Australia’s nuclear weapons hypocrisy

Tim Wright

From Chain Reaction #126, April 2016, national magazine of Friends of the Earth, Australia

Among those most vociferous in condemning North Korea’s nuclear test in January and its rocket launch in February were the leaders of nations that themselves possess nuclear weapons. Nations that, over half a century, mastered the art of mass destruction by exploding atomic and hydrogen bombs off Pacific atolls and in the Australian outback.

Were these nations now on the path to disarmament, in full compliance with their obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, one might overlook their double standard. But all are instead bolstering their nuclear forces – “refurbishing” old warheads and developing new missiles, submarines and bombers to deliver them.

While North Korea may be the only nation to have conducted a full-scale nuclear test this century, the United States, Russia and China continue to conduct sub-critical nuclear tests – where no chain reaction occurs – allowing them to enhance their nuclear forces without violating the global norm against nuclear testing.

In the world of nuclear diplomacy, it’s do as we say, not as we do. The deal to curtail Iran’s nuclear program is another illustration of this. When the agreement was struck last July, five nuclear-armed nations and Germany, which hosts US nuclear bombs on its soil, sat opposite Iran at the negotiating table – all demanding of Iran what they will not accept for themselves.

To be sure, it was a diplomatic triumph: membership of the “nuclear club” remains at nine, a potentially catastrophic military intervention has been averted, and crippling economic sanctions have been lifted. But the Iran deal does nothing to diminish the grave threat to humanity from the 15,800 nuclear weapons that already exist in the world. On the iconic Doomsday Clock, we remain just three minutes from midnight.

Among the largest nuclear stockpiles is that of the United States, a chief architect of the Iran deal. It maintains some 7,200 warheads, amassed during the Cold War, and is now trialling new “low-yield” warhead designs, with the purported aim of minimising “collateral damage”. Yet experts warn that this development will serve only to lower the threshold for initiating a nuclear strike.

In the words of General James E. Cartwright, a retired vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “what going smaller does is to make the weapon more thinkable”. Smaller, though, is perhaps an inapt term. With an explosive yield of up to 50 kilotons, these new weapons could be three times more destructive than the atomic device detonated over Hiroshima seven decades ago, killing 140,000 people.

A ‘rogue state’ such as North Korea – with its much feared, reviled and mocked leader, Kim Jong-un – provides useful cover for alarming developments of this kind. So long as the spotlight shines elsewhere, few will worry about, let alone protest against, the actions of the more ‘responsible’ nuclear powers – nations that, truth be told, have time and again brought us within a hair’s breadth of catastrophe.

Most governments, however, do accept that there are “no right hands for wrong weapons”, to use a phrase of the United Nations secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon. Regrettably, Australia is not yet among them. While the foreign minister, Julie Bishop, was swift to condemn North Korea’s test, her department claims that US nuclear weapons protect Australia from attack and even “guarantee our prosperity”.

This longstanding policy, known as extended nuclear deterrence, implies that nuclear weapons are legitimate, useful and necessary war-fighting instruments. It incites proliferation and undermines disarmament. It renders Australia an outcast in our immediate region, where all other nations have rejected the bomb outright.

Over the past year, 122 nations have formally pledged to work together to prohibit nuclear weapons through a new treaty. To place them on the same legal footing as other indiscriminate, inhumane weapons – from chemical and biological agents to anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions.

If we are to succeed in eliminating the nuclear threat, we must begin by challenging the double standards that, throughout the nuclear age, have so plagued disarmament efforts. We must declare nuclear weapons unacceptable not just for North Korea and Iran, but for Australia and its allies, too.

Tim Wright is Asia-Pacific director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).

Hypocrisy – Australia’s support for nuclear weapons

Australian policy on nuclear weapons hopelessly conflicted

April 10, 2014, Richard Lennane, Sydney Morning Herald…

At a meeting in Hiroshima of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI), a group of 12 countries led by Australia and Japan, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop made much of Australia’s supposed commitment to ridding the world of nuclear weapons.

But Australian policy on nuclear weapons is hopelessly conflicted. With one hand, it promotes nuclear disarmament, yet with the other, it clings anxiously to US nuclear weapons for national security. Australia wants to get rid of nuclear weapons and keep them too.

There is no secret about this: Bishop wrote in February that Australia “has long and actively supported nuclear disarmament … and worked tirelessly toward the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons” and also that Australia “will continue to rely on nuclear deterrence” for its security as long as nuclear weapons exist. She is the latest custodian of a bipartisan policy that has been passed down through consecutive governments for decades.

As long as nothing much was happening with nuclear disarmament, Australia could safely advocate it. But the emergence of a global movement to examine the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, and a related push for a treaty banning them, has put Australia on the spot.

International conferences held in Oslo last year and in Nayarit, Mexico, in February concluded that any nuclear detonation would completely overwhelm humanitarian and disaster response capabilities, and cause unacceptable long-term harm worldwide.

Australia cautiously participated in these meetings, but clearly with misgiving. And at the United Nations last October, when 125 countries, including Japan and five other NPDI members, made a joint statement on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, Australia baulked – and weaselled out.

Pressed to explain why Australia could not join the statement, officials said the sentence, “It is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances,” was incompatible with Australia’s reliance on nuclear deterrence.

Calls for a new treaty to ban nuclear weapons have further exposed the contradictions in Australia’s policy. There is no legal reason Australia could not join such a treaty tomorrow: Australia has no nuclear weapons. As a member of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) it has sworn off them.

The official response, however, has been to oppose such a ban because it would not “guarantee” nuclear disarmament. This is a ludicrous excuse, given that none of the approaches Australia and the NPDI advocate will “guarantee” disarmament either (in fact most of them are hopelessly bogged down).

That a polished performer like Bishop would field such a flimsy rationalisation only shows how bare the intellectual cupboard at the Foreign Ministry is. They can’t find a better argument, because there isn’t one.

Despite the increasing visibility of its inherently contradictory policy, the government blithely continues to seek a high profile on nuclear disarmament.

The people of Hiroshima will surely welcome Bishop’s earnest undertakings to address the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and pursue nuclear disarmament. They will be less impressed by her extraordinary statement that “the horrendous humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons are precisely why deterrence has worked” – in other words, that Australia depends for its security on the very humanitarian consequences it claims to be working to avoid.

The contradictions emerge even within the NPDI. The purpose of the NPDI is to support implementation of the 64-point “action plan” on non-proliferation and disarmament agreed by the 189 members of the NPT. Australia is a prominent proponent of the plan. But the very first of these 64 actions requires Australia to “pursue policies that are fully compatible with the treaty and the objective of achieving a world without nuclear weapons”. How is relying on nuclear weapons compatible with the objective of achieving a world without nuclear weapons?

The circle simply cannot be squared. Follow the tortuous reasoning to its conclusion and it reduces to “Australia supports nuclear disarmament, just as soon as it has happened”.

As the humanitarian initiative gathers momentum, and as a ban treaty looms closer, Australia’s policy will become increasingly untenable. It will soon have to choose: nuclear weapons – yes or no. If the answer is yes, the only honest course is to drop the pretence of working towards a world free of nuclear weapons and leave the NPT. If the answer is no, then there are policy challenges ahead – but overcoming them would put Australia on the right side of history.

Richard Lennane is a former United Nations disarmament official and Australian diplomat.