Sunday, November 8, 2009

Diego Garcia: A Thorn In The Side Of Africa's Nuclear- Weapon-Free Zone

Diego Garcia: A Thorn In The Side Of Africa's Nuclear-

Weapon-Free Zone

Peter H. Sand

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

8 October 2009


Article Highlights


More than 13 years after its signature, the Pelindaba

Treaty, which establishes Africa as a nuclear-weapon-

free zone, officially came into force this summer.

However, conflicting British and African interpretations

of an oblique footnote about Diego Garcia threaten to

put one signatory, Mauritius, in breach of the treaty.

For Africa to truly be considered nuclear-weapon-free,

this ambiguity must be clarified--possibly affecting

U.S. and British military activities in the region.


On July 15, the Pelindaba Treaty, which established

Africa as a nuclear-weapon-free zone, finally entered

into force. The treaty is the latest regional agreement

to ban nuclear weapons in its area of application. The

other five are the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, the 1967

Treaty of Tlatelolco (for Latin America and the

Caribbean), the 1985 Treaty of Rarotonga (for the South

Pacific), the 1995 Treaty of Bangkok (for Southeast

Asia), and the 2006 Treaty of Semipalatinsk (for Central Asia).


The Pelindaba Treaty--named for the former South African

nuclear weapons facility near Pretoria--requires each

party "to prohibit in its territory the stationing of

any nuclear explosive devices," while allowing parties

to authorize visits or transits by foreign nuclear-armed

ships or aircraft. It also prohibits nuclear weapon

tests and radioactive waste dumping. Two supplementary

protocols to the treaty provide for non-African nuclear

powers to agree that they won't "contribute to any act

which constitutes a violation of this treaty or

protocol." The United States co-signed the treaty's

protocols under the Clinton administration in 1996, but

after a heated political debate, Washington didn't

submit them to the Senate for ratification. China,

France, and Britain have ratified them, however,

ostensibly supporting the International Atomic Energy

Agency's enthusiastic (if slightly exaggerated) claim

that the treaty made the "entire Southern hemisphere

free of nuclear weapons."


Underneath this international support for an African

nuclear-weapon-free zone, however, is a low-profile but

high-stakes dispute over the status of the Chagos

Archipelago, which includes Diego Garcia. This coral

atoll in the British Indian Ocean Territory happens to

be the site of one of the most valuable (and secretive)

U.S. military bases overseas. Both Britain and Mauritius

claim sovereignty over the archipelago.


According to the map appended to the Pelindaba Treaty,

the nuclear-weapon-free zone explicitly covers the

"Chagos Archipelago--Diego Garcia," albeit with a

footnote (inserted at the British government's request)

stating that the territory "appears without prejudice to

the question of sovereignty." (To read more about the

negotiations that led to the ominous Diego Garcia

footnote, see the U.N. Institute for Disarmament

Research publication, "The Treaty of Pelindaba on the

African Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone.") Although all of the

participating African countries agreed that the Chagos

Islands should be included in the treaty parameters, the

British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) did not,

stating that it had no doubt as to its sovereignty over

the British Indian Ocean Territory, and upon signing the

protocols noted that it did "not accept the inclusion of

[the Chagos Islands] within the African nuclear-weapon-

free zone" without consent of the British government.


While Russia refused to sign the Pelindaba protocols

because of the ambiguity created by that unilateral

statement, Britain's interpretation of the footnote was

supported by the United States and France, with a

representative of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament

Agency explaining that it was adequate to "protect U.S.

interests because any resolution of the [sovereignty]

issue will occur outside the framework of the treaty."


But what are the U.S. interests and what exactly does

this sovereignty debate have to do with Africa's

nuclear-weapon-free zone? In the last 40 or so years,

thanks to a series of U.S.-British bilateral agreements

(some of them secret), the expulsion of the atoll's

indigenous population between 1967 and 1973, and a $2.5

billion U.S. military construction program, Diego Garcia

has developed into a robust naval support facility,

satellite tracking station, and bomber forward-operating

location. It played a central role in all offensive

combat missions against Iraq and Afghanistan from 1991

to 2006 and was used as a staging area for 20 B-52

bombers prominently deployed as a "calculated-ambiguous"

tactical nuclear deterrent against any possible chemical

or biological weapons used by Iraq against U.S. forces.

The Diego Garcia internal lagoon--a gigantic natural

harbor, measuring 48 square miles and dredged to a depth

of 40 feet as a turning basin for aircraft carriers and

nuclear submarines--is currently being upgraded to

accommodate the U.S. Navy's new nuclear-powered, guided

missile attack submarines. Considering the base's

strategic location, current U.S. needs in the Middle

East and Central Asia, and what is known about past uses

of the base, it would be irresponsible to rule out the

potential for nuclear weapons at Diego Garcia.


That the United States found the Pelindaba footnote to

be adequate protection against the "bite" of the treaty

protocols may have been overly confident. Now that the

treaty has entered into force, Mauritius and Britain are

legally bound by its provisions--though the British FCO

would vehemently disagree, citing the footnote as

disclaimer. A recent editorial in the Mauritius Times

called on the government to broaden its ongoing

bilateral negotiations (which will resume in London in

October) with the FCO on the Chagos Archipelago to

include U.S. authorities (pointedly referring to

President Barack Obama's Prague speech), with a view

toward making Diego Garcia nuclear-weapon-free. Until

that time, in the eyes of Mauritius and the other

African signatories to the Pelindaba Treaty, Mauritius

will not be able to meet its treaty obligations.


One key to these talks may be the precedent of the 1959

Antarctic Treaty, which also contains a disclaimer for

sovereignty issues. Thus far, nobody has interpreted

this disclaimer as excluding the British Antarctic

Territory from the geographic scope of that treaty. As

such, Britain may be forced to confront some

inconvenient internal contradictions lurking in the wake

of the Pelindaba Treaty. To the embarrassment of the

FCO, the Diego Garcia base also has been confirmed by

the CIA as a destination or transit point for several

"extraordinary rendition flights" for suspected

terrorists--branding the island as yet another "legal

black hole" à la Guantánamo Bay, where neither the

British Human Rights Act nor Britain's ratifications of

the Geneva Conventions, the U.N. Human Rights Covenants,

or the U.N. Convention against Torture apply.


The Pelindaba Treaty should mark the beginning of a

momentous new era in Africa, including regional

cooperation for the peaceful uses of nuclear science and

technology through a new African Commission on Nuclear

Energy. But there is the possibility that the Diego

Garcia footnote could stand in the way of progress. If

Britain, the United States, and Mauritius cannot resolve

this debate, then the entry into force of the Pelindaba

Treaty hasn't truly made Africa free from nuclear

weapons after all.




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