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Australia's hypocrisy on nuclear weapons cannot continue

Gem Romuld

I was in a traffic crawl in Sumatra, my phone tethered to a friend's for a scrap of internet when the news came through in a torrent of capitalised exclamations, that our campaign had won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. The Melbourne-born International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) received this recognition for "its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its groundbreaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons."

Just a few months before the Nobel announcement we had stood clapping and crying in a UN conference room upon the adoption of the first treaty to outlaw nuclear weapons alongside chemical and biological weapons, landmines and cluster munitions. It took a decade of hard work, but the prize vindicated what we knew was a major turning point in the global quest for nuclear abolition.

After the media hype died down and the corks stopped popping, we found ourselves in a changed landscape. ICAN activists worldwide set to work with a newfound respect and legitimacy, which we used to relentlessly swing the spotlight back to the treaty. The Nobel Committee provided the platform and we didn't waste a minute. In Australia, the medal became "Alfred" or "the peoples' Nobel" as we began touring it by foot, bus and bicycle all over the country, putting it in the hands of nuclear test survivors, nuclear veterans, parliamentarians, unionists, students, activists and diplomats.

Then-Prime Minister Turnbull refrained from congratulating ICAN for the first Australian-born Nobel Peace Prize. While a childish move, this only served to highlight the government's discomfort with the treaty and its clear challenge to Australia's position on nuclear weapons. As the signatures and ratifications continue to stack up and the treaty nears entry-into-force, this challenge persists.

Australia professes to support a world free of nuclear weapons while simultaneously claiming reliance on the US nuclear arsenal for protection. This tenuous notion of security through nuclear weapons has long served the nuclear-armed, to the detriment of all others. The ban treaty outlaws the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons in all circumstances, strengthening the norm of abolition. To join the prohibition on nuclear weapons, as we have joined the prohibitions on other indiscriminate, inhumane weapons, Australia must quit playing enabler for the US arsenal. Our alliance with the US can and must exclude cooperation and support for the potential use of nuclear weapons.

Since the wild treaty-negotiating, prize-winning ride of 2017, the nuclear disarmament terrain has indelibly changed. To date, 79 nations have signed and 32 have ratified the treaty, with dozens of countries progressing their ratifications. The treaty will enter into force after the 50th ratification, certain within the next couple of years.

Campaigns are growing in nuclear-armed and "nuclear-endorsing" states, word of the Treaty is spreading and the demand to sign and ratify is escalating. Financial institutions are divesting from nuclear weapon producers, citing the treaty as their reason for doing so even though it has yet to enter into force. These include ABP, the largest Dutch pension fund, and Norway's trillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund. Cities and towns are declaring their support for the treaty, including Paris, Berlin, Geneva, Washington DC, Toronto, Sydney and Melbourne.

The Australian Medical Association, Australian Red Cross and dozens of civil society organisations have directly called on Australia to join the treaty. Close to 200 of our state and federal parliamentarians have pledged to pursue this goal, and the Australian Labor Party has committed to sign and ratify in government.

It's inevitable that Australia joins the prohibition on nuclear weapons. As other nuclear arms control agreements languish or collapse, we don't have the luxury of waiting for the offenders to lead us out of the silo. With close to 14,000 nuclear weapons held between nine nations, our world is armed to the brink. Further, let us not be distracted by the voices querying a domestic nuclear arsenal, we've already foresworn this dangerous pursuit under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone. Nuclear weapons are never a legitimate means of defence.

This year's Nobel Peace Laureate, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, has been rewarded for formalising a peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea. For ICAN, the Nobel Peace Prize served a directive upon all nations to sit up and pay attention to the fresh 10-page nuclear weapon ban treaty. We know that we're up against powerful nations, a lucrative industry and deeply entrenched modes of thinking. The real prize will be the total elimination of nuclear weapons, and we have the tools to get there. It's up to all people, civil society and governments to turn the tide of history. Our collective security depends on it

Gem Romuld is the Australian director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and a recipient of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.


Published in Chain Reaction #137, December 2019. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia.

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