Treaty of Pelindaba raises questions on Diego Garcia


The entry into force of the Treaty of Pelindaba in July last year, establishing an African nuclear weapon-free zone (NWFZ), has again focused attention on the US base on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia in the Chagos Archipelago and whether the treaty applies there.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in its annual yearbook for 2010, released last week, notes the African Union considers Diego Garcia and the surrounding islands to be part of Mauritius, an AU member state, and hence part of the African zone. However, the UK — which regards Diego Garcia, over which it exercises sovereignty, as part of the British Indian Ocean Territory — does not. Under a series of bilateral agreements with Britain, the US built large naval and air installations on the atoll from 1971 to support the deployment of nuclear capable attack submarines and long-range bombers.

The US has declared that neither the Treaty nor protocols I and II apply to the activities on Diego Garcia of the US, the UK or any other state not party to the treaty.

The Treaty entered into force on July 15 2009, after Burundi became the 28th state signatory to ratify it. SIPRI says the treaty, named after the South African nuclear facility near Pretoria, opened for signature in Cairo in 1996. Its entry into force marked the culmination of over 40 years of activity within the African Union (AU) as well as the expansion of NWFZs to the entire southern hemisphere. The treaty covers Africa, island state members of the AU and island territories considered by the AU to be part of Africa – such as the Chaos group.

In addition to containing provisions similar to those of other NWFZ agreements, the treaty provides for the parties to engage in peaceful nuclear activities while obliging them to conclude comprehensive safeguards agreements with the IAEA. The treaty also provides for the five legally recognized nuclear weapon states to give negative security assurances to the parties (Protocol I) and to pledge not to test or assist the testing of nuclear weapons within the zone (Protocol II).

The BIOT or Chagos Archipelago is a group of seven atolls comprising more than 60 individual tropical islands in the Indian Ocean and is situated some 500 kilometres due south of the Maldives – seen as part of Asia. The islands are roughly halfway between Sri Lanka and Madagascar and between Tanzania and Java.

Britain claimed the archipelago in April 1786. In August 1903 the islands were administratively separated from the Seychelles and attached to Mauritius. The islands were retained as part of the BIOT when Mauritius gained independence in 1968. Mauritius has since the 1980s claimed the group. While Britain does not recognise Mauritius’ claim, the wikipedia notes it has agreed to cede the territory to Mauritius when it is no longer required for defence purposes. The Seychelles has meanwhile also launched a sovereignty claim on several of the islands.

About 2000 islanders, known as the Ilois (a French Creole word for “islanders”) were deported from the islands to Mauritius between 1967 and 1971 to make way for the US base. There have been several court cases since seeking to allow them to return.

SIPRI, meanwhile adds that the past year saw some promising developments on the arms control and disarmament front. In April President Barack Obama’s speech in Prague set forth a firm US commitment to advance towards a world free of nuclear weapons. This set the tone for progress in

Russian–US negotiations for further reductions in their arsenals of strategic nuclear weapons, the yearbooksays. It was reinforced by the landmark adoption by the UN Security Council, with 14 heads of state and government at the table, of Resolution 1887 in September 2009. The resolution reaffirmed the support of the Security Council for the goals of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), including nuclear disarmament and strengthening of the NPT regime, and urged action to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism.

Setbacks included North Korea announcing that it would not return to the suspended Six-Party Talks and would restart the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons that been halted as part of a 2007 denuclearization agreement. In May this was followed by a second nuclear test explosion. Concerns also intensified throughout the year about the scope and nature of Iran’s nuclear programme, especially in light of revelations in 2009 that the country was building a previously undeclared uranium enrichment plant, housed in an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps base near the city of Qom.

SIPRI estimates that in January this year the eight nuclear weapon states possessed approximately 7500 operational nuclear weapons. Nearly 2000 of these are kept in a state of high operational alert. If all nuclear warheads are counted—operational warheads, spares, those in both active and inactive storage, and intact warheads scheduled for dismantlement—the United States, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan and Israel together possess a total of more than 22 000 warheads. All five legally recognised nuclear weapon states appear determined to retain their nuclear arsenals for the indefinite future and are either modernising or about to modernise their nuclear forces.

Pic: A US Air Force B1B Lancer bomber takes off from Diego Garcia in this undated wikipedia photograph