On 27 March, as more than 130 nations began work on a historic treaty to outlaw nuclear weapons, roughly a dozen diplomats protested outside the grand UN General Assembly hall, where the negotiations were taking place. Led by the Trump administration’s UN envoy, Nikki Haley, the demonstrators complained the 'bad actors' of the world would never comply with the ban – so neither would they.
Caitlin Wilson, Australia’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, was among those who stood alongside the Trump appointee in a show of solidarity. The Turnbull government, at the behest of the US, is boycotting the treaty process – possibly violating the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968, which obliges all its parties to pursue negotiations 'in good faith' for nuclear disarmament.
Thus, Australia played no part in shaping the initial draft of the landmark treaty, which the chair of the process, Costa Rican ambassador Elayne Whyte Gómez, unveiled in Geneva on 22 May. The government will also have no role in fine-tuning the provisions of the agreement during the second (and perhaps final) round of negotiations, to be held in New York from 15 June to 7 July.
The draft text clearly and compellingly conveys the grave humanitarian concerns that gave rise to this important and long-overdue UN initiative. A number of its articles mirror those found in existing international conventions that prohibit biological weapons, chemical weapons, anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions – all of which Australia has signed and ratified.
The draft preamble declares that 'any use of nuclear weapons would be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law'. It describes the treaty as 'an important contribution towards comprehensive nuclear disarmament', while stressing that 'further effective measures' will be needed to eliminate the weapons completely.
The operative section expressly forbids states parties from using, testing, developing, producing, manufacturing, otherwise acquiring, possessing, stockpiling, transferring or receiving control over nuclear weapons. It also bars them from assisting, encouraging or inducing anyone to engage in any of those activities. Similar prohibitions can be found in the other weapon-related treaties.
As a member of the NPT and the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty of 1985, Australia has already forsworn acquisition of nuclear weapons. But the declaration in the new treaty that any use of nuclear weapons is illegal – for all states, including the US – and the undertaking never to assist or encourage anyone to possess nuclear weapons go well beyond what Australia has accepted elsewhere.
Should Australia join this treaty, it would need to end its claimed reliance on the US nuclear umbrella. Continued adherence to the doctrine of 'extended nuclear deterrence' would run counter to the letter and spirit of the convention. In no way would Australia be lawfully permitted to assist or encourage the US to retain or use its nuclear arsenal.
The draft text also stipulates that states parties in a position to do so should provide assistance – including 'medical care, rehabilitation and psychological support' – to individuals affected by the use and testing of nuclear weapons in areas under their jurisdiction or control. This provision could benefit those who have suffered as a result of British nuclear testing in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s.
But will Australia agree to join this treaty? The current government has of course made clear its strong opposition. Nuclear weapons, in its view, are indispensable for Australia’s security and thus must not be prohibited. However, Labor has expressed astonishment and disappointment at the government’s boycott of the negotiations, and its national platform declares firm support for the proposed treaty.
Australia might not be among the first to sign and ratify the agreement. But, as more and more nations become parties, pressure on it to conform to the new norm will intensify. Remaining outside the treaty will become increasingly untenable. In time, no sensible Australian decision maker will insist that these ultimate weapons of mass destruction serve a legitimate purpose.