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Riding high, Obama acts on nuclear free zones

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23 May 2011 15:51

Nic Maclellan works as a journalist and researcher in the Pacific Islands.

On 2 May, a US Special Forces unit shot and killed Osama bin Laden. The next day, President Obama formally called on the US Senate to ratify the protocols of two nuclear free zone treaties — the Rarotonga Treaty for a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone (SPNFZ) and the Pelindaba Treaty for an African Nuclear Free Zone.

With worldwide coverage of the death of the al Qaeda leader, this initiative passed largely unnoticed. However, Obama's call for US ratification of the Rarotonga Treaty comes more than twenty-five years after the treaty was first signed. Riding high in the polls after the death of bin Laden, Obama's move reflects the importance of disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation as a core security measure. It's also the latest step in slow-moving efforts to create a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East.

Australia is a signatory to the Rarotonga Treaty, which was opened for signature on Hiroshima Day, 6 August 1985. It was a bold initiative at that time, an era of US-Soviet confrontation, French nuclear testing in the Pacific and the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior by French agents.

Under the terms of the Rarotonga Treaty, countries in the Pacific zone commit never to develop nuclear weapons (although among the signatories, only Australia has ever considered building a nuclear bomb, in the 1960s). The treaty also has three protocols whereby nuclear states with territories in the zone (France, the UK and US) agree to apply the treaty to their territories. By accepting the protocols, the nuclear powers also undertake not to use or threaten to use a nuclear device against countries in the zone and undertake not to test nuclear devices in the zone.

The Soviet Union and China quickly signed these protocols in 1986 and 1987. In contrast, France, Britain and the US delayed for a decade before signing on 25 March 1996, only after the end of French nuclear testing at Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls. France and the UK have since ratified their signatures, but until now, successive US administrations have refused to do so.

The change in policy to endorse the Pacific and African zones was first announced by US Secretary of State Clinton at the May 2010 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Yet it's taken nearly a year before the Obama Administration felt confident to take the issue to the US Senate. With his Administration's credibility bolstered after Osama bin Laden's death, it appears President Obama feels he can advance his national security agenda in the face of Republican scare-mongering.

Before dispatching the SPNFZ treaty to the US Senate, Obama stated: 'Ratification of Protocols 1, 2, and 3 to the Treaty would fully support US non-proliferation policy and goals, and I am convinced that it is in the best interest of the United States to ratify these Protocols.'

When it was developed, SPNFZ provided a stimulus to the negotiation of similar zones in neighbouring regions. Today, 116 states are members of nuclear free zones that occupy almost all the southern hemisphere: Antarctica (1959); Latin America (Tlatelolco, 1967); Oceania (Rarotonga, 1985); Southeast Asia (Bangkok, 1995); Africa (Pelindaba, 1996) and Central Asia (CANWFZ, 2009). Austria (1999) and Mongolia (2000) are each single-state zones.

A key outcome of last year's NPT Review Conference was agreement to hold a conference in 2012 on a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East. Until recently, the conference might have ended up as a talkfest: Israel refuses to acknowledge the existence of its arsenal of 200 nuclear weapons and Iran continues to defend its nuclear power program as a civilian operation divorced from the issue of nuclear proliferation.

However, things are moving fast after the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and the US is seeking to re-cast regional security in the Middle East. Regimes are under challenge in Syria and Libya, and last month's reconciliation of Fatah and Hamas has opened the way for the proposed declaration of Palestinian statehood in September.

President Obama's renewed push for Senate ratification of the Rarotonga and Pelindaba treaties suggests the Obama Administration is finally moving to clear the decks in order to participate more fully in any debate on nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. Any attempt to develop a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone will falter while the US refuses to engage with existing zones. It seems President Obama is now seeking to capitalise on public perceptions of his stand against al Qaeda by pushing for action that should have been signed off decades ago.

Obama's initiative places new pressure on the Gillard Government. While making public statements of support for nuclear free zones, Australia has been lacklustre in actually strengthening these initiatives. In 2010, Canberra abstained on UN General Assembly resolutions of support for the Central Asian Zone and made no mention of nuclear free zones in its official statement to the 2010 NPT Review Conference.

There's a lot more we could do, as detailed in submissions to the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties 2009 inquiry on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. Australia should join countries seeking to create a southern hemisphere NWFZ, promoting formal linkages between established zones through cooperative action, exchanging information and data relevant to treaty verification, and moving to establish an international NWFZ secretariat, modeled on the work of OPANAL – the Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Photo by Flickr user Lance and Erin.

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