CANBERRA, Australia — Because of the unique destructive capacity and uncontrollable effects of nuclear weapons, the almost indescribable horror associated with their use informed the very first resolution of the United Nations General Assembly in 1946. It has been a recurring theme ever since in blue-ribbon international commissions, Non-Proliferation Treaty review conferences and General Assembly debates.
Given the currently stalled nuclear disarmament agenda, the most productive way forward for committed state and civil society actors to generate political momentum for the cause may be to emphasize the catastrophic humanitarian results of using nuclear weapons. The only way to guarantee their nonuse forever is their total, irreversible and verifiable elimination under international control.
On Oct. 21, 2013, speaking in a UN General Assembly committee on behalf of 123 countries and the Holy See, Dell Higgie, the New Zealand ambassador for disarmament at the time, issued a statement on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. It noted that the broad participation at the March 2013 Oslo conference, which 128 countries (but not one nuclear-armed state nor most who shelter under nuclear umbrellas), the International Committee of the Red Cross and several UN and civil society humanitarian organizations attended, reflected the recognition that the catastrophic humanitarian results of nuclear weapons are a major global concern. Yet no country or international body has the capacity to address such an emergency or provide adequate assistance to victims.
Intriguingly, because of their close relations on so many issues, Australia’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Peter Woolcott, issued a parallel statement on behalf of 17 countries, mainly those protected by US nuclear weapons under extended nuclear deterrence (including Belgium, Canada, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Turkey). Japan was the only country to sign both the Australian and New Zealand statements. The Australia statement emphasized “both the security and the humanitarian dimensions of the nuclear weapons debate.”
It is not clear that the different Australian position was actually ever signed by the minister in the last Labor government, as opposed to being official Australian policy determined by the bureaucracy. The reluctance to associate with the broadly subscribed-to statement at Oslo and the Non-Proliferation Treaty conference in Geneva in May seems to relate to pre-emptive appeasement of United States concerns. Some players in the US policy elite are totally intolerant of any mention of a nuclear weapons convention, and Australia relies on the US nuclear umbrella as the ultimate guarantor of its national security. Australian officials are therefore hesitant to appear too far ahead of Washington on any nuclear-related topic.
The nuclear weapons convention language was taken out of the October 2013 draft statement by New Zealand. But two issues kept Canberra, Australia’s capital, from signing. First, Australians believed that there was insufficient recognition of the security dimensions of nuclear weapons, so it was imbalanced toward the humanitarian consequences. Second, Canberra was upset at not being given time to represent its position. Without meaningful consultation, Australia did not feel obliged to join the growing international consensus. The government might also argue that the Australia-voiced statement was complementary to that tabled by New Zealand, not in contradiction of it.
The Australian position doesn’t withstand rigorous scrutiny. There is no compelling case for Australia maintaining distance from the New Zealand position. Nuclear weapons are the most indiscriminately inhumane weapons ever invented, and the threat posed by them is the gravest of all confronting humanity with respect to gravity, immediacy and magnitude. One hopes that the new government, under Tony Abbott of the Liberal Party in coalition with the National Party, would change tack. But, given this government’s general downgrading of multilateralism, compared with the Labor party, and priority to bilateral relations with key countries (“less Geneva, more Jakarta” is the catchy new bumper sticker), we should not hold our breath.
Australia’s recalcitrance undermines the leadership role it has often taken in the past on weapons of mass destruction issues, especially nuclear and chemical. As Australia is not a big player in this arena, its central role has been building the normative case against nukes — which is exactly what the major humanitarian consequences statement seeks to do. The flawed diplomatic process, if that were actually true, is not a strong enough reason for Australia to distance itself from its neighbor’s stance.
The New Zealand language is clear: “It is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances.” It does not say “we do not support under any circumstances the use of nuclear weapons,” which would have closed off Australian reliance on the US in extremis. It simply says that it is in the whole world’s interest that we never get to that point. Australia should be reaffirming that position.
By taking a different stand, Australia undermines continuing efforts in other respects. At about the time the New Zealand statement was issued, Gareth Evans, a former foreign minister of Australia, and I were engaged in serious efforts to convince the policy elite in India and Pakistan (and earlier in China, Japan and South Korea) on steps that each country could take to generate important momentum for nuclear arms control and disarmament. This includes, for example, ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty without waiting for the US Senate to do so first. Australia’s failure to sign the humanitarian consequences statement undercuts our work in civil society to convince others that Australia is serious in pursuing this agenda.
This is an opinion essay.
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Ramesh Thakur is the director of the Center for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament at Australia National University in Canberra and a professor of international relations in the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy. He was vice rector and senior vice rector of United Nations University (and assistant secretary-general of the UN) from 1998–2007. Educated in India and Canada, he was also a professor of international relations at the University of Otago in New Zealand and professor and head of the Peace Research Center at the Australian National University, while also advising the Australian and New Zealand governments on arms control, disarmament and international security issues.
In addition, Thakur was a principal author of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and a senior adviser on reforms and principal writer of the UN secretary-general’s second reform report (2002). He has written or edited more than 40 books, 400 articles and book chapters. His most recent book is “The Responsibility to Protect: Norms, Laws and the Use of Force in International Politics” (London: Routledge, 2011).