Following recent action by Africa, a majority of the world's countries have now banned nuclear weapons from their national territory for the first time. The change happened when an all-Africa treaty entered into force in July. International civil society organizations including the World Council of Churches (WCC) played a catalytic role.
Taking a shared approach to a safer world, Africa became a nuclear-weapon-free zone when Burundi recently became the 28th state to ratify the Treaty of Pelindaba. A WCC delegation visited the central African country in March 2009 to encourage the step. The addition of 54 countries in Africa means that 116 nations are now within treaty zones banning nuclear weapons.
The WCC Central Committee has saluted Africa's new nuclear-free status in a September 2009 statement and invites further church support for such actions. The committee has also urged Russia and the United States "to join China, Britain and France in ratifying the treaty protocols that give Africa added protection" from nuclear attacks.
Burundi's role in this trans-national success story is instructive. In regions where governments avoid nuclear weapons, states large and small can share responsibility for security. Where national nuclear arsenals exist, however, in regions like North-east Asia and the Middle East, collective security is not an option.
What is more, Burundi and other states like Malawi, Mozambique and Ethiopia which ratified the treaty recently, acted at a time when major powers are still struggling to break out of a decade of deadlock in disarmament and non-proliferation, notwithstanding positive signs in recent months.
"We in Africa know the value of disarmament," Burundi's First Vice-President Yves Sahinguvu told WCC delegates in March. Although Burundi is not directly threatened by nuclear weapons, it is engaged in a long recovery process after decades of armed conflict.
"You are the church and you have come here to speak of peace," the President of the National Assembly, Pie Ntavyohanyuma, told the WCC. "We thank you all the more because churches here have done a lot for peace," he added, acknowledging the work of the Burundian Anglican Archbishop, Bernard Ntahoturi, a member of the three-person delegation. Churches provide "ethical reference points" for positive change, he said.
"Countries like Burundi are making Africa more secure by putting this treaty into effect and churches support the treaty because it helps to build peace," Archbishop Ntahoturi said of his government's action.
Senior officials in Burundi said the Pelindaba Treaty would help Africa with security and governance. The President of the Senate, Dr Gervais Rufyikiri, a scientist who has researched radioactive pollution in agriculture, said Burundi would benefit from better international controls on nuclear materials used in medicine, agriculture and energy production.
Solutions need to work across national borders
With foreign companies and governments increasingly looking to Africa for its uranium, another key issue for Africa is stewardship of resources. A WCC delegation visited uranium-rich Namibia late last year to urge ratification of the Pelindaba Treaty there as well.
"We want this God-given resource to be used only for peaceful purposes," Namibian Prime Minister Nahas Angula told the WCC during a follow-up meeting in April. "That is our dream, our wish and our hope". Africa's new treaty, the most advanced of all the regional treaties banning nuclear weapons, is a tool for realizing such hopes.
Developed after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of apartheid, the Treaty of Pelindaba is an example of the collective capacity to work toward a world without nuclear weapons.
First, Pelindaba is the place where the white-minority government of South Africa developed the only nuclear arsenal in the southern hemisphere, which the new black-majority government then abandoned.
Second, many states in Africa bear the scars of Cold War conflicts fuelled by foreign rivalries and fought with imported weapons. The treaty now in force bans the import, development, deployment, testing and use, anywhere on the continent, of the most destructive weapons in existence.
Like managing climate change, effective control over nuclear weapons requires solutions that work across national borders. "In threatening life on our planet, [climate change and nuclear weapons] pose a unique challenge to people of faith," says a 2008 report on WCC work in this field. Meeting each of those threats will require a more human-centered understanding of international security."
The church initiative for the Pelindaba Treaty stems from a 2006 WCC Assembly recommendation to support Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones. WCC member churches have been united in their opposition to nuclear arms for more than 60 years.
The Geneva-based WCC cooperates with international disarmament organizations there and abroad including, in this case, the Africa Peace Forum, the Institute for Strategic Studies in South Africa and the Parliamentary Network for Nuclear Disarmament.
"Other regions have done the same thing as Africa. We look forward to the day when Europe, Asia and North America are freed from nuclear weapons too," Archbishop Ntahoturi said.
Africa is now linked with other nuclear-weapon-free zones in Latin America, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia and Central Asia, and with the nuclear-weapon-free state of Mongolia. The first zone was established in Latin America in the 1960s in response to the Cuban missile crisis.
Today's zones cover the southern hemisphere and adjacent areas up to the southern border of the United States, the southern shores of the Mediterranean, the six countries located between Russia and China, and along China's southeastern border. Treaties also protect Antarctica, the entire seabed and outer space from the placement of nuclear weapons.
(c) Jonathan Frerichs is World Council of Churches' programme executive for nuclear disarmament and the Middle East, and a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).