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Rethinking Nuclear Weapons

An Interview with Rian Leith

Rian Leith is a lecturer in Contemporary History at the Technikon of Pretoria and research assistant to the Dean: Faculty of the Humanities at the University of Pretoria. Currently in the process of completing a Masters degree in Diplomatic Studies at the University of Pretoria, his research focuses mainly on South Africa's foreign policy and multilateral diplomacy with regards to nuclear non-proliferation. Rian has been involved with Student Young Pugwash (S/YP) since 1999 and is currently the national contact person for S/YP South Africa. (His involvement with S/YP has served as the inspiration for his current research interests!). One of the priorities for Rian, as well as for S/YP SA, is to promote a greater awareness of nuclear weapons issues in South Africa - especially under the youth/students. As such, he has volunteered for the IS/YP nuclear weapons awareness campaign.

What is the general perception of nuclear weapons in South Africa?

Given the historical legacy of apartheid, South Africa is a country of profound contrasts. Alongside a strong First World (developed) component with highly sophisticated economic, financial, legal/judicial, political, technological and medical infrastructures, a pervasive Third World (developing) component of underdevelopment and poverty (consisting of roughly 60% of the South Africa's population of 42 million) exists due to the highly inequitable development patterns and policies of the past. As a result, socioeconomic issues (such as poverty alleviation and poverty reduction; unemployment; housing; the provision of basic services; education and training; HIV/Aids; the stimulation of economic growth; and equitable and sustainable development – all of which are aimed at closing the inequality gap) and the crucial issues of national reconciliation and transformation have dominated the South African domestic social, political and economic agenda and public opinion since 1994. Given these circumstances, nuclear weapons issues rarely feature in the general public debate. Due to extensive news coverage of events such as the India-Pakistan conflict, the current crisis in Iraq and North Korea's decision to resume its nuclear weapons program, though, more and more South Africans are slowly becoming aware of nuclear weapons issues and in particular, the terrible events of 9/11/01 have raised consciousness of the potential danger of nuclear proliferation to terrorist groups and its possible consequences. However, these issues are generally perceived to have no real effect (if any) on their daily lives (as opposed to poverty, HIV/Aids etc.).

Are students aware of the history and/or perceptions of nuclear weapons in other regions of Africa?

Reference to nuclear weapons in high school curricula are mostly limited to the mentioning of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in World History (currently an optional/elective school subject), while (in my own experience) a more intensive examination of nuclear weapons and related issues is generally limited to courses such as International Relations, Strategic and Military Studies, Cold War History and those in the natural sciences (such as nuclear physics). In my Contemporary History classes, I find year after year that some of my students (especially those from a previously disadvantaged background) have never even heard of nuclear weapons, while the majority of those who have heard of nuclear weapons have an extremely limited idea of what exactly nuclear weapons are, not to mention their devastating and annihilating potential. Moreover, those students who are more familiar with nuclear weapons, are familiar with the European/Cold War context, and they often tend to negate the nuclear threat in a post-Cold War arena (although this changing in lieu of 9/11 and the conflict between India and Pakistan, the current crisis in Iraq and the North Korean nuclear weapons program resumption). I believe this to be a relatively accurate reflection of nuclear awareness amongst South African students in general.

What programs are available to the public to promote awareness of nuclear weapons issues, specifically to the youth?

As far as I am aware, there are no formal programs to promote awareness of nuclear weapons issues available to the South African public at present. Nuclear weapons issues do feature in the South African news media (newspapers, magazines, Internet etc.), but, as is the case currently with regards to the crisis in Iraq, it tends to be limited to coverage of newsworthy developments. Specific information about nuclear weapons issues (EEG. morality and/or legality of nuclear weapons; nuclear non-proliferation efforts etc.) are widely available in the media (especially the Internet), state and academic libraries and so on, but more than likely this scenario presupposes that someone seeks out this information out of his/her own accord. Changing this worrying status quo by raising more awareness of nuclear weapons issues, is currently a main priority for South African Student/Young Pugwash.

Who do you believe is responsible for the education about nuclear weapons in African countries?

Patterns of governance are often precarious in many African countries for a variety of reasons, and even relatively well-functioning states are faced by a plethora of socioeconomic, political and environmental challenges that strains existing governmental structures. Therefore, I believe that civil society has a crucial role to play in educating Africans about nuclear weapons issues.

Are there any unique cultural myths about nuclear weapons in South Africa?

An interesting question! Unfortunately, I am not aware of any, although I am certainly going to try and find out if there are.

What is South Africa's government's stance on nuclear weapons? Does the government deem nuclear weapons a required component of national security?

In the early nineties, South Africa became the first country to voluntarily dismantle its entire nuclear arsenal. The dismantlement process was followed by comprehensive UN inspections and South Africa's accession to the NPT. Since 1994, extensive legislation was passed by the South African parliament declaring the development of nuclear weapons in South Africa as illegal and prohibiting any South African citizen from participating in the development of nuclear weapons in any way, even outside the national borders. South Africa has since then played a leading role in nuclear non-proliferation efforts internationally. While nuclear powers have traditionally justified their possession of nuclear weapons in terms of its deterrent potential and the safeguarding of their national security, South Africa, in contrast, is of the opinion that the realist conception of security and nuclear deterrence fails to appreciate the multi-faceted nature of security itself, and that it only treats the symptoms of insecurity, not the root causes thereof. At a very basic level, the concept of security denotes a feeling or perception of being safe from any harm, or, in other words, safety, protection and/or freedom from danger or risk. Consequently, security not only encompasses politico-military factors, but various socioeconomic, cultural, psychological, and environmental factors as well. In a globalizing world, these issues are increasingly transnational in nature and affect the globe as a whole, and not only a handful of isolated states. We find, therefore, that the national security of states is more and more interdependent on the national security of other states. In this context, the South African approach to nuclear non-proliferation argues that efforts to effectively address global socioeconomic, cultural, psychological and environmental issues should receive an integral consideration in nuclear non-proliferation efforts.

