Australian government’s refusal to recognise 2017 Nobel Peace Prize winners a stain on decency

Jan 21, 2021

On 22 January, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will put nuclear weapons in the same category as other banned inhumane weapons including biologic and chemical weapons, cluster bombs and antipersonnel land mines. This was largely the work of ICAN, the International Campaign Against Nuclear Arms.

Can anyone remember who won the 2017 Nobel peace prize? Here’s a clue: an Australian received it at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo. Still in the dark? Sadly, not many of us know the answer. The 2017 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to ICAN, the International Campaign Against Nuclear Arms and was received by Tilman Ruff, an Australian physician who is co-founder of ICAN and the President of IPPNW, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

The Peace Prize was awarded to ICAN “for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons”.

We applaud our Australian Nobel Prize recipients, but in this case, there were no congratulations by the Australian Government for a Nobel Peace Prize initiated by an Australian. Australia is not alone in not supporting nuclear disarmament. The nine nuclear powers and the NATO and Pacific allies who believe they have some degree of shelter from the US nuclear deterrence all believe a treaty is impractical.

However, there would have been no political downside to warmly congratulating ICAN for this international recognition for trying to prevent nuclear war.

Although we don’t hear much about the dangers of nuclear weapons, the threat is real. Many atomic scientists and others believe the threat is greater than it has ever been.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has moved the Doomsday Clock forward to just two minutes to midnight, the highest level since 1953 when the US tested its first hydrogen bomb, followed by the Soviet Union nine months later. The risk is higher now because nine countries admit to having nuclear weapons, some of them perhaps less responsible than we would wish.

There are more than 13,000 nuclear weapons worldwide, with almost 2,000 on “launch on warning” alert.

A 2018 analysis in the New England Journal of Medicine pointed out that the risk is greater now because of the growing vulnerability of weapons systems to cyber-attack, making the danger of “accidental nuclear war” a real possibility. That analysis also pointed out that even a limited nuclear conflict, using less than 1% of the world’s nuclear arsenal and perhaps initiated by a rogue state, would result in massive fires releasing millions of tons of smoke and soot into the atmosphere.

This would result in substantial global darkening and cooling that would last for at least 10 years, disrupting food production worldwide and putting more than 25% of the world’s population at risk of death from starvation.

The year 2021 will be a historic year, with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) coming into force. It follows ICAN’s work to establish a United Nations working group on nuclear disarmament, leading to this treaty, which makes the development, possession and use of nuclear weapons illegal for states parties to the Treaty.

Of course, countries that have nuclear weapons and countries who believe that nuclear weapons held by their allies give them some protection through a nuclear deterrence, have declined to become parties to the Treaty. However, enough nations, including New Zealand, have now signed the Treaty to meet the criteria for it to come into force.  This will happen on 22 January this year. The Treaty puts nuclear weapons in the same category as other inhumane weapons that have been banned such as biologic and chemical weapons, cluster bombs and antipersonnel land mines.

There is a long way to go before we are safe from the threat of nuclear weapons, a subject we would prefer not think about. Because compelling medical, moral and scientific arguments against nuclear weapons have been insufficient, legal prohibition became the next logical step.

ICAN’s gradual three-step approach is stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate. To stigmatise, it is encouraging banks, pension funds and investors to divest from any company involved in nuclear weapons production. The largest pension funds in Norway and the Netherlands have agreed to do so. It is thought that others will follow, similar to the way the World Bank has decided to divest from fossil fuels.

Disarmament treaty drops bomb on super funds investing in nuclear weapons

Prohibition will occur as more countries sign the Treaty. President Biden is known to be interested in reducing nuclear arsenals although he will have his work cut out with so many competing pressures.

The road to elimination will be slow but it may be commencing. The stakes are very high indeed.

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