previous campaigns to ban other weapons. These weapons – including landmines, cluster munitions, and the sale of illicit small arms and light weapons – have had direct consequences within communities. Campaigns to ban these weapons experienced challenges and great resistance from states manufacturing these weapons; however, international instruments to ban and regulate them have been realized. Nuclear weapons have greater catastrophic consequences and even more resistance from NWS to bar and divert the discussion to security and deterrence far from the real concern, which is the humanitarian impact.

The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in warfare; nuclear weapon testing across the globe by governments within and outside their borders; accidents in nuclear power plants; and accidents in the handling, storage and transports of nuclear weapons are all evidence of impending disaster.

The involvement of faith communities supporting a ban treaty includes their empowerment to influence governments to begin negotiations urgently. The statement by religious leaders calls on all religious leaders and people in Africa to push for a total ban on nuclear weapons.