Australia should show leadership on the nuclear ban-treaty

Oct 30, 2020

If Australia is committed to a rules-based order underpinned by international law, as it frequently claims to be, Canberra must sign the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons achieved its 50th ratification last week. This means that this long-awaited Treaty will enter into force next January.

The treaty (known simply as the ban-treaty) makes it illegal to manufacture, transfer, possess, use, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons; it also makes it illegal to assist any state in these activities. The significance of the treaty is that it establishes clearly that nuclear weapons are inhumane, unacceptable, and now illegal, and that no state should possess, use or threaten to use them. It proceeds from the basis that even in so-called ‘good hands’, these weapons are morally indefensible.

The treaty is a major diplomatic and humanitarian achievement. ICAN (the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear weapons), which was founded in Australia, worked tirelessly with other civil society groups and with non-nuclear states to bring about this legal prohibition. ICAN has kept working to raise public awareness of nuclear dangers and to persuade states that a treaty making nuclear weapons illegal would be an important step towards a world free of nuclear weapons.

But none of the treaty’s supporters believe that this will magically bring about disarmament overnight. The treaty’s imminent entry into force is something of a game-changer for international security politics, but in truth, the hard work – of getting as many states as possible on board, of shifting entrenched views that ‘our’ security can only be achieved by threatening annihilation to millions of ‘their’ people, and of placing pressure on the nine nuclear weapon states to give up their inhumane arsenals – is only just beginning. While the treaty is a necessary condition for these goals, it is by no means a sufficient one.

The current Australian government has resisted the development of this treaty, and has at times worked to prevent it from happening at all. The government line is that Australia relies on the US nuclear ‘umbrella’, and that signing the treaty will jeopardise our relations with Washington irrevocably; this, in turn, would mean ending the ANZUS alliance.

But these things are not necessarily true. Australia’s reliance on the nuclear umbrella is a largely self-conceived one: there is no formal public statement from the US to this effect. The ANZUS treaty is a non-binding agreement that its members will cooperate on military matters, to meet a ‘common danger’. In such an event, the US is unlikely to launch nuclear war, inviting its own destruction, on our behalf; a more realistic scenario is that it would use its (substantial) conventional weapons’ capabilities.

Signing the ban-treaty would more than likely bring censure from Washington. Yet severe recriminations from Washington will not last forever. The US is unlikely to sever ties completely with one of its key allies because we choose to disavow weapons of mass destruction. Some US allies have already signed the ban-treaty, and even in NATO states, there is a significant push from domestic populations for their governments to sign. Various studies have concluded that it will be compatible for these states – provided they renounce reliance on nuclear weapons and commit themselves to conventional weapons’ deterrence only – to sign the ban-treaty and remain NATO members. So too has the Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic report found that Australia’s alliance with the US need not stand in the way of signing the ban-treaty. (There would need to be, of course, a full disengagement from nuclear weapon-related activities at the Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap. This will be technically challenging, and will undoubtedly create tensions with the US, but it is not impossible to do, and need not spell the end of our alliance.)

Other reasons proffered by the Australian government as to why it will not sign the ban-treaty include claims that ‘the time is not right’, that it undermines the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and that the nuclear weapon states have not signed it.

None of these reasons carry weight.

We should be clear about what it is that non-nuclear states and civil society organisations have been calling for: a phased, gradual, mutual, and fully verified process of disarmament, not unilateral or instant disarmament. Every one of the nine nuclear states has promised to give up these weapons, and there is no technical obstacle to them doing so. But these states, and especially the US and Russia, who between them hold over 90% of the 13,400 nuclear weapons still in existence, remain intransigent. (Many of these weapons are vastly more destructive than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima 75 years ago.) The nuclear states show no sign of eliminating these most destructive of weapons of mass destruction. Instead, existing arms control agreements have been torn up, hostile rhetoric has increased over recent years, and all the nuclear states are spending billions of dollars modernising their weapons.

Indeed it is precisely because non-nuclear states have become so frustrated at the lack of progress on disarmament that they have moved to create the ban-treaty. After waiting for decades for the nuclear states to live up to their promises and their obligations under the NPT – where they repeatedly promised step-by-step reductions, actions plans for disarmament, etc. – much of the rest of the world has given up on expecting change via the NPT framework.

Fifty years after the NPT, and over 30 years since the ending of the Cold War, substantial nuclear dangers still remain. Former US Secretary of Defense, William Perry has noted that, ‘the probability of a nuclear calamity is higher today, I believe, than it was during the Cold War.’ All the more reason, ban-treaty proponents argue, to move towards a world free of nuclear weapons. If nuclear states argue that the time is not right for such a treaty, they are misreading the world’s impatience with their own intransigence.

The ban-treaty is therefore a symbolic de-legitimisation of nuclear weapons. Over time, it is hoped that it will have a normative effect, as more and more states sign it. It is not essential for the nuclear weapon states to sign the treaty for it to have an effect (although of course an ultimate goal is for these states to disarm and comply with the treaty). A treaty creates pressure and momentum, and in time can change the behaviour even of countries that haven’t joined, as demonstrated by the bans on landmines and cluster munitions. The argument therefore, that Australia should not sign because the nuclear states will not sign, is disingenuous and suggests a wilful misreading of the treaty’s purpose.

When it enters into force, states which have not already signed the treaty will be confronted with the question of which side they are on when it comes to outlawing weapons of mass destruction. Australia has been a strong supporter of banning chemical and biological weapons, the other two kinds of weapon of mass destruction. As with these other weapons, nuclear weapons are seen as abhorrent, because they cannot distinguish between civilians and combatants, they result in horrific injury and unnecessary suffering, and because their use is deemed to be beyond the conscience of humanity. Moreover, the overwhelming destruction they would cause would preclude timely and effective medical and other assistance; victims would face unspeakable suffering. The effects of even a ‘limited’ nuclear war – between India and Pakistan, for example – would result in millions of deaths, and years of a global nuclear winter, resulting in the starvation of up to two billion people.

As for the claim that the ban-treaty undermines the NPT, experts in the field do not see it this way at all. A treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons serves to complement and strengthen the NPT.

Australia has a reasonably good record of supporting nuclear disarmament. As the Canberra Commission Report noted in 1996, ‘As long as any one state has nuclear weapons, other states will want them too; as long as nuclear weapons exist, there is the likelihood that they will one day be used. Any use of nuclear weapons will be catastrophic.’ Yet the current government seems intent on obeying Washington on this issue, regardless of how reckless or destabilising US foreign policy has become over the years.

Even the non-democratic nuclear states have indicated that they will move to disarmament, once the major powers have lowered their numbers significantly. The essential point – that once underway, real moves to disarmament can occur among all nine nuclear weapon states within a phased and monitored process – should not be dismissed.

Change is possible: with sustained and principled leadership, virtuous circles can be achieved. Australia can play a role in this: if it wishes to be seen as adhering to international law, supporting a rules-based order underpinned by UN principles, and supporting multilaterally agreed initiatives towards peace, then it will sign this treaty.

Marianne Hanson is Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Queensland, a member of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Forum, and a Board Member of ICAN Australia.

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