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Time for the United States to Ratify the SPNFZ Protocols

03 Mar 2023
By Nic Maclellan
Secretary Blinken Participates in the U.S.-Pacific Island Country Leaders Working Lunch on People Centered Development in the Pacific. Source: U.S. Department of State/

With the Pacific Islands Forum to be held in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, toward the end of the year, all eyes are on the United States to meet its promises to address regional concerns about nuclear proliferation. Australia needs to call on the Biden administration, and importantly the US Senate, to recognise the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty. 

In recent Senate Estimates hearings, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials argued that the deployment of US nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to the Northern Territory does not constitute “stationing” nuclear weapons in Australia, in breach of the 1985 Rarotonga Treaty for a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone (SPNFZ). Foreign Minister Penny Wong stated, “we remain fully committed to the SPNFZ Treaty, and we will fully comply with our international obligations, which are understood by the United States.”

A lot of subsequent media coverage highlighted the debate around the US policy of “neither confirm or deny.” But this coverage avoided a central issue: the United States is the only major nuclear weapons state that has not ratified the three protocols to the Rarotonga Treaty!

Forged at the height of the US-Soviet Cold War in the 1980s, the SPNFZ Treaty was adopted at the Pacific Islands Forum in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, on Hiroshima Day, 6 August 1985. It entered into force on 11 December 1986. The Hawke Labor government signed and ratified the SPNFZ Treaty as an important disarmament initiative, limiting the threat posed by nuclear weapons and serving to strengthen the non-proliferation regime.

Declassified Cabinet documents, however, show the Australian government worked assiduously to weaken the scope of the treaty in the interest of its ANZUS ally. An April 1985 submission by Foreign Minister Bill Hayden to Cabinet noted “the proposal is designed to maintain the security advantages afforded to the South West Pacific through the ANZUS Treaty and the United States security presence in the region.”

Beyond the Forum members who are state parties to SPNFZ, there are three protocols to the treaty for signature and ratification by the five declared nuclear weapons states. Under Protocol 1, nuclear weapons states with territories in the zone (France, United Kingdom, and United States) agree to apply the treaty to their territories. For Protocol 2, parties undertake not to use or threaten to use any nuclear explosive device against parties to the treaty or territories in the zone of parties to Protocol 1. Under Protocol 3, parties undertake not to test nuclear explosive devices in the zone.

Russia and China signed and ratified these protocols soon after the SPNFZ Treaty was adopted in 1986. France, the United States, and Britain signed in March 1996, after the end of thirty years of French nuclear testing at Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls. France then ratified the treaty protocols in September 1996, followed by Britain in September 1997. Despite this, the United States is the only major nuclear weapons state that has still not ratified its signature of the treaty protocols.

In recent years, the Pacific Islands Forum has repeatedly called on the United States to act. At the 2019 Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu, Pacific leaders “acknowledged the importance of addressing the long-standing issues of nuclear testing legacy in the Pacific and called for the operationalisation of the provisions of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty (Rarotonga Treaty).”

In December 2020, the first “Ministerial Meeting of the State Parties to the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty” was held in Suva, Fiji. Among many issues raised to strengthen the treaty, Forum ministers recalled “the announcement by the US in 2010 of its intention to ratify all Protocols to the Treaty; and called on the US to ratify as soon as possible the Protocols and to renew its commitment to reduce nuclear threats.” At the July 2022 Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji, leaders “noted the report of the Secretary General on the Treaty of Rarotonga and other nuclear issues…and urged the United States to ratify the Treaty Protocols.”

Even as the Biden administration increases its engagement in the Pacific islands, the failure of the US government to act on SPNFZ worries many of Australia’s Pacific neighbours. There are growing calls for the abolition of nuclear weapons – ten have ratified the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, worried by the failure of nuclear weapons states to meet their disarmament obligations under Article 6 of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Nuclear survivors across the region also are living with the health and environmental legacies of fifty years of nuclear testing. Between 1946 and 1996, the United States, United Kingdom, and France conducted more than 310 nuclear tests at ten sites across Oceania.

With Prime Minister Anthony Albanese heading to Rarotonga later this year for the next Forum leaders meeting, it would be timely for the Australian Labor Party to call on the Biden administration to act on ratification, seeking bipartisan support to gain the necessary majority in the US Senate. For anyone worried that the Biden administration would be offended, they should look at the public record. This is the very policy advanced by the Obama administration – with Biden as vice president – more than a decade ago.

In May 2010, speaking to the NPT Review Conference, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Obama administration “will seek US Senate advice and consent to ratification of several Protocols to the Africa Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty (Treaty of Pelindaba) and the South Pacific Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty (Treaty of Rarotonga).”

In May 2011, then US president Barack Obama formally called on the US Senate to ratify the SPNFZ protocols, writing:

Ratification of Protocols 1, 2, and 3 to the Treaty would fully support US non-proliferation policy and goals and I am convinced that it is in the best interest of the United States to ratify these Protocols. This step will strengthen our relations with our South Pacific friends and allies and enhance U.S. security by furthering our global non-proliferation and arms control objectives.

On 2 May 2011, the US Senate referred the Rarotonga Treaty to its Committee on Foreign Relations. However, despite this clear policy, the US Senate has failed to act. Today, the Biden administration is seeking to extend its relations with the Pacific islands at a time of strategic competition with China. In September 2022, President Joe Biden hosted an unprecedented summit with Pacific Islands Forum leaders in the White House. Among the many issues discussed, their joint declaration reaffirmed “We are united in our support for the nuclear non-proliferation regime, including the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”

These words ring hollow, given the United States has failed to act on ratification – and Australia has failed to push its ally, despite significant implications for nuclear proliferation in looming AUKUS plans to build nuclear submarines for the Royal Australian Navy. It is timely for this issue to be addressed. Later this year, the Pacific Islands Forum will again hold its leaders’ summit in Rarotonga – the very place where the SPNFZ Treaty was first adopted. The 2023 Australian Labor Party National Conference and the Albanese government should publicly call on the United States to ratify the three protocols of the Treaty of Rarotonga.

Nic Maclellan is author of Grappling with the Bomb (ANU Press, 2017), a history of British nuclear testing in the Pacific. 

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