Pursuing a Comprehensive Non-proliferation and Disarmament Agenda: Irreversible Nuclear Disarmament (IND) – An African Perspective

Pursuing a Comprehensive Non-proliferation and Disarmament Agenda: Irreversible Nuclear Disarmament (IND) – An African Perspective

[Kudakwashe Zvikomborero Mapako is a Research Officer at the African Center for Science and International Security (AFRICSIS) in the Arms Control and Nonproliferation program.]


Although nuclear weapons have only been used in warfare twice, approximately 13,080 are said to remain in our world today, and over 2,000 nuclear tests have been conducted to date. Disarmament is the best defense against such threats but achieving it has been a tremendous challenge. Since its inception, the United Nations has worked to eliminate such weapons. The first resolution passed by the UN General Assembly in 1946 established a Commission to address issues like atomic energy discovery. Several multilateral treaties have been established to prevent nuclear proliferation and test while promoting nuclear disarmament progress. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, Outer Space, And Under Water, also known as the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) are among these. From the 2000 NPT Review Conference establishing practical steps in the pursuit of nuclear disarmament to the 2010 NPT Review Conference Final Document irreversibility has been one of the consistent principles highlighted to ensure permanent nuclear disarmament. With the definition of ‘nuclear irreversibility’ heavily contested, this paper seeks to assess the term irreversible through the lens of nuclear disarmament considering the strict interpretation of instant complete eradication of nuclear-related material/facilities and a less aggressive interpretation that considers disarmament as a process. Unpacking whether states need multifaceted collaborative efforts to achieve irreversible nuclear disarmament (IND), how to ensure comprehensive IND with verification facing the contemporary state of hedging and latency, exploring the relationship between political, legal, and technical factors around IND, considering alternative routes for comprehending IND and lastly discussing whether non-NPT states should be active in the IND process with a specific focus on DPRK, South Asia, and the Middle East. 

Africa’s Commitment and Perspective

Due to nuclear weapons states’ continued apathy towards disarmament and non-proliferation, there is growing suspicion among non-nuclear weapons states, especially African states, that nuclear weapons states lack the zeal and will to pursue disarmament. This is motivated by the realization that nuclear weapon states’ reduction of nuclear warheads is not the same as complete disarmament. As a result, non-nuclear weapon states have made efforts to address the humanitarian consequences of nuclear use while also discussing other legal avenues to promote non-proliferation. There have been constant requests for accountability and transparency in the nuclear weapons states’ disarmament efforts.

African states’ engagement and concerns have been direct and insisting because of strides that have been taken in Africa to ensure international security through total disarmament and non-proliferation. African countries have been active in their efforts to promote disarmament, non-proliferation, and the peaceful use of nuclear material. This is demonstrated by the 43 states that have ratified the African Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty, which was adopted in 1996, the 191 states that have ratified the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (1970), which includes African states, the fact that 38/54 African States are parties to the CPPNM (1980), and the fact that 22 States are parties to the CPPNM amendments. After consideration of Africa’s nuclear security development history and efforts that are undeniably entrenched in promoting disarmament, non-proliferation, and peaceful use of nuclear. Nuclear weapons states have a huge responsibility to show their commitment to achieve the shared sentiment of non-proliferation and disarmament. 

Interpretation of Irreversibility 

It is essential to understand nuclear disarmament with the acknowledgment that irreversibility is more of a fitting reality with gradual steps. The 2010 NPT Review conference reaffirmed the urgent need for nuclear weapons states to apply principles of irreversibility, verification, and transparency concerning the implementation of NPT treaty obligations. Achieving irreversibility in this case is viewed as a gradual process that is more about ‘cost and difficulty’. This notion is brewed by interpretation that irreversibility as far as nuclear disarmament is concerned, is not instant but a scale that can be measured by the level of commitment and actions taken by nuclear weapons states. Under this scale, nuclear weapons states have an obligation to make strides toward complete disarmament by dismantling all the nuclear warheads in a country. This process of dismantling of nuclear warheads would depend on the amount of weapons-usable fissile material in the state in the form of intact (and unstuffed) pits; and, thus, able to be directly used—or re-used, as the case may be—in warheads; the amount of weapons-usable fissile material in the state in forms not immediately able to be implanted in weapons (i.e. in non-pit form, whether that material is safeguarded or not) and lastly the capabilities of the state to produce weapons-usable fissile material and, separately, to fabricate that material into pit forms that can be implanted into warheads. This notion of irreversibility creates room for rearmament to the disarming states due to political will, thus a more realistic approach to IND as it considers nuclear weapons states’ concerns of geopolitical climate vis-à-vis the nuclear disarmament process.  

