By Neena Bhandari
As political conflicts magnify in the Middle East and North Africa with the spectre of brutal violence from terrorist organisations like ISIS, and the Ukraine crisis reignites the Cold War between the United States, its NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organisation] allies and Russia; it is imperative that nuclear-armed and non-nuclear states together work for total elimination of nuclear weapons. The risk of use of nuclear weapons, by deliberation or accident, leading to total annihilation looms large more than ever before.
Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Island countries have been at the forefront of global efforts to implement the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which represents the only binding multilateral commitment to the goal of complete disarmament by the nuclear-weapon states. But the Ninth Review Conference of the NPT, from April 27 to May 22, which has three main pillars – non-proliferation, disarmament and peaceful uses of nuclear energy – overwhelmingly reflected the views and interests of the nuclear-armed states and some of their nuclear-dependent allies.
So while the 2015 Review Conference was a step backward from the 2010 Review Conference in nuclear-armed states’ commitment to disarmament, it was also a move forward as non-nuclear states steered ahead for disarmament with the signing of the Humanitarian Pledge put forward by Austria. As of July 14, 113 states had signed the Pledge, which commits signatories to work for a new legally binding instrument for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons for their unacceptable humanitarian consequences.
The Humanitarian Pledge has been signed by 10 Pacific Island states – Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu with the exception of Tonga and the Federated States of Micronesia. From 1956 to 1996, the Pacific island countries were unwilling victims of nuclear weapons testing by the U.S, the U.K and France.
The Republic of Marshall Islands’ (RMI) Minister for Foreign Affairs, Tony de Brum, was nine years old in March 1954, when while fishing with his grandfather near the Likiep atoll, he had seen “the ocean, the fish, and the sky turn red following a sudden intense flash that lit the pre-dawn sky and caused a terrifying shock wave”. They were 200 miles from ground zero and he can never erase the memory of that fateful day.
RMI has been a strong advocate of nuclear disarmament, highlighting the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of use of nuclear weapons. Between 1946 and 1958, the Marshall Islands sustained significant damage and radiological contamination from 67 U.S. atmospheric nuclear weapons tests. In a landmark case, it has used its history of people suffering displacement, death, and continued health impacts to take the nuclear weapons states to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
De Brum told IDN, “It is time for the non-nuclear states to work together to achieve a new treaty to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons. The evidence has been convincing that the nuclear-armed countries, despite their legal obligations, are not prepared at this point to lead the way. Instead, they believe that they have special rights, which they do not, to base their own security on nuclear possession, nuclear threats and potentially nuclear use. In doing so, these countries are undermining their own security as well as the common security of all states and all people”.
Someone, who participated in the early Pacific-wide protest movement against nuclear weapons testing and militarisation of the Pacific region, Fiji-based Vanessa Griffen says, “In the Pacific, we have collectively experienced the known and unknown consequences of nuclear weapons use, the push by non-nuclear states for a ban on nuclear weapons is the only sensible, humane and responsible course of action to take. Nuclear weapons states should be regarded, collectively, as lawless and flouting international humanitarian standards”.
Griffen has been a representative of FemLINKPacific, a feminist Pacific women’s media organisation and partner member of International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC). She says, “Pacific Island states, with an unusually high experiential qualification for speaking up for nuclear disarmament, are a significant number in the United Nations and should use their statehood collectively and effectively on this global issue of nuclear disarmament”.
NPT was indefinitely extended in 1995. Its Article VIII provides that the Treaty be reviewed every five years. The five-yearly review process was to ensure that nuclear- armed states will pursue disarmament as a matter of policy, but in the past five years the nuclear-armed states have pursued costly programmes to modernise their arsenals.
The key findings in the 2015 Yearbook of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which assesses the current state of armaments, disarmament and international security, show that “all the nuclear weapon-possessing states are working to develop new nuclear weapon systems and/or upgrade their existing ones”. At the start of 2015, nine states – the U.S, Russia, the U.K, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) – possessed approximately 15,850 nuclear weapons, of which 4300 were deployed with operational forces.
