Despite Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the world is closer to banning nuclear weapons - by Dr Margaret Beavis

Despite Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the world is closer to banning nuclear weapons

Despite Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump's posturing on nuclear weapons, we are suddenly as close as we have ever been to making these weapons of mass destruction illegal.

In a historic vote just before Christmas, the United Nations overwhelmingly passed a resolution to start negotiations on an internationally binding treaty to ban nuclear weapons. This is a momentous step. It comes at a time when the world faces a choice: do we get rid of these weapons, or do we let them multiply in the US, Russia, the Middle East, South Korea and Japan? 

We have bans for biological and chemical weapons, cluster munitions and land mines. For these, prohibition was the essential first step leading towards their elimination. Many said the relatively recent landmines treaty would make no difference, but it has had a huge impact.

Stigmatising nuclear weapons will result in loss of funding. Many companies (including, shamefully, Australia's Future Fund, the CBA, Westpac, ANZ and  Macquarie Group) will be forced to no longer profit from illegal trade in these the worst weapons of mass destruction. Along with massive divestment there will be identification and verification of stockpiles, and then a decade or more dismantling weapons systems.

The first and biggest hurdle for this treaty has been mobilising nations to stand up to the nuclear bullies. Putin and Trump may both call for greater arsenals (an endless world of "mine is bigger than yours"), but there are already more than 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world, with more than 14,000 controlled by Russia and the US.  There are clear risks from these existing stockpiles. For example in southern Turkey there are 50 nuclear weapons only 110 kilometres from Syria. And of course Trump can, on his own, order a nuclear weapons strike. 

Many civil society organisations have worked long and hard for the UN vote to come about. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons was launched in Melbourne in 2007, and has worked internationally to bring together more than 400 organisations in more than 100 countries. For example, the

International Red Cross Movement has declared there is no possible humanitarian response to a nuclear explosion. In an attack, doctors, nurses and hospitals are destroyed. As a result the Red Cross actively advocates for the only possible approach, elimination of all nuclear weapons.

In 2013 and 2014 three international governmental conferences were held, outlining the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons. Detailed modelling has shown that even a limited nuclear exchange, say between India and Pakistan, would not only cause terrible death and destruction in those countries, but also create vast amounts of atmospheric particulate matter, resulting in a decade long nuclear winter. This in turn would reduce rice, maize and wheat crop yields by 10-15 per cent, creating a global famine that would put up to two billion lives at risk. As a result of these conferences, 127 countries signed the Humanitarian Pledge, supporting a ban treaty.

So where does Australia sit in all this? It would be nice to say we were one of the 127 pledge countries, but instead Australia has been acting as a proxy for the US, actively undermining the process. This is despite a 2014 Nielsen poll, which found 84 per cent of Australians support nuclear disarmament. Both the ALP and the Greens support a ban treaty.

We are at a turning point internationally. South Africa, the only country to relinquish nuclear weapons, talks of global apartheid, where nuclear weapons states hold the rest of the world to ransom.  Now these smaller nations have united to get rid of this existential threat.

As with all treaty documents, the devil will be in the detail. Given the overwhelming public support, our government should participate in these negotiations, and act in Australia's interests to produce a strong and effective treaty. Boycotting these negotiations would bring into question Australia's commitment to the UN.

These negotiations are a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape the future. As UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has said, "there are no right hands for the wrong weapons".

Here's to a new year where nuclear weapons are made illegal once and for all, and the world moves a step closer to becoming a safer place.

Dr Margaret Beavis is a Melbourne GP and on the board of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons Australia.

Sydney Morning Herald – 29th December 2016