Undermining nuclear disarmament diplomacy

Chain Reaction #119, Nov 2013, www.foe.org.au/chain-reaction/editions/119

Documents obtained by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in August through freedom of information reveal that the Gillard government refused to endorse an 80-nation statement delivered at this year's Non-Proliferation Treaty meeting in Geneva because it referred to a Red Cross resolution with which Australia fundamentally disagrees, and because it had concerns that the statement was designed to build support for a ban on nuclear weapons.

The declassified diplomatic cables, ministerial briefings and foreign ministry emails show that Australia's opposition to the landmark Red Cross resolution – adopted by the international movement in November 2011 – prompted Australian Red Cross chief executive officer Robert Tickner to seek an explanation from then foreign minister Bob Carr, who responded to his letter but deliberately withheld information about Australia's true position. Foreign ministry official Caroline Millar was fearful that to do so would "add oxygen" to the issue.

Former prime minister Malcolm Fraser and former foreign minister Gareth Evans were critical of Australia's decision not to endorse the humanitarian statement. Responding to a letter from Mr Fraser, then prime minister Julia Gillard explained that Australia did not support it because "a push for a near-term ban on nuclear weapons formed part of the context of the statement's intention". Canberra is opposed to any moves to delegitimise the use or possession of nuclear weapons.

Canberra considers a ban on nuclear weapons to be incompatible with its continued reliance on US "extended nuclear deterrence", which it claims "has provided security and stability in our region for more than 60 years and [has] underpinned regional prosperity". Australia now hopes to steer other nations away from pursuing a ban on nuclear weapons, the documents reveal.

Tim Wright, Australian director of ICAN, said: "We were disappointed to learn that Australia plans to undermine the work of progressive nations and non-government organisations to advance a global ban on nuclear weapons. It should instead be driving international efforts for such a treaty. Despite their enormous destructive potential, nuclear weapons are the only weapons of mass destruction not yet subject to a total ban.

"Australia cannot credibly advocate nuclear disarmament while claiming that US nuclear weapons guarantee our security and prosperity. Not only is this a ludicrous notion; it is also a dangerous one because it signals to other nations that nuclear weapons are useful and necessary," Wright added. "It is now clear that the Rudd and Gillard governments were interested only in maintaining the status quo of disarmament inaction. The Abbott government should join the vast majority of nations, and the Red Cross, in rejecting nuclear weapons for all."

In February 2014 the Mexican government will host a major conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, which is likely to be the first major test of the new Australian government's commitment to nuclear disarmament. ICAN is encouraging the foreign ministry to report on the human toll of British nuclear testing in South Australia and Western Australia in the 1950s and 1960s, and to commission research on the effects of a regional nuclear war in Asia Pacific on the global climate and agricultural production.

"This would contribute to the evidence base key to informing policy choices about nuclear weapons and their elimination," said Dr Bill Williams, who chairs ICAN in Australia. "The most startling new scientific evidence in relation to the effects of nuclear weapons is the severe, prolonged and global cooling, drying and darkening that would be caused by the millions of tons of soot and smoke injected into the upper atmosphere following the use of even a tiny fraction of the world's nuclear weapons."

Gem Romuld, ICAN outreach coordinator in Australia, is encouraging more humanitarian and environmental organisations in Australia to adopt nuclear disarmament as part of their work, in the same way that Australian Red Cross has done. "Banning nuclear weapons is everyone's responsibility," she said. "The general public need to take nuclear weapons personally and insist that the Australian government take stock and get real on abolishing these weapons of mass destruction."


  • International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, media release
  • Philip Dorling, 2 October 2013, 'ALP nuclear backflip linked to US defence', Sydney Morning Herald, tinyurl.com/dorling-smh