Later this month, the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly will vote on a draft resolution that will 'convene a UN conference in 2017, to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination'. The resolution is expected to be adopted with a substantial majority. But the Australian government, in an unprecedented departure from a decades-long bipartisan commitment to nuclear disarmament, plans to vote no.
As reported in The Interpreter in August, Australian diplomats have been fighting an increasingly desperate rearguard action against the move by more than 100 other countries to negotiate a new treaty that prohibits nuclear weapons, with or without the participation of nuclear-armed states. Such a treaty would put Australia in an awkward spot. As a non-nuclear-weapon state party to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), there is no prima facie legal reason Australia could not support and join such an instrument. Indeed, it is not obvious why any state that is legally obliged by Article VI of the NPT to 'pursue negotiations in good faith' on effective measures relating to nuclear disarmament could not vote to 'convene a United Nations conference in 2017, to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons'. But Australia's reliance on extended nuclear deterrence evidently poses a problem.
Australia has been curiously reluctant to engage honestly with other governments about its true objection to the ban treaty. Instead of frankly expressing their concerns about the implications that an absolute prohibition of nuclear weapons might have for Australia's defence doctrine, Australian officials have continued to trot out one flimsy and transparent pretext after another. Ambassador John Quinn told the First Committee that a ban treaty 'would not rid us of one nuclear weapon. It would not change the realities we all face in a nuclear-armed DPRK'. This is a ludicrous criticism from a country that supports the 'step-by-step' or 'building blocks' approach to nuclear disarmament. A fissile material cut-off treaty would also 'not rid us of one nuclear weapon', but Australia (rightly) supports it as one of a range of measures needed to move closer to a world without nuclear weapons.
Even more absurd are the pretexts that directly contradict Australia's real concern. Australia (along with other nuclear alliance states) argues that ban treaty negotiations 'would only engage non-nuclear weapon states that are already bound by the NPT not to develop nuclear weapons and would likely mirror existing obligations, creating confusion and ambiguity'. If a ban treaty only mirrors existing obligations, why would Australia care? Australia objects to the ban precisely because it threatens to go beyond existing obligations and outlaw Australia's reliance on US nuclear weapons.
Australia has also joined the US and other opponents of the ban treaty in incorrectly and disingenuously portraying it as 'abandoning' their preferred 'step-by-step' approach. Proponents of the ban treaty have been careful to emphasise that it is not a replacement for existing measures (such as pursuing a fissile material treaty, entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-ban Treaty, further bilateral stockpile reductions, etc), but, rather, is intended to support and reinvigorate them. There is no choice to be made: any country that supports, negotiates and joins the ban treaty can and will continue to work cooperatively with all states to strengthen the NPT and pursue the 'practical, realistic' measures that Australia advocates.
Sweden's foreign minister, Margot Wallström, underlined this point earlier this week as she announced that Sweden would vote in favour of the ban treaty resolution. Describing the negotiation of the ban as 'essential' and 'both consistent [with Sweden's policy] and the right thing to do', Wallström rejected the notion that Sweden had to choose between pursuing an active disarmament policy and deepening security cooperation with its partners (most of which are NATO members). Sweden's representative told the First Committee that Sweden 'will support all processes that could make a difference and be effective, including through concrete changes on the ground and through norms'.
None of this is to dismiss Australia's underlying concern. The ban treaty will pose significant policy challenges, whether or not Australia chooses to participate in the negotiations and ultimately join the treaty. But Australia's approach to these challenges lacks a coherent strategy; it appears to be built on little more than a reflexive aversion to any disruption of a comfortable status quo, and awkward self-consciousness about its own motivations. There has been almost no serious discussion or analysis of the ban treaty in policy and academic circles, little debate in parliament (although the ALP supports the ban treaty), and apparently no planning in DFAT for how to deal with the treaty beyond 'try everything possible to stop it'.
Contrast this with other countries that share some of Australia's concerns. Sweden's decision to vote yes came after months of careful deliberation by a commission specially established by the government to examine the implications of the ban treaty for Sweden. Japan's government commissioned an extensive study by the Japan Institute of International Affairs. The Clingendael foreign policy institute produced a study back in May 2015 on the implications of a ban treaty for the Netherlands, and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation produced a similar study for Germany.
However Australia casts its vote in the First Committee, negotiations on the ban treaty will commence at the UN next year. Australia is manifestly unprepared for this. It would be totally unprecedented (and unconscionable) for Australia to fail to participate in a UN-mandated negotiation of a multilateral disarmament treaty. But if Australia does choose to participate, its record of disingenuous and at times dishonest opposition to the ban, coupled with a dire lack of substantive policy analysis, will leave it poorly placed to steer the negotiations in its national interest.
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