It is also important to highlight that there is a strict interpretation of ‘irreversibility’ that is more aggressive in its approach as it requires nuclear weapons states to completely abandon the production of nuclear weaponry and nuclear weapons facilities. This interpretation is in line with Article VI of the NPT. According to Avid Cliff, Hassan Elbahtimy and Andreas Persbo, this process would require nuclear weapons states to implement the destruction of the fissile material components of dismantled warheads; the disposition of all weapons-usable fissile material within a state (i.e. not just those from weapons); the elimination, disablement or conversion to civil uses of all facilities involved in the final assembly of warheads and the manufacture of warhead pits; the elimination, or the severe disablement, of all facilities used in the production of potentially weapons-usable fissile materials (i.e. enrichment and reprocessing plants); the placement of all fissile materials under international safeguards; and the elimination or conversion to non-nuclear roles of all nuclear delivery vehicles. This strict approach, although it sounds more solid, lacks comprehension of the current political climate and comprehension of the roots of nuclear proliferation. As long as there is potential geopolitical tension, it is almost impossible to achieve this goal, as states will always consider armament to protect their sovereignty as enshrined by international law.

Multifaceted Collaborative Efforts to Achieve IND

Moving with the notion that IND is a gradual process that is done with a scale of deliverables towards complete disarmament. It is integral to note that although a less strict interpretation of ‘irreversible’ is less popular to non-nuclear weapons states, it is more practical. Under the pretext of universal acknowledgement of this development, a shared disarmament vision can be established which is inclusive of all non-nuclear weapons states and nuclear weapons states. A clear example of multifaceted collaborative efforts towards IND is the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification (IPNDV). The IPNDV broke new ground in developing a diverse international program of work from its first meeting in March 2015. The partners, which include more than 25 countries with and without nuclear weapons, have made considerable progress in identifying the challenges associated with nuclear disarmament verification and identifying potential procedures and technologies to address those challenges. A transparent body or initiative that is inclusive can achieve more than independent operations to hold states accountable. Having a shared multifaceted goal to achieve an irreversibly disarmed world can restore the confidence and goodwill of non-nuclear weapons states while reaching the intended target of a nuclear weapons world. 

How to Ensure Comprehensive IND with Verification Facing the Contemporary State of Hedging and Latency

Under the pretext of irreversibility as a gradual process, there is room for rearmament but at what cost and how difficult would the process be? In this context, IND acknowledges that states can rearm depending on the political climate and contemporary geopolitical relations. Due to this unpredictability and uncertainty, many nuclear weapons states hold on to the nuclear weapons facilities, thus hedging and latency. With this contemporary nuclear disarmament development, verification’s responsibility and scope does not stop hedging or latency. Instead, verification has the obligation to ensure that irreversibility steps are taken, compliance to what nuclear weapons states projected in their nuclear disarmament process and detect violations. Apart from verification, there is a need to hold these nuclear weapons states accountable and establish punitive measures for those in violation. Hence verification can play an investigative role while restoring the confidence to non-nuclear weapons states but it cannot ensure comprehensive IND without an independent initiative to ensure compliance. Also, many issues remain unresolved, especially related to providing enough information regarding a nuclear weapon without providing proliferation-sensitive information to the inspecting party in violation of Article I of the NPT. 

