On January 22 the possession and facilitation of nuclear weapons will be prohibited by international law, however, Australia has at every stage of the law’s process shown its unwillingness to create an anti-nuclear world.
Back in July 2017, the UN General Assembly was ironing out the final wording of what would come to be known as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).
This meeting was the culmination of years of work by NGOs such as Australia’s own International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and countries such as Austria, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and New Zealand. The vast majority of the countries in attendance agreed on a treaty that would prohibit the development, testing, producing, acquiring, possessing, stockpiling, use or threatened use of nuclear weapons.
Australia, however, was not supportive of the TPNW and had tried to derail previous negotiations. Despite this 122 countries supported the TPNW in 2017, and late last year Honduras became the 50th country to ratify it. This means that on January 22 the TPNW will become international law.
Australia did not vote in favour of adopting TPNW in 2017, despite countries like Iran doing so, nor did it sign the document, siding instead with the nuclear-armed states. At every stage, Canberra has rejected the TPNW and in doing so helped prevent a world where nuclear weapons no longer exist.
The Threat Nuclear Weapons Pose
Since the end of the Cold War nuclear weapons were overshadowed by other apocalyptic concerns like climate change and pandemics.
However, just because it is less reported on, it does not mean nuclear weapons have become any less of a danger.
Currently, nine countries hold an estimated total of 13,400 nuclear weapons, the US and Russia have the vast majority of these.
There has been a lot of research into the effects of nuclear weapons to try and contextualise these numbers. A recent example is a 2019 paper on nuclear war between India and Pakistan, which both possess nuclear weapons.
The paper predicted that if these countries used their stockpile on each other the death toll would be between 50 to 125 million people. This means that at the most conservative estimate this war would see as many deaths as the entirety of World War Two.
The smoke from the blast would block out the sun in large areas of the world and cool global temperatures by 2° to 5°. This is not even taking into account the nuclear fallout that would make large swaths of the world uninhabitable or the decline in food supplies.
All this would happen if only 2% of nuclear arms – the amount held by India and Pakistan – were used.
Even if you do not believe countries would use nuclear weapons – a dangerous assumption – there is still a threat that they could be stolen by other actors who would. Nuclear materials have been stolen previously and as recently as 2017.
Furthermore, there is no planning for human error and there have been dozens of accidents involving nuclear weapons. One particularly bizarre one comes from 1961 when the US air force accidentally dropped two hydrogen bombs – each one over 200 times more powerful than the one the US dropped on Hiroshima – in North Carolina.
It was only because one low-voltage switch did not flick that the bombs’ explosions didn’t spew nuclear fallout over Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.
Events like these only further highlight the need to eradicate this threat to humanity, and, unlike during the Cold War, the immediate threat of nuclear war is low enough that countries could engage in de-nuclearisation, and in fact are.
Nuclear weapons have dropped significantly from their peak in the mid-1980s of 70,300, thanks in large part to international treaties.
With a threat so devastating, momentum on side and now international law; not to mention the Australian public also overwhelmingly wants to sign and ratify the treaty – with 79% in favour – why hasn’t Australia signed?
Australia Against the Treaty
Officially, Australia does not support the “ban treaty” for three reasons outlined by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Firstly, they claim it “would not eliminate a single nuclear weapon;” secondly it would conflict with another treaty that seeks to stop an increase in nuclear weapons, such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT); thirdly it would be inconsistent with [Australia’s] US alliance obligations.”
These are three extremely weak reasons all of which were responded to by ICAN, which addressed the bizarre mental gymnastics of the first point by saying: “Australia has argued that nuclear weapons should only be prohibited once they have been eliminated.”
Secondly, the TPNW strengths previous international agreements concerning nuclear weapons. An argument that is supported by the majority of States signing up to both the NPT and TPNW.
This leaves the final point, that Australia would not sign this agreement because it would stop the US from placing Australia under its nuclear umbrella.
The degree to which Australia is involved in the US nuclear umbrella is convoluted. This should be expected, the US and Australian military and defence establishments are not known for their openness.
However, there are good reasons to believe that they are used for activities concerning nuclear weapons with reporter Brian Toohey writing in 2019 that Australia “still relies on the US nuclear umbrella, and is also directly complicit [in it].”
This is largely through joint military facilities (‘joint’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting, as the US often exerts control over these bases) in Australia such as Pine Gap and the North West Cape. These bases have been reported to collect intelligence on nuclear targets as well as detect and destroy other countries’ weapon systems.
This is in opposition to the TPNW, specifically Article 1 (e) which says signatories must never, “assist, encourage or induce, in any way, anyone to engage in” the use of or threatened use of nuclear weapons.
Australia’s rejection of the TPNW conforms to a long history of secrecy and belligerence from Canberra on the issue. This goes back to 1956-1963 when Prime Minister Robert Menzies allowed the British to detonate seven atomic bombs in South Australia without informing the Cabinet let alone the Australian people.
However, international law compels nations to behave a certain way: treaties concerning mines, cluster munitions and biological weapons have drastically reduced the stockpiling and use of these weapons. Furthermore, the Australian Labor Party has come out in support of the TPNW and said they would sign it.
Yet Australia as of yet has not been pulling its weight and with nearly 80% of the population supporting the TPNW the government is not representing the people.
Lucky we have groups like ICAN pushing Australia to adhere to international law. If you want to let your MP know that you support the TPNW you can do so here and you can join in the celebrations around Australia in anticipation of the TPNW becoming international law.