On 9 November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, ushering in the collapse of the Soviet Union and an end to the Cold War. These events had far-reaching consequences globally. In Southern Africa, where classic Cold War proxy war scenes had been playing out since the mid-1970s, the geopolitical scene changed dramatically as a result of these events. Soviet support was withdrawn from Africa and with it, the perceived communist threat that dominated the South African Apartheid regime’s policies since the 1960s. The Apartheid regime subsequently became the first country to dismantle and destroy its small indigenously developed nuclear weapons arsenal, which it had developed since the 1970s as a deterrent and as a tool to ensure the survival of apartheid. Former Soviet states Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan followed hot on the heels of South Africa. These (now independent) states inherited thousands of nuclear weapons when the Soviet Union imploded, and opted to disarm. By 1996, all strategic nuclear weapons on the territories of these states had been transferred to the Russian Federation. All four states had also joined the NPT and Africa became a nuclear weapons free zone. During those same years, more additional steps towards disarmament were implemented than in any previous period since the beginning of the nuclear age, from the signature of START I in 1991 and START II in 1993 to the Indefinite extension of the NPT at the 1995 RevCon and the signature of the CTBT in 1996.
Yet, thirty years after the unprecedented period of seven years during which four states opted for nuclear disarmament, international efforts to reduce nuclear risks are in deep turmoil and many observers fear that the global non-proliferation regime is fraying. Since the end of the Cold War, three more states (India, Pakistan and North Korea) have become nuclear-armed states and remains outside the NPT, along with Israel. The Iran nuclear deal faces serious challenges that could lead to its collapse. The second summit between the USA and North Korea ended with no agreements reached and wide gaps persisting on what exactly denuclearization means. In February 2019, the USA and Russia suspended their compliance with the INF Treaty. The USA announced it would resume research and development of weapons prohibited under the treaty. Russia, in turn, resumed work on new nuclear-armed hypersonic missiles and land-based systems. The knock-on effect of these decisions was an announcement by Ukraine that it now had a right to develop intermediate-range missiles to counter Russian nuclear-capable missile systems in the Crimea and Russian aggression towards Europe.
2020 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the NPT entering into force. The aim of the two-day conference in Johannesburg on 20-21 January 2020 is to reflect on global nuclear non-proliferation since the end of the Cold War and consider the challenges facing the non-proliferation regime. Interested presenters should upload abstracts of no more than 500 words, by 30 September 2019, at the URL below.
Professor Anna-Mart van Wyk
Department of Politics and International Relations
University of Johannesburg