Twenty-one years ago, former president of South Africa FW de Klerk announced that the country’s nuclear weapons programme, which had produced six nuclear bombs, had been dismantled.

Last week in Vienna, Austria, South Africa joined 43 other countries in explicitly calling for – even demanding – that a legal framework to ban the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons be negotiated.

The 3rd international Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons closed its two-day discussion on 9 December. This is the first conference attended by recognised nuclear weapon states. The United Kingdom and the United States, both nuclear weapon states under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), were among the 158 countries that took part.

The three other officially recognised nuclear weapon states – Russia, France and China – stayed away. All five states had effectively boycotted the previous two conferences in Oslo, Norway and Nayarit, Mexico.

Although their attendance in Vienna was significant, both the UK and the US opposed a nuclear ban, arguing that these weapons bring stability and security and that the calls for a ban fail to take into account security interests.

In contrast, South Africa eloquently argued that as long as nuclear weapons exist, the risk of their use by design, miscalculation or madness, technical or human error, remains real. ‘The only way to guarantee the security that we seek, is through the total elimination of nuclear weapons and their prohibition.’ African states supporting South Africa were Burundi, Chad, Congo, Egypt, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Kenya, Libya, Malawi, Mali, Senegal, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

The global movement that has once again placed the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons on the international agenda was prompted by several events: the detonation of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan; nuclear weapons tests in North Africa, Australia, Marshall Islands and the US; as well as slow progress in nuclear disarmament.

The Vienna conference was primarily an opportunity to evaluate the impact of nuclear weapons use on climate change, food security, environmental degradation and human devastation. But it was also the first time that states comprehensively addressed the gap in international law whereby nuclear weapons are the only weapons of mass destruction not subject to an international ban treaty. The long-term effect of nuclear testing was also discussed for the first time.

‘New scientific evidence has been put before us on the impact that even limited use of nuclear weapons would have on global temperatures, food production, public health, and the world economy’, argued the International Committee of the Red Cross at the meeting. ‘In light of what has been learned, it is now difficult to deny that the impact of nuclear weapon use would be catastrophic, long lasting and unacceptable in humanitarian terms.’

It is evident that the reframing of nuclear disarmament as a humanitarian and moral imperative has enabled non-nuclear armed states, including in Africa, to re-assert the imperative of a world free of nuclear weapons.

Setsuko Thurlow who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima at the age of 13 gave a spellbinding account that drove home the importance of a nuclear-free world: ‘We hibakusha became convinced that no human being should ever have to repeat our experience of the inhumane, immoral, and cruel atomic bombing, and that our mission is to warn the world about the reality of the nuclear threat and to help people understand the illegality and ultimate evil of nuclear weapons.’

Forty-five African states participated in the conference and many argued for immediate negotiations in line with Article VI of the NPT. Due to the indiscriminate nature of these weapons, the African continent would in all likelihood suffer from impacts such as reduced agricultural production and the secondary impact of a shift in humanitarian resources even if the detonation would occur on another continent.

The effects of a nuclear detonation would be felt disproportionately in developing countries that currently rely on international organisations for development aid and humanitarian assistance as many of those resources would be diverted elsewhere. In addition, many of these countries do not have strong domestic infrastructures or first responder capabilities to mitigate the effects of a nuclear detonation.

Indeed, the Vienna conference confirmed that there could be no adequate response if one or more nuclear weapons were to be detonated, either intentionally or by accident, anywhere in the world.

What is currently lacking is an instrument that explicitly characterises nuclear weapons as unacceptable under international law. Clearly, there is a need for a new diplomatic process to develop an international treaty outlawing nuclear weapons in the same way that chemical and biological weapon production and use have been prohibited.

The support shown by most governments and global civil society reflects that the time has come for this legal deficit to be addressed in order to help banish forever the possibility of another Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As stated by Malawi, many now ‘look forward to participating in the diplomatic negotiations for that long-awaited legal instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons and live in a world free of nuclear weapons.’

South Africa is the only country to have developed and then voluntarily dismantled its nuclear weapons. It can play a unique leadership role in identifying and pursuing effective measures to fill the legal gap for prohibiting and eliminating nuclear weapons.

Rather than a source of stability and security, nuclear weapons need to be stigmatised for their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks.

This article is published in collaboration with ISS Africa. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Mothepa Shadung is a Research Intern at Institute for Security Studies. Noel Stott is a Senior Researcher Fellow at Institute for Security Studies.

Image: Valves are seen inside the decommissioned Unit Six of the Greifswald nuclear power station outside the north-eastern town of Lubmin August 5, 2014. REUTERS/Thomas Peter