Australian Outlook

In this section

The Disarmament Challenge in a Time of Disruption

18 Oct 2018
By Senator the Hon Penny Wong
Senator the Hon Penny Wong at 2018 AIIA National Conference, 15 October (Credit: Lauren Skinner, former AIIA intern)

World leaders have a solemn duty to prevent a nuclear catastrophe from re-occurring. How do we make progress and what role can Australia play?

This is an extract of Penny Wong’s speech at the 2018 AIIA National Conference on 15 October. For the full speech, click here.

On 25 May 1946, the New York Times published the text of a telegram written by Albert Einstein on behalf of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists and the Federation of American Scientists. In that telegram, written barely nine months after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Einstein wrote: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift towards unparalleled catastrophe.”

What has changed in the intervening seven decades? […]

While the international community has progressed bans on biological and chemical weapons, the most horrific of the weapons of mass destruction, nuclear devices, remain outside any effective ban treaty.

Why is this? Because unlike nuclear weapons, biological and chemical weapons were not seen as central to the security of the states that possessed them. In contrast, the loss of nuclear weapon capability is seen as existential by many that possess them, notwithstanding that such a view is both logically and strategically problematic.

While this may be the current reality, it cannot be allowed to continue. Nuclear weapons constitute a clear and existential threat to humanity’s survival. Their military effects are disproportionate to the military advantage they are intended to achieve. The International Court of Justice is clear in its view that there is no circumstance in which the use of a nuclear weapon would be consistent with international humanitarian law. […]

Fifty years ago the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) opened for signature after negotiations lasting three years. The NPT was, and remains, the bedrock of international efforts to limit the possession of nuclear weapons. One hundred and ninety-one states are currently party to the Treaty. India, Israel and Pakistan never signed the treaty, and North Korea withdrew from the Treaty in 2003.

The NPT – which designates the five original proliferators, the United States, the Soviet Union (Russia), the United Kingdom, France and China as Nuclear Weapons States – is founded on a central bargain, which is at once its singular achievement and its main flaw. It links horizontal and vertical proliferation in a single treaty. […]

The success of the NPT in limiting proliferation and achieving significant reductions in stockpiles of nuclear weapons stems from Article III of the treaty and the Additional Protocol. Article III requires Non-Nuclear Weapons States party to the treaty to accept safeguards, applied by the International Atomic Energy Agency, on all their nuclear activity. […]

While the NPT has had significant success in limiting horizontal proliferation and progressing disarmament, progress across the board has stalled. The optimism of 1968 has given way to growing disaffection and frustration among many of the non-nuclear weapons states. The number of states possessing nuclear weapons has increased to nine.

NPT Nuclear Weapons States have modernised their nuclear arsenals, increasing their efficiency, effect, lethality and accuracy. In short, the Nuclear Weapons-States have not made sufficient progress on their commitment to disarm. […]

It is as a result of stalled progress, growing disaffection and frustration, and a sense that the bargain that underpins the NPT is broken – that non-Nuclear Weapons States and civil society sought to drive a new pathway to achieve a nuclear free world.

A series of major conferences hosted by Norway, Mexico and Austria, culminated in Austria’s ‘Humanitarian Pledge’, supported by a bloc of over 100 countries, to “fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.”

A subsequent resolution of the General Assembly’s First Committee established a special UN Conference to “negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons.” The negotiations were boycotted by the five Nuclear Weapons States, along with nuclear-armed States – India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea – and many NWS allies, including Australia.

Labor publicly criticised the Government’s decision not to attend the negotiations.

Australia has a proud tradition of playing a constructive role in multilateral negotiations. The decision to boycott the negotiations not only damaged our reputation as a constructive international actor, it also lost Australia a critical opportunity to contribute to the drafting of the Treaty. I’m confident that Australia’s participation would have helped deliver a more constructive outcome on this important multilateral issue.

The negotiations produced a draft Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty, which was adopted by 122 states on 7 July 2017. To date, 69 states have signed the Treaty, with 19 having ratified it. […]

While the Ban Treaty has genuine normative value, collective virtue signalling is not going to be enough. We must make meaningful progress: to accept the status quo is not an option.

The question is, how do we make progress and what role can Australia play?

Since becoming Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, I have set about articulating the foundation of Labor’s foreign policy. Labor’s foreign policy is founded on the belief that we deal with the world as it is and we seek to change it for the better. […]

The four core interests that underpin the framing and delivery of Labor’s foreign policy are: the security of the nation and its people; the economic prosperity of the nation and its people; a stable, co-operative strategic system in our region anchored in the rule of law; and constructive internationalism. […]

Put simply, constructive internationalism is about working with others to achieve common benefit. It is about harnessing international cooperation to solve complex, multi-faceted and multi-stakeholder problems that require a collective response. […]

Labor believes that Australia can and must play a constructive role to re-engage our allies and partners to achieve minimisation and then, ultimately, elimination of nuclear weapons.

First, a Shorten Labor Government will seek to muster wide international support, including from the states that possess nuclear weapons, for a ‘No First Use’ declaration.

While we do not underestimate the complexity of this task, given the increasingly blurred boundaries between conventional and nuclear forces in armed conflict, such a collective declaration would be a significant confidence building measure and welcomed by people of all nations. […]

Second, we will leverage Australia’s strong relationships with nuclear weapons states to advocate for a reduction in their nuclear stockpiles. The objective of these discussions should be the reduction of arsenals by set percentages and the introduction of risk mitigation measures, such as de-alerting, towards the goal of final elimination. […]

Third – we will seek to strengthen existing institutions and agreements. We will work to build the capacity of the International Atomic Energy Agency to meet the challenges in the next phases of the nuclear disarmament agenda. And we will maintain sanctions and strict enforcement measures against states seeking to proliferate nuclear weapons outside of the NPT – as we have done in the case of North Korea.

The spectre of nuclear Armageddon that so worried Albert Einstein in 1946 has grown into a monstrous reality. We cannot just drift along, hoping that ‘someone’ will find a way through this wicked problem. We need to be proactive. […]

When Einstein drafted his telegram, he had no doubt thought deeply about the unimaginable pain and suffering experienced by the unsuspecting citizens of Nagasaki and Hiroshima as they went about their daily business in the dying days of World War II.

World leaders have a solemn duty to prevent such a catastrophe from re-occurring.

Senator the Hon Penny Wong is Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and Senator for South Australia.

This is an extract of Penny Wong’s speech at the 2018 AIIA National Conference on 15 October. For the full speech, click here.

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