Does Australia support or oppose nuclear weapons?

Photo of Tim WrightHSV Public Lecture by Tim Wright, Asia-Pacific Director, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), at Hawthorn Community Precinct on 22 February 2018

While the debate about the abolition of nuclear weapons started at the end of the Second World War, there are roughly fifteen thousand of them in nine countries today.

In 1946, the newly-formed United Nations passed Resolution 1.1, urging the abolition of atomic weapons, and although a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was passed in 1968 there has not been substantial progress over the past seventy-two years. Many factors have contributed to this stalemate, not least among them being that the five permanent members of the Security Council possess nuclear weapons, as well as the power of veto in the Council.

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear weapons (ICAN) has sought to shift the debate away from issues such as deterrence and strategic implications. Since 2010, they have helped reframe the arguments, focusing instead on the humanitarian consequences, the threat to human survival, the global economy, food security and the health of current and future generations. Since 2013, there have been three inter-governmental conferences, to discuss the problems, with a broad-reaching complement of participants, such as Red Cross, Red Crescent, climate experts, the UN refugee agency, and a hundred or so national delegates.

One strategy they adopted was to stigmatise or outlaw nuclear weapons, as a step along the path to making them illegal. Many countries who participated gained a sense of empowerment and ICAN has followed up with extensive lobbying. In 2016, a UN working group was formed. This operated via the General Assembly, rather than the Security Council. The General Assembly had already voted to ban landmines, cluster munitions, chemical weapons and biological weapons. Could nuclear weapons be next?

In 2017, a Negotiating Conference was held at the United Nations, and on 7 July 2017, one hundred and twenty-two countries, or roughly two-thirds of the international community, voted in favour of establishing a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. It was a landmark agreement and the culmination of a decade of advocacy. Australia boycotted the vote, along with another thirty-nine countries. The United States insisted that NATO countries should not participate. Although the Netherlands flouted this instruction, they were the only country present who voted against the motion. France also boycotted the conference and intimidated a number of Francophone countries, such as their former African colonies, to do the same.

The Treaty will have legal force ninety days after fifty nations have signed and ratified it. It has twenty articles, but the first is the most important. It prohibits nations from developing, testing, stockpiling, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons. It also prohibits nations from assisting in their use. Australia, although not possessing nuclear weapons, assists the US to maintain its weaponry by providing support, at Pine Gap, for example. The Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Turkey and Germany all have US weapons stationed on their soil and would also be in breach on this account.

Other components of the Treaty cover assistance to victims of nuclear weapons and remediation from the effects of their use. This is an important addition, one which was addressed at the Negotiating Conference by South Australian indigenous elders who had been affected by the tests at Maralinga sixty years ago.

Joining the Treaty is a two-step process. Countries must first sign the document and then ratify it through their own parliamentary processes. ICAN is confident that Australia will join, one day. They believe that the Treaty will be so widely accepted in due course that Australia will be left on the margins if it does not join. In addition, although parliament shows no inclination to debate the issue at present, about two-thirds of the opposition members in the current Federal parliament have individually signed pledges to work towards Australia signing and ratifying the Treaty.

In 2017, ICAN was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. At the ceremony in Oslo, a Japanese woman who had survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 accepted the prize on behalf of ICAN. Although the Treaty is a significant step forward, it is important to recognize its limitations. For example, it does not have provisions for overseeing the dismantlement of nuclear weapons.

Is change really possible? In the ‘80s, De Klerk, as leader of South Africa, took the bold move to dismantle apartheid and also eliminate nuclear weapons. Both moves were spurred on by recognition that South Africa had become a pariah state and change was essential if it were to be accepted by the international community. Similarly, three former Soviet states, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan also decided to remove their nuclear weapons after the Soviet Union was disbanded.

Report by Jennie Stuart

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