During the general debate of the 50th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in October 1995, the then South African minister of foreign affairs Alfred Nzo, declared that: "…without peace security and human rights, sustainable development will be difficult to achieve. Without development and respect for human rights, international security will continually be threatened". South African vice-president Jacob Zuma expanded upon this statement at a Pugwash conference at Rustenberg in September 1999, when he stated, "…nuclear weapons are a menace to our society and pose a serious threat to socioeconomic development and human life... We live in an era where disarmament and dismantlement of nuclear weapons should be seen as a fundamental human right".

Furthermore, South Africa consistently argues for inclusion in multilateral nuclear non-proliferation issues, noting that "…whilst each government has the responsibility to take care of its citizens, we all have to work together for the good of humanity as a whole. This means that we have to create a world which is more caring, with a strong sense of solidarity where we are all our brothers' and sisters' keepers" (in the words of the current South African foreign affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma). This statement is founded on the appeal by Thabo Mbeki at the State of the World Forum of 1995, aimed at the developed North and its member nuclear weapons states, in which he asked,

"…whether this matter of life and death [the issue of how to address the continued existence of nuclear weapons] should not be decided by the nations of the world, on an equal basis – thus giving a preponderant vote on this issue to those who have no power to deploy these weapons of mass destruction but nevertheless represent the majority of human life on our universe. The objective processes towards the birth of the global village dictate that to those who have power, more power will be given. On the other hand, the search for a stable world order demands that we institute a deliberate process to empower those who are thus disempowered. This has to be a conscious and deliberate act, predicated on the containment of the consequence of the powerful centripetal force that draws all of us towards a world center dominated by the powerful, which, because of its concentration of power in particular hands, will inevitably produce a similarly powerful counter-active and centrifugal force".

Are there any regional collaborative efforts regarding the proliferation/ nonproliferation of nuclear weapons?

The African Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (AFNWZ) Treaty, also known as the Pelindaba Treaty, established a continent-wide nuclear weapons free zone in Africa. The treaty prohibits the research, development, manufacture, stockpiling, acquisition, possession, control or stationing of nuclear explosive devices in the territories of parties to the treaty and the dumping of radioactive wastes in the African zone by treaty parties. It further aims to strengthen the international non-proliferation regime, to promote co-operation in the peaceful use of nuclear energy, to promote general and complete disarmament and the enhancement of regional and international security. The treaty also prohibits the any attack against civilian nuclear installations by treaty parties and requires them to maintain the highest standards of physical protection of nuclear material facilities and equipment, which are to be used exclusively for peaceful nuclear activities. Parties are further required to apply full-scope IAEA safeguards to all peaceful nuclear activities. The headquarters of the secretariat of the treaty, the African Commission on Nuclear Energy (AFCONE), as envisaged by the treaty, is to be situated in South Africa.

In support of the Pelindaba Treaty, the African Regional Cooperative Agreement for Research and Development (AFRA) is aimed at addressing Africa's needs in terms of peaceful nuclear science and technology through regional cooperation. In accelerating moves towards self-sufficiency in scientific disciplines and appropriate technologies through the coordination of telephonelectual and physical resources and the dissemination of innovative methods in a cost effective manner, AFRA a potentially valuable role in the embodiment of the African Renaissance as set out in the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD). South Africa plays a leading role in various fields, including the sustainable regional capability in nuclear medicine, radiation processing of food and industrial products, consolidation of regional capabilities for the maintenance of medical and scientific instruments, and the investigation of origin of leakages in dams and artificial reservoirs.

What role do you think the United Nations should play in the regulation of nuclear weapons in Africa? around the world?

The UN has played a valuable role in nuclear non-proliferation around the world in the past, and I think that they still have a valuable role to play in the decades to come. However, its effective functioning continues to be undermined by the nature of the UN itself – namely that of an international organization composed of sovereign states with competing national interests – as well as its structural organization (most notably in the Security Council which reflect post-World War Two, not contemporary, reality). Nonetheless, the UN remains a valuable forum where states (and increasingly non-state actors such as NGO's) can engage in discussion and negotiation, while many of its institutional structures can provide significant points of departure in building more effective international nuclear non-proliferation regimes.

What do you think the role of developed/industrialized nations should be in regulating nuclear weapons in Africa?

Nuclear non-proliferation efforts in Africa should take the form of a genuine partnership between the developed states of the North (many of them who are nuclear weapons powers) and African states. In particular, developed states can provide technical assistance to African states – such as in the development of seismological monitoring technologies for example. Simultaneously, African states can share their own experiences and technologies with developed states, and also offer their own territories for the location of monitoring stations.