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On 25 May 1946, the New York Times published the text of a telegram written by Albert Einstein on behalf of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists and the Federation of American Scientists. In that telegram, written barely nine months after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Einstein wrote: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift towards unparalleled catastrophe.”
What has changed in the intervening seven decades?
In 1946, there was only one state that possessed nuclear weapons. Now there are nine.
In mid-1946, the US had some nine nuclear bombs. Now, according to the Federation of American Scientists, there are approximately 14,500 nuclear weapons worldwide, of which some 3,600 are deployed with operational forces.
In 1946, delivery systems were limited to long-range bombers barely capable of intercontinental travel. Now there are in excess of 700 operational Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles armed with over 1,500 warheads, another 400 or more operational Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles armed with over 1,800 warheads, and almost 200 operational heavy bombers armed with around 200 nuclear bombs.
In 1946, only the US possessed fissile material, estimated at several tonnes of separated plutonium and several hundred kilograms of Highly Enriched Uranium. Now, the world has military stockpiles sufficient for 50,000 nuclear weapons.
In just over seventy years, we have amassed enough weapons grade fissile material to destroy our world several times over. As Einstein said, the unleashed power of the atom has changed everything.
But have we met Einstein’s challenge and changed our mode of thinking? In part, we have. The international community has increasingly recognised that the disproportionate effects and existential costs of weapons of mass destruction warrant comprehensive bans.
While the international community has progressed bans on biological and chemical weapons, the most horrific of the weapons of mass destruction, nuclear devices, remain outside any effective ban treaty.
Why is this?
Because unlike nuclear weapons, biological and chemical weapons were not seen as central to the security of the states that possessed them.
In contrast, the loss of nuclear weapon capability is seen as existential by many that possess them, notwithstanding that such a view is both logically and strategically problematic.
While this may be the current reality, it cannot be allowed to continue. Nuclear weapons constitute a clear and existential threat to humanity’s survival.
Their military effects are disproportionate to the military advantage they are intended to achieve.
The International Court of Justice is clear in its view that there is no circumstance in which the use of a nuclear weapon would be consistent with international humanitarian law. And any eventual military victory that their use might bring about is at best pyrrhic when the loss of life, environmental degradation, infrastructural damage and long-term environmental consequences are considered. A global nuclear winter is far too high a price for humanity to pay for nuclear misadventure.
As President Reagan and President Gorbachev agreed, “nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought”.
Fifty years ago the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) opened for signature after negotiations lasting three years.
The NPT was, and remains, the bedrock of international efforts to limit the possession of nuclear weapons. One hundred and ninety-one states are currently party to the Treaty.
India, Israel and Pakistan never signed the treaty, and North Korea withdrew from the Treaty in 2003.
The NPT – which designates the five original proliferators, the United States, the Soviet Union (Russia), the United Kingdom, France and China as Nuclear Weapons States – is founded on a central bargain, which is at once its singular achievement and its main flaw. It links horizontal and vertical proliferation in a single treaty.
In return for the Non-Nuclear-Weapon States agreeing to forgo the development, possession and use of nuclear weapons (Article II), the five Nuclear-Weapon States agreed to negotiate the dismantlement of their nuclear arsenals and their eventual elimination (Article VI).
To an extent, the bargain has worked. Some twenty states that had been contemplating acquiring a nuclear weapons capability renounced their ambitions and signed up to the Treaty. And the Treaty has seen the global stockpile fall by 85 per cent since it was signed.
As I said, three states never signed the NPT and one has exited the Treaty, choosing instead to pursue a nuclear weapons capability.
The success of the NPT in limiting proliferation and achieving significant reductions in stockpiles of nuclear weapons stems from Article III of the treaty and the Additional Protocol.
Article III requires Non-Nuclear-Weapons States party to the treaty to accept safeguards, applied by the International Atomic Energy Agency, on all their nuclear activity. Safeguards are aimed at detecting and deterring the diversion of nuclear material. Non-Nuclear-Weapon States that have nuclear programs are required to implement systems of accounting for and controlling nuclear material to ensure that nuclear material and facilities are being used exclusively for peaceful purposes. The safeguards in Article III are known today as ‘comprehensive’ safeguards and have been strengthened by the Additional Protocol.
Verification regimes provide confidence that safeguards are meeting their aim of ensuring the non-diversion of nuclear material declared by a State.
As an independent and external international agency, the importance of the role of the IAEA cannot be overstated. Monitoring and verification continues to be a central element of the NPT.
The safeguards monitoring regime affords the IAEA wider information and access rights to increase its capability to detect sites and facilities that a state might have failed to declare.
By enabling the IAEA to obtain a much fuller picture of such states’ nuclear programs, plans, nuclear material holdings and trade, the Additional Protocol increases the IAEA’s ability to provide much greater assurance on the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in those states. It is an important enhancement to the NPT and essential to any nuclear verification regime.
This new standard has been signed or entered into force in approximately 140 of the Non-Nuclear-Weapon States party to the NPT, and demonstrates the extent to which those States have committed themselves to full observance of the requirements of Article III.