The Relationship Between Political, Legal and Technical Factors around IND

Political, legal, and technical factors give a huge incentive to nuclear weapons states to implement irreversible nuclear weapons. Despite the intertwinement of these factors, it is apparent that political factors dictate nuclear weapons states’ willingness to IND. This is exhibited from the Russia-Ukraine tension earlier this year. Russia’s regular reminders over the past months of its nuclear might, even if bluster, were the latest evidence of how the potential threat has resurfaced in more overt and dangerous ways. They were enough to draw a pointed warning to Moscow from President Biden in what amounted to a tacit acknowledgment that the world had entered a period of heightened nuclear risks. From this context the geopolitical nature of this conflict can possibly incentivize other nuclear weapons states to consider rearmament for a potential nuclear warfare, or to consider hedging as a precautionary measure for potential future nuclear confrontation. Despite the existence of customary international law that is clear about the irrecoverable nature of the use of nuclear weapons. Russia threatened the use of nuclear weapons. This shows that legal factors alone are not enough to encourage IND, as there is no definitive law that prohibits the threat of or use of nuclear weapons. This is further made clear by Marshall islands v. United Kingdom case before the ICJ, in which the Marshall Islands’ claim against nine states, including the UK, of not fulfilling their obligations with respect to the cessation of nuclear arms race in time and to nuclear disarmament were dismissed before the court. Technical factors are an extension of political and legal factors working in unison towards a shared goal. 

Alternative Routes for Comprehending Irreversible Nuclear Weapons 

With legal factors that are not comprehensive in their approach, there is a need to strengthen this aspect of IND. The legal bodies championing IND, especially the United Nations Disarmament Commission and IAEA, should prioritize the national security interests of nuclear weapons states and craft legal architecture that considers the long-standing obligations held by these states to the total elimination of nuclear weapons. States need to negate continued efforts to completely disarm because of less strict irreversible disarmament success. At the root of IND is transparency and accountability, therefore comprehensive efforts need to be implemented to ensure verification is backed by an independent body that ensures compliance apart from just the investigation. 

Whether Non-NPT States Should be Active in the IND Process with a Specific Focus on DPRK, South Asia and the Middle East

It is fundamental to highlight that the 2010 Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons review conference action plan encompasses the principle of irreversibility. In order to unpack efforts by non-NPT states to implement irreversibility it is vital to acknowledge their history with the legal instrument. In 1985 DPRK was once a party to the NPT. Due to inconsistencies in its declaration and IAEA’s findings in the 1990s and its prolonged refusal of special inspection as enshrined by the safeguards agreement, DPRK withdrew from the NPT. Since then, DPRK has conducted several nuclear tests. Since DPRK’s withdrawal from the NPT, it has been conducting activities that suggest nuclear proliferation and armament. This is contrary to the efforts that have been made by NPT towards non-proliferation and ensuring irrepressibility to nuclear weapons states. Withdrawal from the NPT is not a green light for states to conduct proliferation activities, as this affects the flow of irreversibility as a principle. Irreversibility as a principle achieves more in the contest of political and geopolitical stability. Therefore, the proliferation of arms can only upset the confidence and goodwill of non-nuclear weapons states and motivate rearmament and proliferation from nuclear weapons states.

The same can be established for South Asia states, specifically Pakistan and India; there is a need for nuclear weapons states, not party to NPT to highly recognize nuclear weapons as political and symbolic instruments and recognize IND as part of their military utility. In the Middle East, Iran, Israel, and Syria are in the midst of managing and resolving major conflicts in the Middle East. These states must be highly active participants in irreversible nuclear weapons programs.  This would generate much more significant benefits than merely aiding in the creation of a WMD-free zone and avoiding a catastrophe to the ongoing conflict in the region. Therefore, being party to NPT is not the only incentive for states to be active in the irreversible nuclear weapons initiatives, as the results of well-coordinated efforts have positive impact on all the states (NWS and NNWS). 


Pursuing non-proliferation and disarmament of nuclear weapons to achieve a nuclear-free world, IND is at the core of this agenda. Despite the contested interpretation of the term ‘irreversible,’ no one can deny the impact and contribution of this initiative towards ensuring international security through disarmament. Its impact accedes to nuclear security but ensures cooperation and coordination of the international community towards a shared goal. Restoring the goodwill and confidence of other non-nuclear weapons states, especially African states, that have championed non-proliferation and disarmament to rely on the international law and diplomacy. With all IND’s contributions, come limitations of latency and hedging, verification, on, unwillingness, and non-compliance from NWS. In this regard, the international community has the responsibility to respond to respective challenges and act accordingly in the pursuit of comprehensive non-proliferation and disarmament initiatives. 

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