The stated goal behind the International Commission on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament just announced by Kevin Rudd is a hugely important one. The key question, which can only be answered over time, is how much commitment there is from the federal government in trying to achieve that goal.
The proliferation of Weapon of Mass Destruction has been invoked so regularly - not only as the justification for invading Iraq but as an ongoing threat to global stability – that the acronym WMD has quickly become commonplace in modern parlance. But the sad irony is that while the threat of WMDs is widely referred to, the obvious accompaniment to reducing that threat – namely disarmament – rarely gets a mention.
It is only a little over twenty years ago that community concern about nuclear weapons was so great that a single-issue group adopted the Nuclear Disarmament Party label and got sufficient public support in the 1984 election to poll nearly ten per cent in New South Wales and over four per cent in nearly every other state. While the main net effect was to get an NDP Senator elected in Western Australia at the cost of the equally anti-nuclear Australian Democrat party, this vote reflected a very significant apprehension amongst the Australian community about the risks of nuclear weapons.
The end of the Cold War understandably made many people feel that imminent nuclear war was a less likely prospect. The Doomsday Clock, which is set by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, moved out to 17 minutes to midnight in 1991; a huge gain from the ominous setting of 3 minutes to midnight in 1984 when the NDP had their brief electoral surge.
But since then, while nuclear disarmament has slipped off the radar and out of every day political discourse, the number of countries possessing nuclear weapons has increased and the international momentum for nuclear disarmament has all but stopped. The Doomsday Clock is now back at 5 minutes to midnight. Even while the mantra about the threat of WMDs continues to be chanted, the talk of disarmament has remained muted.
Despite their sabre rattling about WMDs and the so-called war on terror, the previous Australian government not only opened up uranium exports to an existing nuclear weapons state in China, it was also exploring ways to export uranium to India, despite that government not even being part of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
In examining the agreements to enable uranium exports to China, the Parliament's Treaties Committee heard "substantial evidence from concerned organisations and individuals that the safeguards included in the Agreements are ineffective based on the view that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards system is already inadequate."
While I was the only voice on that all-party Committee to dissent against opening up uranium exports to China, the Committee as a whole was sufficiently concerned about the adequacy of existing system of safeguards that it recommended for both "an urgent review of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s funding requirements and [for] Australia [to] set a lead by increasing its voluntary contributions and lobbying other governments to do likewise" and for "the Australian Government [to] lobby the IAEA and the five declared nuclear weapons states under the NPT to make the safeguarding of all conversion facilities mandatory."
Minister Alexander Downer did not accept either of these recommendations.
It is hard to tell at this stage whether Kevin Rudd's announcement will amount to little more than a piece of window dressing which he can periodically point to as a way to demonstrate to today's version of NDP voters that he is more committed to disarmament than the Coalition, or whether it will be part of a wider commitment to commit a significant part of Australia's international political and diplomatic capital on restarting the global momentum towards disarmament. Mr Rudd has made it clear that the uranium exports to China will still continue, although the prospects of support for the same being done with India appear to have cooled.
Certainly is it very welcome to once again hear a major party leader make a statement suggesting some renewed priority to disarmament. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty does need renewal or replacement with something more effective. In part it will be up to the wider community to recapture some of the urgency and social momentum for disarmament which existed in the 1980s, both locally and globally, to push for a genuine reduction in WMDs across all states.
Mr Rudd's Commission may help push that along, but without stronger concerns being expressed more frequently from a wider proportion of the electorate, there is a risk the Prime Minister will feel he does not need to do much more in order to show himself in a better light than his predecessor, without really providing the ongoing commitment to this issue that will be needed to make a real impact.
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