Despite being close in name, the gap between Australia and Austria on the issue of nuclear disarmament is stark. Austria is at the forefront of a global push to stigmatize, ban and eliminate nuclear weapons, whereas Australia is leading efforts to undermine this push.
During the first week of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, currently underway in New York, the Australian Ambassador to the United Nations, Ms Gillian Bird, delivered a statement expressing concern that 45 years since the NPT entered into force, “some 16,000 nuclear warheads still exist”. But she dismissed the “call for a treaty banning nuclear weapons”, and stated Australia's support for “practical, realistic measures to achieve actual nuclear disarmament”. Elaboration on these unambitious measures was saved for the 26-nation Statement on the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons, not to be confused with the much stronger Austrian-led 160-nation Joint Statement on the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons.
Both 'humanitarian statements' acknowledged the renewed focus on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, catalysed by the three conferences that have been held on the subject since February 2013 by the Norwegian, Mexican and Austrian Governments. The Austrian-led statement said that the “humanitarian focus is now well established on the global agenda” and affirmed that “the only way to guarantee that nuclear weapons will never be used again is through their total elimination”. The Australian-led statement claims there are “no short cuts”, implying that the slow, and thus far ineffective, steps to disarmament are the only way to reach a world without nuclear weapons. Acknowledgement of the survivors of nuclear testing, including in Australia, was disappointingly absent, despite the moving testimonygiven before 158 nations by Kokatha-Mula woman Sue Coleman-Haseldine at the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons last December.
Australia’s claimed reliance on the US’ nuclear arsenal hijacks any meaningful contribution to disarmament. Most endorsers of the Australian-led humanitarian statement are similarly thwarted by their commitment to the nuclear weapons of their allies. Meanwhile, many other countries are refusing to accept and enable indefinite inaction. At the time of writing, 80 states have endorsed the Austrian Pledge to “fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons” and many national statements during the first week of the NPT Review Conference have proudly declared their readiness to address the disarmament stalemate.
South Africa supported “the growing call for the construction of a legally-binding agreement” to fill the gap and Costa Rica said “the time has come to look for a legal ban on the use, possession, stockpiling and development of nuclear weapons, even if Nuclear Weapon States are initially unwilling to participate in the negotiation process”. Palau declared that they “stand ready to join such negotiations this year. We are determined to ensure that no one else ever suffers from the horrendous effects of these weapons” and that “2015 must be a year of action”.
The ultimate goal of many states for this Review Conference is a “consensus document”; basically, something that all nations agree with, regardless of the content of the agreement. This expectation sets the bar awfully low for progress on disarmament, reinforcing the need for a new legal instrument to comprehensively prohibit the worst weapon of mass destruction. As ICAN’s statementto the Conference demanded;
we can and we must move forward with a ban, with or without the nuclear-armed states. There is an opportunity before us – as an international community – to prohibit nuclear weapons. We should not let it slip through our hands.
It is almost seventy years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki suffered atomic devastation. The explosion of more than 2,000 nuclear weapons since then has left an irrevocable legacy of radioactive contamination on land and peoples worldwide. That we have avoided nuclear war and accidental detonations in that time is a matter of good fortune; which cannot be guaranteed for another seventy years. In the words of Setsuko Thurlow, atomic survivor and champion for nuclear abolition, “it is delusional to think nuclear weapons protect us; they kill us”.
Forty-five years of the NPT has seen the disarmament obligation contained in Article 6 dismally unfulfilled. While Australia remains tolerant of nuclear weapons, thankfully Austria and the majority of states are seeking new methods and action, now. This process to “fill the legal gap” is bound to go ahead with or without the nuclear weapons states. The Chair of the Mexico Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons identified the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings as the appropriate timeframe within which to begin. The Australian Government should respond to the 84% of the Australian public who want our government to support a nuclear weapons ban (2014 Nielsen poll) and stop encouraging the reckless behaviour of the nuclear minority.
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