Regional roundtable meeting in Pretoria

News & Events

On 17-18 February the WMD project of the International Law and Policy Institute (ILPI) held its 11th regional roundtable meeting on nuclear weapons outside Pretoria, South Africa.

By Torbjørn Graff Hugo

The meeting was organized in collaboration with the South African-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The purpose of the roundtable was to bring together key government stakeholders from the African continent to discuss both substantive and process-related aspects of an international nuclear disarmament, with a particular focus on a planned Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) in Geneva. A key issue to be explored was the role of Africa and African states in this field.

The roundtable gathered 20 participants from 12 different countries, of which 9 were African. Participants from governments, international organisations and civil society were invited in their personal capacity and engaged in lively and constructive debates. The roundtable took place under the Chatham House rule, and was moderated by the ISS, ILPI and the ICRC.

Summary of the discussions

The first session focused on the state of play in the field of nuclear disarmament, with particular emphasis on the humanitarian initiative and the failure of the 2015 NPT Review Conference to reach agreement on an outcome document. Following an update on the phases that have taken place in the humanitarian initiative to date, participants noted that one of its main achievements was that it had allowed states and civil society the opportunity to challenge the status quo. Currently the international community’s focus is on the UN OEWG on Taking Forward Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament Negotiations. Various aspects of the OEWG were discussed and concerns were voiced about the lack of necessary expertise in Geneva during the discussions. Despite some hesitancy towards the OEWG, participants seemed to agree that the involvement and participation by African states in the OEWG was crucial in order to ensure progress in this field.

In the second session, participants considered and reflected on the process going forward, including on what the so-called legal gap on nuclear weapons represented—and how this could be filled. Issues surrounding negotiations of new legal instrument were discussed as well as other proposed options. Several participants expressed doubt as to whether the so-called step-by-step approach would be able to achieve tangible progress on nuclear disarmament. At the same time, it was noted that a simple prohibition treaty might not be the ideal way forward either, but that it could constitute an important interim step towards the goal of complete elimination, in that it would have a stigmatizing effect and underline the unacceptability of any use of nuclear weapons. It was suggested that a prohibition treaty could be supplemented by a comprehensive convention at a later stage. Another approach discussed was that of a framework agreement, whereby different legal elements would be added gradually through protocols. The main benefit of this approach was seen to be that it could increase the likelihood of nuclear umbrella states taking part in the negotiations. The meeting did not express a clear preference for either the ban approach or the framework agreement, but most participants seemed to agree that waiting for the nuclear-armed states or the umbrella states to take the lead was unrealistic.

During the discussion on the negotiation of different proposed measures, participants underlined the importance of inter-regional efforts with like-minded regions. Participants also emphasized that African states have demonstrated their valuable leadership role in other disarmament processes, including the Convention of Cluster Munitions and Arms Trade Treaty. It was suggested that an African momentum was needed. Several participants also suggested that the issue of African solidarity is crucial, as was a strategy to encourage and involve African policy makers. In highlighting the urgency of this, one participant remarked that the longer a process takes, the more opportunities will be available to the detractors to put negative pressure on African states.

Noting that the issue of nuclear weapons is not considered a priority in Africa, discussions reflected on ideas to persuade African politicians otherwise. Some participants suggested that empirical research on victims affected by nuclear weapons testing on African soil be undertaken, providing evidence to reinforce arguments for disarmament. Participants highlighted the important role of African civil society such as the ISS, and noted that it is imperative that awareness of nuclear weapons disarmament is raised in every possible forum, through cooperation with and empowerment from African states. Stakeholders should also consider the role and value that National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies may provide.


Suggestions for the way forward and follow up actions included the following:

  • Build on measures that already exist, such as the Ezulwini Consensus
  • Consider lessons learnt from previous disarmament processes
  • Increase partnership with African civil society and academia
  • Increase information sharing within the African group/s
  • Raise awareness though media platforms
  • Consider a coalition between the nuclear weapon-free zones
  • Engage in sensitising activities with parliamentarians and politicians
  • Use National International Humanitarian Law Committees to raise awareness nationally
  • Use the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Pelindaba Treaty to create awareness regionally
  • Use the humanitarian pledge as a tool to mobilise states
  • Undertake research on the impact of past nuclear weapons testing on African soil
  • Potentially promote a ban treaty as part of the strategy for a nuclear weapon-free world
  • Consider organising a regional African meeting to discuss ideas of a common position on the issue of a legally binding instrument against nuclear weapons

Regional page

Relevant ILPI publications

Humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons
Summarising the presentations made at the Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, this report presents some of the consequences that can be expected from any use of nuclear weapons, and explains in brief terms why the international community would struggle to provide adequate, timely and appropriate assistance to those affected by any such disaster.

Humanitarian initiative at a glance
A global discussion about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons has intensified in recent years. This brief overview presents excerpts from key documents and statements in this discussion, and combines this with information drawn from the statistical report Counting to Zero about the role that different States have played in support of this initiative.

An introduction to the issue of nuclear weapons in Africa
This article provides an overview of the issue of nuclear weapons in Africa, with particular emphasis on the process that led to the establishment of an African nuclear-weapon-free zone. The role of African states in international disarmament processes is discussed. So are relevant bodies and groupings with a bearing on disarmament policies that African states participate in. A selection of African states’ experiences and positions with regards to nuclear weapons are also explored. The article ends with an outline of possible future prospects of African states’ engagement for a world free of nuclear weapons.

Relevant legal documents

The treaty of Pelindaba
The African Nuclear-weapon-free zone treaty or the treaty of Pelindaba was opened for signature on 11 April 1996. The treaty came into force on 15 July 2009 and has been ratified by 30 of 51 signatory states.