Why is Australia not fully behind efforts to prohibit nuclear weapons?

Opinion article by Dr Sue Wareham, Canberra Times,  published December 29th 2016

It's about time for some good news. Heaven knows, we need it after 2016's litany of human failures to find peace between ourselves and with our struggling planet. But as a Christmas gift of historic proportions, the UN – which is to say its member states – has taken the most promising action in decades to lead us towards the elimination of the world's worst weapons. Late on December 23 in New York, the UN General Assembly resolved by a strong majority to begin talks in March on a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons.

To realise the full significance of this, consider the fact that other weapons of mass destruction – chemical weapons, biological weapons, landmines, cluster bombs – have all been prohibited by their respective treaties, and the threats posed by these weapons dramatically reduced as a result. But for nuclear weapons, which literally threaten life on Earth, there is currently no equivalent.

One might have expected that our Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, who likes spruiking Australia's commitment to a "rules-based international order", would welcome the imminent closure of this legal anomaly. On the contrary, however, Australia has been leading the charge to undermine the process.

Australia claims that the ban treaty process has not taken into account the security needs of "all nations" (for which read the US), a curious claim given that our ally stands out as more vulnerable than most to a nuclear weapons attack. In any event, is she really suggesting that the security needs claimed by the nine nuclear-armed nations outweigh the right of the other 187 of us to be rid of this diabolical threat?

That's a bit like cutting President Bashar al-Assad some slack over his alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria because he has "security needs". Weapons of mass destruction are not somehow more acceptable because a handful of nations claim that they, and only they, must have them. But, the ban treaty critics say, nuclear weapons are different, and the countries with the weapons will just thumb their collective noses at it.

Not according to a letter in October from the US mission to NATO to its European allies, urging that they oppose the treaty. With an air of desperation to sabotage the whole thing, the US stated that efforts to delegitimise nuclear weapons are at odds with its policy of nuclear deterrence, including extended deterrence for its allies (such as NATO members and Australia). Further, horror of horrors, it "could make it impossible to undertake nuclear planning or training". Well, yes, that's the general idea, to delegitimise every aspect of nuclear weapons possession and planning; and all indications are that that goal will be achieved, regardless of who signs the treaty. So much for the toothless tiger notion.

Nevertheless, Australia presses on with its defence of US nuclear weapons, including their possible use on our behalf, not veering from its chosen "progressive" approach to disarmament. This consists of a number of steps that have progressed more slowly over decades than a drunken snail.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has languished since it was completed in 1996, with little prospect of ever coming into force, and the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty has been moribund for even longer. In other words, we are told that a stagnant business-as-usual agenda is the way to go, even as 15,000-plus nuclear weapons – 1800 of them still on hair-trigger alert – continue to threaten human suffering of the most grotesque proportions, and all warnings point to increasing risk of their use.Australia's position takes on even greater significance following a tweet on December 22 from US President-elect Donald Trump that stated, "The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes." Russia's President Vladimir Putin has made a similar call for his country.

Australia will have to decide very quickly whether we support the majority of nations that have come to their senses and are about to outlaw nuclear weapons, or the Trumps and Putins of this world with their chilling Cold War-style ravings. For a nation that boasts commitment to a "rules-based international order", the choice hardly seems difficult.

The reality of moving one big step closer to stigmatising, prohibiting and eliminating the most destructive, inhumane, indiscriminate devices ever created is cause for celebration. However, there is another cause for celebration, and that is the capacity of civil society – without which the nuclear weapons ban would not be happening – to mobilise, organise, work with supportive governments and set the agenda for a better world. As the politics of violence, division and hatred loom large on many fronts, such capacity is desperately needed for the huge challenges ahead.

Dr Sue Wareham is a board member of ICANi (Australia), the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons & the Medical Association for Prevention of War.