By Neena Bhandari
The small Pacific island country of New Zealand has punched above its weight in the international disarmament debate. For nearly three decades it has pursued an active nuclear free policy, banning entry of US warships carrying nuclear weapons or propelled by nuclear power into its ports despite being part of the ANZUS Treaty.
NZ, along with the United States (US) and Australia, was amongst the three original signatory governments to the ANZUS treaty, a trilateral framework for security arrangements and cooperation, which was concluded in 1951.
From the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, New Zealand opposed French nuclear tests in the Pacific. In 1983, the visit of the nuclear-powered frigate USS Texas sparked protests. Ordinary people spurred an anti-nuclear movement, which reached its peak in the mid-1980s and shaped NZ’s foreign policy and identity as a nation.
“It was an extremely broad campaign, which included professionals, neighbourhood groups, students, religious, non-religious, young and old. In many ways, it was the diversity and the non-hierarchical nature of the movement that was part of its appeal and strength. At one point there were over 300 local activist groups across the country,” says Marie Leadbeater, the author of `Peace, Power and Politics: How New Zealand became nuclear free.
The defining moment came in July 1985 with the sinking of the Greenpeace flagship, Rainbow Warrior, which had been involved in protests over French nuclear testing.
The then Prime Minister David Lange said: “There is only one thing more dangerous than being attacked by nuclear weapons and that is being protected by them.” In 1987, the Labour government passed the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act.
“The legislation is now so well entrenched in the New Zealand psyche, that no party would propose rescinding it in the future. The National Party (the leader of the current government) has now said explicitly that they would not repeal that legislation,” Maryan Street, former NZ Labour Party Spokesperson on Disarmament and Arms Control, told IDN.
Agrees Kennedy Graham, Green Party MP with responsibility for global affairs. “There is multi-party support now for New Zealand’s Nuclear Free Zone legislation.”
The US Government has not attempted to overturn NZ’s nuclear ban, but in the past five years it has begun to re-establish defence and strategic ties with New Zealand. In November 2010, the then US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and the then NZ Foreign Minister Murray McCully, signed the Wellington Declaration, which laid the framework for a new strategic partnership between the two countries.
In June 2012, the Washington Declaration further enhanced defence cooperation arrangements that included maritime security, counter-proliferation, counter-terrorism, and anti-piracy. Under this agreement, NZ agreed to join RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific), the world’s largest maritime exercise, and joint exercises with the US and Australian forces.
Cautions Nic Maclellan, author and researcher: “We should be careful and not glorify NZ’s position too much as it is changing. Recent revelations by Wikileaks and Edward Snowden have highlighted the level of engagement between the ANZUS allies and the five party UKUSA agreement also known as the `Five Eyes Treaty’, whereby the UK, Canada and the ANZUS allies share signals intelligence.”
NZ has two signals intelligence bases in Tangimoana and Waihopai. Leadbeater says, “I opposed NZ’s participation in the UKUSA agreement on account of its lack of transparency and it’s potential to make us party to spying on other nations and even contributing to wars.”
The ANZUS allies are also part of the Quadrilateral Defence Coordinating Group with France as an observer. So is there renewed pressure from the US on NZ to join the nuclear umbrella?
“The US understands that our nuclear legislation is a no-go area and works with us around it. They see us as a leader in the area on non-proliferation and disarmament. We were also invited by US President Barack Obama to attend the security conference on the threat of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists,” Street, who is also the former Chair of NZ Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, told IDN.
NZ’s clean green image further promoted as 100% Pure by the Tourism NZ campaign is partly to do with the country being nuclear free. It doesn’t have nuclear power so the chances of a localised accident occurring are slim.
But Street warns: “The most real danger would be in the transporting of nuclear waste through our waters (eg: depleted uranium, yellow cake from Australia, etc.). There is no protection against that happening and therefore we would be vulnerable to an accident occurring to any of those vessels. Protection against that would require new legislation around hazardous goods and substances.”
NZ has been very active in highlighting the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons in direct contrast to Australia. By October 2014,155 countries had signed the NZ-led UN statement on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons.
“Given the width of support for the New Zealand initiative among members of the UN it seems to me that the time is right to nail down the illegality of nuclear weapons through international agreement. Now New Zealand is on the Security Council and I hope we will keep our foot on the pedal and advance strongly the cause of nuclear disarmament,” wrote former NZ Prime Minister, Sir Geoffrey Palmer in an article `The Nuclear Nightmare’ in November 2014.
The International Court of Justice in its advisory opinion on Nuclear Weapons in 1996 had stated: “The destructive power of nuclear weapons cannot be contained in either space or time. They have the potential to destroy all civilization and the entire ecosystem of the planet.”
Today, the anti-nuclear movement is not very active in NZ, but there is a strong small core group of people, who are active in global anti-nuclear activities.
As Kate Dewes, a nuclear abolition activist who has carried on this fight for over three decades told IDN, “There are a few groups, both national and local, which have members on the government appointed Public Advisory Committee on Disarmament and Arms Control (PACDAC), who give advice as to what the government should be doing to implement the NZ Disarmament and Arms Control Act of 1987. Some groups meet regularly with the Ambassador for Disarmament and ministry officials to encourage them to take leadership on current disarmament issues such as nuclear abolition, banning of landmines, cluster and depleted uranium munitions, and the Arms Trade Treaty.”
“The New Zealand population will never accept a role in upholding nuclear deterrence under the ‘nuclear umbrella’. We have won that debate and young New Zealanders are very proud of our nuclear free policy”, added Dewes, quoting a 1986 opinion poll that confirmed that 92 percent New Zealanders opposed nuclear weapons and 69 percent opposed warship visits; 92 percent wanted NZ to promote nuclear disarmament through the UN, while 88 percent supported the promotion of nuclear-free zones.
Successive opinion polls in Australia have shown that Australians overwhelmingly reject nuclear weapons. “Yet our government, in deference to the US, remains opposed to the idea of a treaty banning these ultimate weapons of mass destruction. We are calling on the government to rule out any role for nuclear weapons in our nation’s military doctrines, just as New Zealand did in the 1980s, and to join efforts to achieve a global ban”, Australia Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), Tim Wright, told IDN.
Australia is part of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty and like NZ, Australia also has nuclear-free legislation, the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty Act 1986. “However, this legislation (and the treaty itself) doesn’t prevent US nuclear-armed vessels from entering Australian ports, nor does it prevent Australia from maintaining its policy of extended nuclear deterrence”, says Wright.