Richard Butler. Australia No Longer Interested in Nuclear Disarmament?

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) is universally described as the “cornerstone” of nuclear arms control and disarmament. All but four members of the United Nations subscribe to it. Those four; India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea, have developed nuclear weapons. Five countries, party to the Treaty, are recognized in it as the Nuclear Weapon States, the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council; China, France, Russia, UK, US.

So, in such an uneven, messy set of circumstances, how is it that NPT is seen as the cornerstone? It’s because it has three elemental provisions: those that do not have nuclear weapons must never get them, those that have them must get rid of them, each party has the right to the peaceful use of nuclear science and technology.

Thus, NPT posits that the desirable state of the world is that no one should have nuclear weapons. Australia has always claimed to be a robust supporter of NPT.

The Treaty provides that all parties to it shall meet every five years to review its operation. The meeting due in 2015 started last week in New York. It will last for a month. The crucial issue and the most contentious will be the absence of progress in the second goal; nuclear disarmament.

There is widespread dismay that not only has there been no reductions in nuclear weapons implemented during the last 5 years, but during the last year, both Russia and the US, who together already hold 90% of the nuclear weapons in existence, have committed themselves to substantial quantitative and qualitative expansion of their arsenals. China has increased its capabilities and Britain and France are persisting with their weapon status.

The weapon States outside the Treaty are a problem of another order. India and Pakistan are engaged in an arms race, Israel continues to be protected by the US from any serious scrutiny and North Korea creeps along in its opaque fashion.

As an aside on Iran. It is a non-nuclear weapon State party to the Treaty. It has both the right to national nuclear science and technology and the obligation not to make a bomb. It is effective verification of the latter that has been, and remains, at issue in the negotiations with Iran.

Global concern about the continuing existence of nuclear weapons, in thousands, with some 3,000 on hair trigger alert has again become prominent, especially since the manifest deterioration in US/Russian relations.

During the last two years international conferences have been held in Norway, Mexico and Austria, called by those Governments and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) focusing on the humanitarian emergency that would be caused by any use of nuclear weapons. Because of the gravity of such an emergency, it is believed that the only solution is for nuclear weapons to be eliminated.

There is a basis for this approach in international law. In 1996, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the advisory opinion it gave in the Nuclear Weapons Case ( a case sponsored by Australia ), stated that “the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in part, the principles and rules of international humanitarian law”. These words deserve careful reading. They refer to the threat of use, as well as to use.

The ICJ went on to state that the NPT nuclear weapon states were obligated, under the Treaty, to negotiate without any further delay towards the elimination of their nuclear weapons.

Following a meeting it convened in Vienna in December 2014 on the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons, the Austrian Government drew up a statement, open to accession by all. It tabled that statement at the NPT review conference on April 28th. It had been subscribed to by 159 States party to NPT. Australia was not amongst them.

The appalling humanitarian and global environmental catastrophe that would ensue from any use of nuclear weapons is widely understood and described in relevant science.

The politics of nuclear disarmament is similarly clearly known. They are difficult and marked by a profound moral deficit. Yet it has proven possible to make some progress during the last 30 years in reducing the stocks of nuclear weapons. That was made possible, in part, because countries like Australia have demanded it, as have key non-governmental groups. However, the Austrian statement reflects the deep anxiety, widely held, that nuclear arms control and disarmament is slipping sharply backwards. The approach it takes is to emphasize the humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons. It recognizes that this is not new or original but asserts that it should be compelling.

Why has the Abbott Government declined to sign it? All of ASEAN has, New Zealand, Chile and other partners in the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty have, Japan, Brazil, Norway, Finland, have signed, to mention a small sample of interesting cases.

Australia’s absence from this initiative represents a serious change in our policy attitude towards nuclear weapons, which had always been bi-partisan, which supported our advocacy in the Nuclear Weapons Case at the ICJ, the establishment of the South Pacific Zone, and the work of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. This started to unravel as the Howard Government went on, Foreign Minister, Downer, was manifestly uncomfortable with Australia’s stance against nuclear weapons.  But, what we see now from the Abbott Government appears to be a full scale retreat into nuclear cynicism, apparently unnoticed by Australia’s mainstream media. Presumably those who notice at the UN will simply chalk this up next to our climate change credentials.


Richard Butler AC, Former Australian Ambassador to the United Nations led the Australian Delegation to the 1995 Review and Extension Conference of NPT, when the Treaty was extended indefinitely. He served as Convenor of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, established in 1995 by Prime Minister Keating.


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