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Shadow Ministers’ Move on Nuclear Ban Treaty

25 Oct 2018
By Richard Lennane
Credit: Twitter @Alex_Phelan

Labor’s apparent move away from support reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the Nuclear Ban Treaty in Australian foreign policy circles.

Neglected in academic and foreign policy circles in Australia since it opened for signature a year ago, the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (Nuclear Ban Treaty) has in the past few days attracted a flurry of interest. Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong spoke about the treaty at length in her speech to the Australian Institute of International Affairs’ National Conference on 15 October. The same day, Shadow Minister for Defence Richard Marles published a short piece on the security implications of the treaty. Both these efforts seem to draw on a review from nuclear safeguards veteran John Carlson on 4 October.

This attention is long overdue; the Nuclear Ban Treaty is the most significant development in multilateral nuclear weapons diplomacy since the adoption of the Comprehensive Nuclear-test-ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996. Australia was a champion of the CTBT and was instrumental in its adoption; 20 years later, its decision to boycott the Nuclear Ban Treaty negotiations at the UN was an unprecedented departure from decades of bipartisan support for multilateral non-proliferation and disarmament efforts.

So the interest from the shadow cabinet is heartening. Alas, what they have to say is not. Wong’s speech – part nuclear history primer, part policy speculation – is strangely muddled, as if different sections were written by different people, and then thrown together with little regard for overall coherence. Wong states that “There is no doubt that the Ban Treaty … has already had a significant normative impact,” but then says that “A treaty banning nuclear weapons will have no effect without the support of those states that possess them.” She lauds the treaty as “an important statement – a clear declaration of the will of the majority of nations,” and later disparages it as “collective virtue signaling.” Which is it? This confusion is carried to the end: having examined the pros and cons of the ban treaty, Wong fails to say whether or not a Shorten Government will actually sign it.

Richard Marles, in contrast, is straightforward: signing the treaty “would be hard to justify.” This conclusion comes at the end of a simplistic analysis that is surprisingly amateurish for an aspiring defence minister; it reads like something drafted by a US embassy intern. Marles contends that the ban treaty “raises the prospect of Australia needing to repudiate our longstanding defence relationship with the US” and “might undermine” both the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the ANZUS security agreement with the US. He claims the NPT has worked because, in contrast to the Nuclear Ban Treaty, “nuclear weapons states are members.” Penny Wong also cites the lack of involvement of nuclear-armed states, but her main criticism is the alleged weakness of the safeguards provisions, which she claims “not only undermines the potential effectiveness of the Ban Treaty, it has the unintended effect of undermining the effectiveness of the existing NPT’s safeguards system.”

Wong’s and Marles’ criticisms of the the Nuclear Ban Treaty appear to be based on John Carlson’s analysis and all are either misguided or flat out wrong. I have written a detailed rebuttal elsewhere, but very briefly:

  • The Nuclear Ban Treaty is intended to work with or without the support of the nuclear-armed states. This is a fundamental principle of its design modelled on the 1997 Anti-Personnel Landmine Ban Convention, a treaty that has significantly affected the behaviour of the major possessor states that have not joined it. As for the NPT, four of the nine nuclear-armed states are not members, and China and France did not join until 1992, 24 years after the treaty opened for signature. Having possessor states on board from the beginning is clearly not a requirement for a successful treaty.
  • On safeguards, the Nuclear Ban Treaty is in no way weaker than the existing arrangements: it is at least as strong as the NPT, and in some limited respects stronger. There is currently no legal requirement for non-nuclear-weapon states to conclude an additional protocol, or for NPT nuclear-weapon states to have any safeguards at all. It is manifestly incorrect to say, as Wong does, that “under the Ban Treaty, Iran would have the opportunity to opt for less onerous safeguards standards” than it has under the NPT or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
  • The Nuclear Ban Treaty is not incompatible with ANZUS or the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The Harvard Law Review has debunked the notion that the treaty prohibits any defence cooperation with a nuclear-armed ally, and the Swiss government’s review of the treaty concluded that it “does not in principle place any legal restrictions on military cooperation with nuclear weapon states or nuclear umbrella states, provided such cooperation is not aimed at developing, modernising, acquiring or using nuclear weapons.”

It is not surprising, however, that Wong and Marles would make such errors, given the dearth of serious analysis that they and their staff have to draw upon. In contrast to Switzerland, Sweden, Japan, Norway and several other countries, the Australian Government has not commissioned any kind of formal review of the implications of the Nuclear Ban Treaty for Australia. Australian universities and think-tanks have likewise given insufficient attention to the issue.

If, as Wong claims, Labor is serious about making progress on nuclear disarmament, it needs to begin with a comprehensive and accurate analysis of what the Nuclear Ban Treaty is, the impasse it is intended to break, the actual implications it has for Australia and the options for how it might be incorporated into a new Australian strategy for nuclear disarmament. Wong says “to accept the status quo is not an option,” but then lists an array of worthy actions that Australian governments of all shades have been pursuing without success for decades: a strategy that is the status quo. Labor can and must do better than this.

Richard Lennane is the Executive Director of the Geneva Disarmament Platform. He is a former United Nations disarmament official and Australian diplomat. From 2014 to 2016 he headed nuclear disarmament NGO ‘Wildfire’.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.