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Rudd's arms control initiative

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COMMENTS

10 June 2008 13:35

It's welcome news that Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has at last put nuclear security prominently on his government's agenda, with his visit to Hiroshima and his announcement of a new expert commission, co-chaired with Japan, on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. He came to power on a Labor Party platform that included major commitments on global nuclear arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament, and yet it has taken almost seven months for the government to begin articulating how it would carry them forward. So it's time.

Yet I suspect that, amid the praise, there could be traces of disappointment and uncertainty in some of the very quarters that have been pushing the government to start fulfilling its promises on the nuclear front. Australia needs to do more than sponsor a new panel, a new study, a new conference of the eminent and the expert. The 1995-96 Canberra Commission; the 1998-1999 Tokyo Forum; the 2005-06 Blix Commission; the ongoing work by various US advocacy bodies spearheaded by elder statesmen Kissinger, Schultz, Perry and Nunn; a February 2008 Oslo conference; a June 2008 New Delhi conference (which began yesterday and ends today, and where I happen to be as I write this): the world is well-served by studies, discussions and blueprints, government-sponsored or otherwise, on why nuclear disarmament is a vital global security imperative and how we can start to move in that direction. Certainly, more won't hurt, but there might be other nuclear disarmament projects in which a key middle-power government's limited resources might more effectively be invested, or which at least could be pursued in parallel.

The Canberra Commission-Tokyo Forum offspring panel and report that Mr Rudd (and Mr Fukuda) proposes would bring the agenda up to date, since it won't issue its main report until late 2009. It will undoubtedly do good by adding extra profile to the arguments for nuclear disarmament — and every bit helps. But what will really matter is whether the two governments get squarely behind the ensuing recommendations and promote them through serious diplomacy in multilateral settings and in lobbying nuclear-armed states directly.

The Australian Government does not need to wait for the new report before it begins doing more to advocate the steps recommended by existing action plans. After all, the Labor Party platform includes an undertaking to promote the actions urged by the original Canberra Commission, still widely recognised as the gold standard in such studies. The language in the Tokyo Forum and the Blix Commission consciously echoed much of the content of the Canberra Commission.

The next few months is the time — well ahead of the next Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (in early 2010) — for an Australian diplomatic initiative to begin, on one of any number of outstanding issues. For instance, I have proposed Australia lead a push for a leaders' dialogue and a nuclear restraint regime in Asia, an idea undergoing further refinement. Or Canberra could put expertise, money and diplomatic weight behind the breathtakingly sensible efforts begun recently by the UK and Norway to study how full-scale nuclear disarmament could be technically verified — an absolutely critical condition of a nuclear-weapon-free world. Australia should also be urging the US to reduce its reliance on nuclear weapons. And while Japan is a natural choice as a nuclear disarmament ally, a creative initiative also needs a wider range of partners (even unlikely ones such as countries that possess nuclear weapons) if it is to add fresh momentum to the global disarmament push.

Yesterday at the New Delhi conference, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced his own campaign for global nuclear disarmament, essentially a reframing of the plan that Rajiv Gandhi had presented to the UN General Assembly 20 years earlier (to the day). The timing of the Singh and Rudd speeches may have been a coincidence. But this can yet be seized upon as serendipity, and used as the basis for pursuing the shared vision of a world without nuclear weapons.

Rudd's new commission is fine, as long as it is not a substitute for the painstaking diplomatic efforts that only governments can deliver and that real change requires.

Full disclosure: The author served on the secretariat of the Canberra Commission and, while on secondment to the Japanese foreign ministry, played a key role in the drafting of the Tokyo Forum report.

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