Undermining the South Pacific Nuclear Weapons Free Zone
Chain Reaction #119, Nov 2013, www.foe.org.au/chain-reaction
Declassified documents from the National Archives of Australia, and US diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks, highlight longstanding opposition in Canberra and Washington to a comprehensive nuclear-free zone that might constrain US nuclear deployments in the Pacific.
This saga is detailed in a recent article by Nic Maclellan, who works as a journalist with Islands Business magazine (Fiji) and other Pacific media, and is co-author of three books on nuclear testing in the South Pacific.
The South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone (SPNFZ) Treaty was finally negotiated in the 1980s after decades of campaigning by unions, Pacific churches and the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement.
Under the Treaty, member countries in the zone commit never to develop nuclear weapons. Under three protocols, nuclear weapons states with territories in the zone (France, Britain and the US) agree to apply the treaty to their territories. In accepting the protocols, all nuclear weapons powers also undertake not to use or threaten to use any nuclear device against countries in the zone, and not to test nuclear bombs in the zone.
Russia and China signed the protocols in 1986 and 1987 respectively, pledging not to store or test nuclear weapons in the region or use them against Australia, New Zealand or island nations. France, Britain and the US refused to sign the treaty protocols until March 1996 (after a series of French nuclear bomb tests in the Pacific), and even now the US refuses to ratify its signature by passing legislation through the US Senate.
The delay reflects longstanding US opposition to limits on its nuclear deployments in the region. US diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks show Washington’s opposition to the SPNFZ dating back to the 1970s.
US cables from September 1975 show that Gough Whitlam supported the proposal in public but privately told the US Embassy that he only did so because he “feels obliged to give token support” to a “beleaguered” NZ government. The Fraser government did nothing to progress Treaty negotiations from 1975−83.
The Hawke Labor government revived the concept of a nuclear free zone at the 1983 South Pacific Forum leaders meeting in Canberra. However the Hawke government was duplicitous as Nic Maclellan writes: “[D]eclassified documents from the National Archives of Australia, including the 1985 Cabinet minute about the SPNFZ Treaty, show clearly that Australia designed the treaty to protect US interests in the Pacific, including the deployment of nuclear-armed warships and the testing of nuclear missiles. … At the time, the Hawke government was embroiled in debate over a US proposal to test-fire two MX inter-continental ballistic missiles into Pacific waters east of Tasmania.”
Australia fought to retain the option to provide assistance in the manufacture or acquisition of nuclear weapons − and fought against draft Treaty text which would complicate or preclude that option. Canberra wasn’t prepared to stop the export of uranium from Australia to nuclear weapons states.
Maclellan notes that those decisions during the 1980s have important implications today, at a time when Australia is proposing to sell uranium to India, a country that has refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. He writes:
“International legal experts, including Don Rothwell, professor of international law at the Australian National University, have raised concerns that uranium sales to India would breach Australia’s obligations under the treaty. Rothwell has prepared a legal opinion stating that the SPNFZ Treaty prohibits members from selling uranium to countries that do not accept full-scope nuclear safeguards under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
“This is consistent with past Australian government policy. In 1996, Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer observed that ‘Article 4(a) of the SPNFZ Treaty imposes a legal obligation not to provide nuclear material unless subject to the safeguards required by Article III.1 of the NPT; that is full scope safeguards.’
“In spite of this, the Gillard government commenced discussions on uranium sales to India in 2012, even though Delhi still refuses to open its nuclear facilities – civilian as well as military – to international inspectors, as required by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”
Nic Maclellan, 27 August 2013, ‘Delaying the nuclear-free zone in the Pacific’,