On December 10th the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to ICAN – the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear weapons – which was founded here in Melbourne in 2006. The Nobel Committee made the award “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.”
But despite being a campaign born here in Australia, when the Peace Prize was announced Malcolm Turnbull could not bring himself to congratulate ICAN. The government talks disarmament, but its actions reveal a clear pronuclear agenda. It uses a “catch 22” argument; while nuclear weapons exist, the US nuclear “umbrella” is in Australia’s security interests. So we cannot support getting rid of nuclear weapons until nuclear weapons don’t exist. It also argues the new UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) undermines the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This is clearly false, given the new treaty outlines its compatibility with and reinforcement of existing NPT objectives.
Internationally, the nuclear weapons states have also tried to dismiss the ground breaking TPNW, despite it being resoundingly adopted by 122 nations in July this year. Yet despite all their bluster, they are genuinely worried, as this treaty clearly reframes nuclear weapons as illegal and inhumane, putting them on the same footing as chemical weapons and biological weapons.
For them, worse still are concerns that the treaty may be effective. A leaked letter sent to all NATO states last year shows that the United States believe a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons, even without the participation of nuclear-armed states, would indeed have a significant impact. Once 50 countries have signed and ratified the TPNW it becomes international law.
Many said the Land Mines Ban adopted in 1997 would not work. But it has led to a virtual halt in global production of anti-personnel mines, and a drastic reduction in their deployment. More than 40 million stockpiled mines have been destroyed, and assistance has been provided to survivors and populations living in affected areas. Vast numbers of mined and suspected hazardous areas have been declared free of landmines and released for productive use. Key countries, who did not sign the treaty, have still addressed its provisions.
For too long nuclear weapons have been accepted as a political necessity, without acknowledging the existential threat they pose on a daily basis. The humanitarian impacts of even a limited nuclear exchange are appalling, with the initial horrendous devastation followed by a decade long nuclear winter, putting up to two billion lives at risk. Human error and technical glitches have brought us close to the edge of nuclear war on a number of occasions – even without the terrifyingly capricious brinkmanship of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.
About 1800 nuclear warheads are on hair trigger alert. It is a long cultivated illusion that these weapons somehow make the world safer. We are at a turning point – without renewed action on disarmament countries like Japan, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates will be the next nuclear armed states.
To quote the much missed late Dr Bill Williams, a Torquay GP and one of the co-founders of ICAN,
“In the world of pragmatism, where deals must finally be cut, a treaty to ban nuclear weapons once and for all is urgently required. Not just negotiated, signed and ratified by the world’s parliaments, but implemented all the way to zero. Maybe this route seems pedestrian, but there is no other: we must resuscitate, rejuvenate and exploit the tradition of international cooperation that has achieved bans on chemical and biological weapons, landmines, even dumdum bullets, but not yet on the world’s worst weapons of terror.”
Our government must recognise that this treaty is just as critical to our future as signing up to the Paris climate change agreements. The ALP and the Greens both support the new treaty, as does the vast majority of the Australian public. US allies like New Zealand, the Philippines and Thailand were among the first to sign on.
Julie Bishop and Malcolm Turnbull are very fond of endorsing the “rules based order” and the “international rule of law”. But such statements ring very hollow when they continue a dangerous path that ultimately supports the proliferation of the worst of the weapons of mass destruction.
Given ICAN’s origins, there were quite a few Australians celebrating at the Nobel Peace Prize events in Oslo and around Australia on the 10th of December. Australia has signed treaties banning chemical weapons, biological weapons, land mines and cluster munitions. The double talk around nuclear weapons has to stop – we need to sign this treaty.
Dr Margaret Beavis is a Melbourne GP and a board member of ICAN (Australia) and the Medical Association for Prevention of War.