Australia doesn’t possess nuclear weapons, but it subscribes to the doctrine of extended nuclear deterrence under the U.S alliance, which is seen as key to Australia’s national security. Australia has not signed the Humanitarian Pledge. As a spokesperson for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) told IDN, “We need to create an environment where all countries, including the nuclear-armed states and those who rely on their nuclear umbrellas, believe themselves to be more secure without nuclear weapons”.
Peace, justice and environmental activists, faith-based and civil society organisations, scientific and medical experts, and United Nations agencies have been calling for negotiations to begin immediately on the elimination of nuclear weapons under strict and effective international control.
ICAN’s Australia Director Tim Wright, who attended the Ninth Review Conference in New York says, “Throughout the review conference, Australia dragged its feet on disarmament, maintaining that the use of nuclear weapons is legitimate and necessary under certain circumstances. This stance is, in my view, deeply immoral. But I remain hopeful that, sooner or later, the Australian government will join the international mainstream in rejecting nuclear weapons outright. That is what the Australian people expect and demand”.
The landmark nuclear deal signed by the U.S, Russia, the U.K, France, China and Germany with Iran raises new hopes for disarmament. Realising where self-interest lies can change anything in geo-politics. Iran went from being an archenemy, almost militarily invaded by the U.S, to a country that the U.S and others had to deal with more respectfully over the matter of Iraq and ISIS.
In October last year, the Australian Defence Minister David Johnstone even said that Australian commandos could work alongside Iranian forces because of what he said was a common interest in stopping ISIS.
Nuclear weapons are a common threat to all of us and cooperation, even with “enemies”, is possible”, Member of the Board of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, Dr Sue Wareham told IDN, adding that “Even Israel must realise that its own nuclear arsenal is a liability, as it is a provocation for other nations in the region to consider acquiring their own”.
Over the last five years, humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons have been the most active area of progress in disarmament diplomacy. New Zealand, as chair of the New Agenda Coalition (NAC), was principally responsible for drafting Working Paper 9, which lays out the possible pathways forward for a legal mechanism to implement the nuclear disarmament obligations in NPT Article VI.
Lyndon Burford, a PhD student in International Relations at the University of Auckland, New Zealand says, “New Zealand insists that such discussion is essential, and urgently needed, but that before it has taken place, it would be premature to select one legal framework over any other. NGOs, however, question why New Zealand has not endorsed the Humanitarian Pledge. The failure to endorse the pledge is particularly puzzling given that the rest of the New Agenda Coalition has endorsed it, and that New Zealand has played such a leading role in the humanitarian consequences initiative”.
One of the major obstacles in the total prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons has been the nuclear-armed states’ two set of rules: one for themselves and the other for everyone else. Wareham says, “But a less-recognised impediment is the role played by U.S allies such as Australia, who quietly urge their great ally to maintain its nuclear arsenal while trying to keep up the facade of being at the forefront of disarmament. If a close U.S ally broke ranks and refused “protection” by nuclear weapons, the impact could be enormous”.
Over four decades after the NPT came into force, roughly1800 nuclear weapons are kept in a state of high operational alert. As Professor Ramesh Thakur, Director, Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament of Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy says, “Perhaps, the NPT has passed its use by date and the world needs to transition to a post-NPT era without endangering the existing global nuclear order that is firmly anchored in the NPT. While non-proliferation obligations are binding, verifiable and enforceable under the NPT, disarmament obligations are not. Three conferences have been held to date on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, which might point the way to a post-NPT nuclear-weapon-free order now supported by 159 countries”.
Prof. Thakur suggests three options: “First, ban any use of nuclear weapons as it violates the very core of international humanitarian law; secondly, the overwhelming majority of non-nuclear countries could act on their own to ban the possession as well as use of nuclear weapons; and thirdly, the best but most challenging option would be the negotiation of a nuclear weapons convention (NWC) on the lines of conventions banning biological and chemical weapons.”