Australia must do more than pay lip service to nuclear disarmament

Sep 21, 2023
No nuclear war Image iStock/ noLimit46

Speaking in New York on Tuesday during the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations, Foreign Minister Penny Wong called for negotiations to begin on a treaty that would halt the production of fissile material – the basic ingredient for nuclear bombs. “We all want a world without nuclear weapons,” she said, and such a treaty is a precondition for that.

Her position is a commendable one, but not new: Labor and Coalition governments alike have called for such a treaty for decades. Wong’s appeal this week might have been unremarkable if it were not for the fact that Australia is now in the process of acquiring submarines to be fuelled by one of the very materials whose production Australia is seeking to end: highly enriched uranium.

As Wong has acknowledged in Senate estimates, a considerable portion of her time so far as foreign minister has been devoted to allaying concerns, including of our neighbours in the Pacific and Southeast Asia, about the AUKUS trilateral security partnership forged two years ago with the United Kingdom and the United States – which has nuclear attack submarines as its centrepiece.

Some fear that the new submarines could be the thin edge of the wedge for Australia’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, although the government has strenuously denied this and insists that it will uphold its longstanding international legal obligations. Others fear that it would set a dangerous precedent, prompting multiple countries to gain access to highly enriched uranium, ostensibly for the purpose of naval nuclear propulsion, just like Australia. Such a scenario would certainly make efforts to achieve a fissile material cut-off treaty infinitely more difficult.

Regional concerns about AUKUS continue to be voiced, including in New York earlier this week. At an event organised by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Sri Lanka’s President Ranil Wickremesinghe labelled AUKUS “a strategic misstep” and “a mistake”. “It is a military alliance moved against one country – China,” he said. “I don’t think it was needed.”

Sri Lanka is not only the latest state to criticise AUKUS, but also the latest to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), having acceded to it on Tuesday. This landmark agreement was adopted at the United Nations in 2017 and entered into force in 2021. Close to half of the world’s nations are now counted as parties or signatories, but not yet Australia.

In light of the well-founded concerns expressed about AUKUS, a decision by Australia to join the TPNW is all the more imperative. It would put in place important guardrails, prohibiting Australia – under this and future governments – from ever assisting its AUKUS partners in the use, threatened use or possession of nuclear weapons.

Until such time as Australia becomes a party to the TPNW, its calls for new non-proliferation measures such as a fissile material cut-off treaty will ring hollow, as will claims that it is redoubling its efforts to advance nuclear disarmament.

The TPNW is the first multilateral treaty to outlaw nuclear weapons comprehensively, as well as the first to establish a framework for the verified, time-bound elimination of nuclear-weapon programmes. The treaty also includes novel provisions for assisting victims of nuclear use and testing and remediating contaminated environments.

The humanitarian and environmental aspects of the TPNW are especially relevant to Australia and several of our Pacific island neighbours given that our region continues to bear the scars of more than 300 nuclear test explosions carried out by France, the UK and the US in the latter half of the 20th century.

When asked on Insiders last month whether the Australian government intended to sign the TPNW, Wong’s did not provide a clear answer. But what she did make clear is that Australia’s focus would remain on the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – an agreement concerned chiefly with preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons globally.

The TPNW builds on and reinforces this earlier treaty, and Australia can and should be a party to both. All TPNW parties are also NPT parties in good standing; it is not a matter of choosing between the two.

As Wong has acknowledged, little has been achieved in the context of the NPT in recent years, due largely to the failure of its five nuclear-armed members – China, France, Russia, the UK and the US – to take meaningful steps towards disarmament. It is 13 years since NPT parties last agreed on an action plan, and much of that plan remains unimplemented.

The TPNW is an important tool that pro-disarmament countries can use to build a global consensus on the unacceptability of nuclear weapons, stigmatising not only their use but also their possession. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has described it as “an extraordinary achievement and a step towards the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons”.

In Australia, the treaty enjoys overwhelming public support, as shown by multiple opinion polls, and 111 federal parliamentarians have so far pledged to work for Australia’s signature and ratification.

While the Albanese government has taken some modest steps in the right direction – ending the previous government’s opposition to the TPNW at the United Nations and observing the first meeting of states parties last year – it has not yet initiated a formal review of the treaty, let alone made a firm commitment to sign it.

In 2018, the Australian Labor Party – at the initiative of Anthony Albanese, who was not yet leader – adopted a policy position to sign and ratify the TPNW in government, after taking account of its interaction with the NPT, work in the area of disarmament verification, and efforts to build universal support.

In an impassioned speech to party members, Albanese said at the time: “I don’t argue that this is easy. I don’t argue that it’s simple. But I do argue that it’s just,” adding that it is consistent with the role that Labor governments have played internationally in the past. “Nuclear weapons are the most destructive, inhumane and indiscriminate weapons ever created,” he said. “Today we have an opportunity to take a step towards their elimination.”

Responding to the arguments of his colleagues who had been hesitant at first to commit to the treaty, Albanese said that it was “not true” that becoming a TPNW party would “interfere with” Australia’s relations with the United States. “The fact is that we can disagree with our friends in the short term, while maintaining those relations,” he said, citing as an example Australia’s ratification of the 1997 anti-personnel mine ban convention, which the US had fiercely opposed at the time.

One way to move nuclear-armed states forward on disarmament and build “universality of support” for the TPNW, he argued, “is by Australia playing a role”.

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