Because of the unique destructive capacity and uncontrollable effects of nuclear weapons, the almost indescribable horror associated with their use informed the very first resolution of the U.N. General Assembly in 1946 and has been a recurring theme ever since in blue ribbon international commissions, NPT review conferences and preparatory committee meetings, and General Assembly committee debates.

Given the presently stalled nuclear disarmament agenda, the most productive way forward for both committed state and civil society actors to generate political momentum for the cause may be to emphasize the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons. The only way to guarantee their non-use ever is their total, irreversible and verifiable elimination under effective international control.

On Oct. 21, speaking in the U.N. General Assembly’s First Committee on behalf of 123 countries and the Holy See, New Zealand’s outgoing disarmament ambassador Dell Higgie issued a statement on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons.

It noted that the broad participation at the March 2013 Oslo Conference, with attendance by 128 states (but not one nuclear-armed state nor most who shelter under their nuclear umbrellas), the ICRC, and several U,N, and civil society humanitarian organizations, reflected the recognition that the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons are a major global concern. Yet no country or international body has the capacity to address the immediate humanitarian emergency caused by a nuclear weapon detonation or provide adequate assistance to victims.

Intriguingly because of their close relations on so many issues, on the same occasion Australia’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, Peter Woolcott, issued a parallel statement on behalf of 17 countries, mainly those protected by U.S. nuclear weapons under extended nuclear deterrence (Belgium, Canada, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Turkey, etc.).

Japan was the only country to sign both statements. The Australia statement emphasized “both the security and the humanitarian dimensions of the nuclear weapons debate.”

It is not clear that the different Australian position was actually ever signed off by the minister in the last Labor government, as opposed to being official Australian policy as determined and articulated by the bureaucracy. The reluctance to associate with the broadly subscribed to statement at Oslo in March and the NPT PrepCom in Geneva in May would appear to have been due largely to (pre-emptive?) appeasement of U.S. concerns. Sections of the U.S. policy elite are totally intolerant of any mention of a nuclear weapons convention (NWC) and Australia relies on the U.S. nuclear umbrella as the ultimate guarantor of its national security. Australian officials are therefore hesitant to be seen as too far ahead of Washington or crossing their strong sentiments on any nuclear-related topic.

The NWC language was taken out of the October 2013 draft presented by New Zealand. But two issues kept Canberra from signing. First, Australians believed that there was insufficient recognition of the security dimensions of nuclear weapons, and thus it was imbalanced toward the humanitarian consequences. Second, Canberra was upset at not being given time to make proper representations of its position. With the lack of any meaningful consultation, Australia did not feel obliged to join the growing international consensus. It might also argue that the Australia-voiced statement was complementary to that tabled by New Zealand, not in contradiction of it.

The Australian position doesn’t withstand rigorous scrutiny. There is no compelling case for Australia having maintained distance from the New Zealand-led statement. Nuclear weapons are the most indiscriminately inhumane weapons ever invented and the threat posed by them is the gravest of all confronting humanity with respect to gravity, immediacy and magnitude. One would hope that the new government would change tack on the issue. But, given their general downgrading of multilateralism compared to Labor and priority to bilateral relations with key countries (“less Geneva, more Jakarta” is the catchy new bumper sticker slogan), we should not hold our breath.

Australia’s recalcitrance undermines the leadership role it has often taken in the past on WMD issues (especially nuclear and chemical). As Australia is not a big player in this, its central role has been in building the normative case against nukes — which is exactly what the major humanitarian consequences statement seeks to do. The flawed diplomatic process, if it was such, is not strong enough reason to have kept distance.

The New Zealand language is: “It is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances.” It does not say “we do not support under any circumstances the use of nuclear weapons” which would have closed off Australian reliance on the U.S. in extremis. It simply says that it is in the whole world’s interest that we never get to that point. It merely reprises language that U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had jointly used to usher in the process of ending the Cold War: a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. Australia should be reaffirming that, not disagreeing with it.

By being seen to be disagreeing, Australia also undermines ongoing efforts in other respects. At about the time of the New Zealand statement, former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans and I were engaged in serious efforts to convince the policy elite in India and Pakistan (and earlier in China, Japan and South Korea too) about steps that each country can take on its own to generate serious momentum for nuclear arms control and disarmament (for example ratifying the CTBT without first waiting for the U.S. Senate to do so). Australian failure to sign the humanitarian consequences rather undercuts our efforts from civil society to argue that Australia is serious in pursuing this whole agenda.

The next conference addressing the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons will be held in Mexico City in February 2014. Australia should strongly support recognition of the following four points being argued by the Red Cross: 1) the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons; 2) the lack of any adequate humanitarian response capacity; 3) the incompatibility of any use of nuclear weapons with the rules of international humanitarian law; and 4) the need for concrete action leading to a prohibition on the use of nuclear weapons and their elimination.

Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. To download a full version of the new CNND report, “Nuclear Weapons: The State of Play,” please visit: cnnd.anu.edu.au/files/2013/state-of-play-report/Nuclear-Weapons-The-State-of-Play.pdf.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.