Wanted: a new policy on nuclear weapons
23 Feb 2017|

Within a week of Donald J. Trump’s inauguration, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its Doomsday Clock half a minute closer to midnight. The international community, it warned, had failed to come to grips with humanity’s most pressing existential threats—nuclear weapons and climate change—and the new US President’s comments on both offered little hope for the future.

Could Australia be doing more to pull the world back from the brink of apocalypse? Canberra’s policies on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament have remained largely unchanged since the end of the Cold War, yielding only modest results. With a major review of Australia’s foreign policy now in train, it’s timely to reassess our country’s stance on the ultimate weapons of mass destruction.

Advancing nuclear abolition—and averting a new nuclear arms race among major powers—is essential for Australia’s security. To limit our focus, as the current government has done, to curbing the spread of these weapons to other countries and stopping terrorists from one day acquiring them is dangerously inadequate. Australia should pursue disarmament and non-proliferation with equal vigour.

On 27 March, governments will begin negotiating a long-overdue UN convention to prohibit the use, production and stockpiling of nuclear weapons. This initiative follows a careful multi-year examination of the catastrophic  consequences for humanity of any use of nuclear weapons. It reflects the widely held view among states that these are inherently inhumane, indiscriminate devices. Australia, alarmingly, has decided to boycott the negotiations.

Both other categories of weapons of mass destruction—biological and chemical weapons—have long been comprehensively prohibited. So, too, have certain conventional weapons—anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions. Australia is a party to the four treaties proscribing these weapons. It has helped establish the strong international norms against their use and possession by any state.

But, to date, our government has fervently resisted moves towards a similar prohibition for nuclear weapons, arguing that the so-called nuclear umbrella of the United States guarantees Australia’s security and prosperity. So long as these weapons exist, it claims, Australia will need to rely on them for protection. But is this position sustainable, given the upcoming UN negotiations?

Australia has already raised the ire of neighbours in Southeast Asia and the Pacific by refusing to declare, as 159 states have done (PDF), that nuclear weapons should never be used again under any circumstances, given the catastrophic human harm they unavoidably inflict. This position, Australia rightly argues, conflicts with its adherence to the policy of ‘extended nuclear deterrence’.

By continuing to claim that nuclear weapons are legitimate and necessary, Australia risks inciting their proliferation, hampering disarmament and ostracising itself in this region. And to what avail? The nuclear umbrella is but a dangerous myth from a bygone age. It’s a straight-jacket for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, severely diminishing its capacity to contribute meaningfully towards realising a nuclear-weapon-free world.

In recent years, Australia’s primary objective in disarmament diplomacy has been to stop the United Nations from initiating negotiations on a prohibition treaty. Last August, in a move that shocked even allies, the Australian government attempted to derail a UN disarmament working group that ultimately recommended the start of negotiations. This clumsy manoeuvre left our diplomats red-faced.

Australia, at the behest of the United States, has worked desperately to preserve the notion that certain nations may legitimately possess nuclear weapons—or, as in our own case, claim protection from an ally’s. The government has always stressed the danger these weapons pose in the hands of unstable, intemperate leaders, such as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. But, with the rise of Trump, what now?

So long as the Australian government stubbornly refuses to renounce nuclear weapons for our own security, it will have little luck convincing others to do so—particularly those in far less stable regions than ours. At a moment of great global tension and uncertainty, it’s all the more important that we commit fully to disarmament—and participate constructively in the forthcoming UN negotiations.

The treaty to be negotiated next month will translate into international law a maxim propounded by the former UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon: ‘There are no right hands for wrong weapons.’ We’re under no illusion, of course, that it will magically transport us to a world in which nuclear weapons are no more. But it offers the best hope of ending decades of deadlock in multilateral disarmament efforts.

Underpinning the movement towards a ban treaty is the firm belief that changing the rules regarding nuclear weapons will have a significant impact beyond those states which may formally adopt such an instrument at the outset. The new treaty, once in legal force, will powerfully challenge the idea that possessing nuclear weapons is acceptable for a small and exclusive group of nations.

It’s beyond time for Australia to adopt a profoundly different approach to eliminating this paramount danger—an approach based on our clear acknowledgement that these are unacceptable weapons for all nations, Australia included. The threat of nuclear weapons is too serious to ignore any longer. The government should help shape a robust and effective treaty banning such weapons.

Under the terms of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, Australia’s legally required to pursue negotiations in good faith for nuclear disarmament. Its planned boycott of next month’s UN negotiations casts serious doubt on its commitment to that treaty. It also raises questions about its level of support for the United Nations—at a moment when multilateral cooperation on global security challenges is more important than ever.