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The Global South: Access to Nuclear Technologies and the Ban Treaty

This article has been written by Professor Andrew Futter and Dr Olamide Samuel.

Conventional wisdom holds that the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (the “ban treaty”) is about reinvigorating the push for nuclear disarmament and seeking justice for those adversely impacted by nuclear testing. Yet, there is hardly any indication from the nine current nuclear-armed states that they are serious about nuclear disarmament, and the countries responsible for nuclear weapons tests have failed to offer assistance or compensation to the victims. But by focussing only on frustrations about disarmament and nuclear testing, and by implications a very “Western” view of nuclear politics, both supporters and detractors have overlooked other national interests in states’ decisions to sign the ban treaty, especially the interests of states from the global south. 

Most conspicuously absent is the issue of access to civilian nuclear technology for domestic energy, scientific research and broader economic development. While much attention has been given to the fact that interest in nuclear energy appears to be waning in parts of Europe (Belgium, Germany, Switzerland) and Japan, as developed societies seek to transition to renewable sources of energy, far less attention has been given to the growing interest in nuclear technology by states in the global south as solutions are sought for “green,” “clean,” and “sustainable” energy. Indeed, we are already seeing an increased rate of IAEA Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Reviews (INIR) requested by ban treaty signatories. This is significant for a number of reasons, but not least because it is intrinsically linked with decisions to sign the ban treaty. 

The link between nuclear disarmament and access to nuclear energy is of course not new. But over the years the focus of the global nuclear order and its central institutions have come to be characterised much more by the “perpetual menace” of nuclear weapons and nuclear use than “perpetual promise” offered by nuclear technology for development and human emancipation. Thus, while Article IV of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) enshrines the right of signatories to access nuclear technology, there is a feeling that it has always been subservient to the disarmament and non-proliferation functions of the treaty. Equally, while many developed countries have benefitted enormously from nuclear technology in past, there is a perception that these benefits – in terms of energy production and research – have not been shared with the developing world. This has not gone unnoticed by developing states, particularly the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).

For example, in October 2016, Ambassador Krisnamurthi of Indonesia delivered a statement on behalf of the NAM at the United Nations. In this statement the NAM remained unambiguous and vocal stating that: “[The Non-Aligned Movement] is of the firm belief that non-proliferation policies should not undermine the inalienable right of States to acquire, have access to, import or export nuclear material, equipment and technology for peaceful purposes.” And this was not a one-off event. As a matter of fact, the NAM have consistently complained about barriers to nuclear technology transfer. Iterations of the above statement have been issued in the 2017 NPT preparatory committee, in the 2019 NAM summit meeting, in the United Nations General Assembly of 2019, and these are just the most recent statements. (For context, 66 out of the 86 nuclear ban signatories are members of the NAM).

The ban treaty concerns nuclear weapons rather than nuclear energy, but interestingly its preamble acknowledges unambiguously the importance of peaceful uses of nuclear technology as well: “Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of its States Parties to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination.” This language was essential to ensure the support of the majority of states – particularly developing states. These developing states in turn, ensured that the language of the treaty reflected their developmental interests in the pursuit of nuclear energy. 

This is not to say that all supporters of the ban treaty also support the use and spread of nuclear energy. Ambassador Launsky indicated Austria’s opposition to viewing nuclear energy as a sustainable means of development in his country’s most recent statement at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s general conference last year. Civil society organisations such as the UK based Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) have also launched campaigns against nuclear energy, and issued a petition calling on the UK government to end all nuclear energy production immediately. Yet, without taking the desire for nuclear energy into account, it is unlikely that the 66 NAM signatories would have supported the treaty.

Consequently, and while the nuclear ban treaty reflects a commitment to work towards nuclear disarmament in global politics, for many signatories nuclear disarmament is not an end in itself. The ban treaty in many ways is a continuation of NPT politics, and this includes the continuation of developmental politics highlighted here. Developing states in particular could not pass on the opportunity to also highlight the failure of countries with nuclear technology to share nuclear energy research and infrastructure with non-industrial countries. These developing countries already shun militarised uses while still hoping to exploit peaceful uses of nuclear technologies. After all, in the developing world, 83 percent of states are already parties to nuclear-weapon-free zones.

In addition, the ban treaty does not warrant its signatories to negotiate additional safeguards or commit them to intrusive inspections on their current or future nuclear facilities. This was an issue which was likely to sow division between developed and developing states during the ban treaty’s negotiation. But it was clear that many signatories from the global south may not have supported the treaty had it limited their access to nuclear technology, and the ‘lower’ safeguard standard was accepted. 

So, what does this mean going forward? 

First, it is essential to avoid an overly Western nuclear-ethnocentrism when analysing global nuclear politics and give equal attention to voices outside of the US-led nuclear order. The reasons why so many states signed the ban treaty is just one example of how looking properly at the “global south” can help us better understand nuclear politics. Many signatories from the global south realize that nuclear disarmament is a far-off goal and that nuclear-armed states may never sign the ban treaty. Still, they joined for other reasons.

Second, numerous ban treaty signatories will link ongoing nuclear weapons states’ willingness to share nuclear expertise and material with their perceived progress on nuclear disarmament. In this regard, the nuclear ban treaty serves as additional leverage for developing states to amplify pressure for nuclear technologies. Understanding the ban treaty in this light may be the necessary motivation for many states (particularly the many in Africa whom have signed but not ratified) to join the treaty. It has been well established that many states join treaties primarily because of economic and developmental interests, and the ban treaty seems to demonstrate this finding

Third, the grievances that motivated the emergence of the nuclear ban treaty are multifaceted. They include the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament, the lack of accountability for nuclear weapons testing, and the failure to live up to promises enshrined in article IV of the NPT. More importantly, the fact that the ban treaty accommodates all these varying interests, shows that the accrued grievances in the nuclear order can eventually lead to resistance that manifests in interesting and surprising ways.


This work benefitted from research funded by the European Research Council, grant number: 866155.

Views expressed belong solely to the original author of the article and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of BASIC.


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