This year marks the 70th anniversary of the devastating nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Over 200,000 innocent civilians died by the end of 1945 as a result of the attacks. Those who survived have suffered from increased rates of leukaemia and other cancers in the years after the bombings. Even to this day, 70 years later, survivors still suffer from the long-term health effects of radiation exposure.
15,000 nuclear weapons exist in the world today. Between the United States and Russia, roughly 1,800 nuclear weapons remain on high-alert status, meaning they can be launched within minutes. An exchange of just 500 of those warheads would hit major US and Russian cities and would cause the deaths of 100 million people in the first half hour alone.
Despite the potential for devastation and its long-lasting impacts, nuclear weapons are the only weapons of mass destruction that are not prohibited by international convention. Established in 2007, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is working to change this. With partners in over 90 countries, ICAN has mobilised people around the world to encourage their governments to begin negotiations on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons.
In 2013 and 2014 conferences were held in Norway, Mexico and Austria focusing on the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. The most recent conference in Vienna was attended by 158 governments and concluded with a landmark pledge to ‘fill the legal gap’ and pursue negotiations on a treaty banning nuclear weapons. This call to action has become known as the ‘Humanitarian Pledge’ and is now officially endorsed by 119 countries around the world.
Sadly though, Australia is yet to endorse the pledge. Despite possessing no nuclear weapons, its status as a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and belonging to a nuclear-weapons-free zone, Australia refuses to support a ban treaty.
In fact, Australian governments have actively obstructed disarmament initiatives in recent years. The Rudd government abstained from all votes on UN General Assembly resolutions regarding negotiations on the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. The Gillard government refused to endorse a joint statement regarding the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons at a meeting of parties to the NPT. The Abbott government grew resistant to the galvanising impact of the Humanitarian Pledge. These are just a few of the highlights.
Australia’s determination to undermine efforts towards a ban has been due to the misguided belief that the nuclear weapons of the United States are somehow vital to our security. Known as ‘extended nuclear deterrence’, the idea of a shelter of a US nuclear umbrella first made an appearance in the 1994 Defence White Paper and has made appearances in the Defence White Papers in 1997, 2000, 2009 and 2013.
Despite Australia’s assertions, it’s not clear that the US would be willing to use its nuclear weapons in defence of Australia. There exists no known policy statement from the US on this issue, unlike the explicit assurances that have been afforded to NATO and Japan, nor are nuclear weapons referred to at any point in the ANZUS Treaty.
As former Deputy Prime Minister Kim Beazley wrote in 2003, “Two decades of struggle to get the US to clarify its extended deterrence guarantee to Australia was replaced with the cheerful Australian assumption that no enemy of Australia’s could not guarantee the US would not aid its Antipodean ally, and that would do”. The late former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser was more forthright, arguing in 2013 that the idea that the US would use its nuclear weapons to defend Australia is “a total and absolute fantasy”.
However, change could be on the agenda. At its National Conference in July this year, Labor adopted a new national platform that acknowledges the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons” and, most importantly, committed itself to act “with urgency and determination to rid the world of nuclear weapons” through “a global treaty banning such weapons”. This undeniably marks a substantial shift from Labor’s recent obstructionist history on the issue. The party that could very well form government next year now unequivocally supports the negotiation of a treaty to ban nuclear weapons.
In August, a motion was introduced by Labor Senator Lisa Singh that noted “the Humanitarian Pledge… to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons” and “the growing movement of nations supporting the negotiation of a global treaty banning nuclear weapons”. Support from both major parties saw the motion pass and Senator Singh’s impassioned speech on the issue highlighted that Australia has “never claimed the protection of a chemical weapon umbrella or a biological weapon umbrella”, calling on the government to “get serious about bringing the nuclear era to an end”.
Detractors argue that a ban treaty would have no impact should the nine states that possess nuclear weapons refuse to participate in the process. However, the unwillingness of these states to pursue disarmament suggests that they should no longer be permitted to dictate the process.
The 119 nations that support a ban could create a clear legal norm against the possession of nuclear weapons by formalising their rejection of them. This would place enormous pressure on nuclear-armed states to pursue adequate measures towards the elimination of the nuclear stockpiles once and for all. The political cost for possessing these weapons would become too great.
Historically, the prohibition of weapons has preceded their elimination. Bans on biological and chemical weapons, land mines and cluster munitions came into force before users and producers relinquished them. The unacceptability of these weapons is firmly enshrined in international law. It is a legal anomaly that nuclear weapons are not prohibited and a ban treaty would create a framework for their elimination that is sorely lacking.
Such is the growing momentum that ICAN envisages that negotiations on a ban treaty will begin within the next two years. This would force states like Australia to end their doublespeak on disarmament and decide whether or not they believe that the very worst weapons of mass destruction represent an acceptable risk. Australia can end its resistance to disarmament and take a leadership role on the elimination of nuclear weapons.
The making of foreign policy can seem like a closed shop with little chance for influence. Ultimately though, democratic governments can’t ignore their people. Students are not without a voice and can contribute to the worldwide groundswell of support for a ban. From holding events to raise awareness to reaching out directly to parliamentarians, students can encourage policy-makers to stand on the right side of history and eliminate these horrendous weapons once and for all.
Follow @nuclearban on Twitter and go to icanw.org for more info on how to get involved.