Safeguards and verification are essential ingredients in progressing non-proliferation and disarmament. In an environment where States are inherently distrustful of one another, safeguards and verification processes build trust. And they provide confidence that disarmament will not come at the cost of a state’s security.
While the NPT has had significant success in limiting horizontal proliferation and progressing disarmament, progress across the board has stalled.
The optimism of 1968 has given way to growing disaffection and frustration among many of the non-nuclear weapons states.
The number of states possessing nuclear weapons has increased to nine.
And NPT Nuclear Weapons-States have modernised their nuclear arsenals, increasing their efficiency, effect, lethality and accuracy.
In short, the Nuclear Weapons-States have not made sufficient progress on their commitment to disarm. They’re risking the central bargain.
The five yearly NPT Review Conferences have become increasingly fractious as states ventilate their frustration at the lack of progress towards effective nuclear disarmament. At the 2015 Review Conference the parties were unable to reach consensus on a final conference declaration.
At this stage, few are anticipating the 2020 NPT Review Conference to do much better.
The sticking points relate principally to effective measures towards nuclear disarmament, real and well-placed humanitarian concerns about nuclear weapons use, and reporting on disarmament progress by the recognised nuclear-weapon states.
It is as a result of stalled progress, growing disaffection and frustration, and a sense that the bargain that underpins the NPT is broken – that non-Nuclear Weapons States and civil society sought to drive a new pathway to achieve a nuclear free world.
A series of major conferences hosted by Norway, Mexico and Austria, culminated in Austria’s ‘Humanitarian Pledge’, supported by a bloc of over 100 countries, to ‘fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons’.
A subsequent resolution of the General Assembly’s First Committee established a special UN Conference to ‘negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons’.
The negotiations were boycotted by the five Nuclear Weapons States, along with nuclear-armed States – India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea – and many NWS allies, including Australia.
Labor publicly criticised the Government’s decision not to attend the negotiations.
Australia has a proud tradition of playing a constructive role in multilateral negotiations. The decision to boycott the negotiations not only damaged our reputation as a constructive international actor, it also lost Australia a critical opportunity to contribute to the drafting of the Treaty. I’m confident that Australia’s participation would have helped deliver a more constructive outcome on this important multilateral issue.
The negotiations produced a draft Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty, which was adopted by 122 states on 7 July 2017. To date, sixty-nine states have signed the Treaty, with nineteen having ratified it.
Along with the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), representing over 450 civil society associations, was a major agent in securing this new treaty.
It is to ICAN’s credit that its efforts were rewarded with a Nobel Peace Prize. Launched in Melbourne in 2007, ICAN has been single-minded in its pursuit of a ban on nuclear weapons and total nuclear disarmament.
The Ban Treaty recognises that the current system hasn’t reflected the aspirations and demands from the global community for a safer – and ultimately nuclear weapons-free – world.
It is an objective that Labor supports. And it is an objective I would work hard to achieve as Minister for Foreign Affairs.
While the objective of the Ban Treaty is one that I strongly share, the Treaty has significant shortcomings.
As I have said, the Government’s decision to boycott negotiations meant Australia missed our opportunity to address these shortcomings in the negotiation phase.
The shortcomings of the Ban Treaty can be grouped into three categories: universality; safeguards and verification; and security. I will address each of these.
There is no doubt that the Ban Treaty and the campaign surrounding it has already had a significant normative impact.
The treaty is an important statement – a clear declaration of the will of the majority of nations.
But an incomplete consensus against the possession and use of nuclear weapons is not enough to achieve a nuclear free world.
A treaty banning nuclear weapons will have no effect without the support of those states that possess them.
It’s a simple reality.
The five nuclear weapons states and the four additional states possessing nuclear weapons must be committed to disarming if a nuclear free world is to be achieved.
There is no realistic prospect of any or all of the existing nuclear weapons states signing, let alone ratifying, the Ban Treaty.
As Gareth Evans has said, “a more nuanced approach than full-blooded campaigning for the Nuclear Ban Treaty may be required.”
John Carlson, a distinguished disarmament expert, has detailed the Ban Treaty’s failure to require all parties to sign up to the highest level of safeguards standards – the Additional Protocol. Instead, the Ban Treaty provides for differing levels of safeguards depending on a nation’s nuclear status on entering the Treaty.
Failing to adopt the strongest safeguards and verification regime not only undermines the potential effectiveness of the Ban Treaty, it has the unintended effect of undermining the effectiveness of the existing NPT’s safeguards system.
It offers signatories an alternative, less onerous, safeguards standard that does not extend to the IAEA’s Additional Protocol directed to undeclared sites or facilities.
Labor, like much of the international community, supported the Iran nuclear deal with reservations. Some have criticised the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action for not being strong enough.
Under the deal, Iran is required to ‘provisionally’ implement the Additional Protocol.
But under the Ban Treaty, Iran would have the opportunity to opt for less onerous safeguards standards.
Nuclear disarmament requires that the strongest safeguards apply universally, a fact recognized by successive NPT Review Conferences. The absence of this requirement from the nuclear Ban Treaty seriously undermines both its credibility and its efficacy.
For Nuclear-Weapons States and for their allies the Ban Treaty would have profound consequences for defence and security arrangements.
The ANZUS treaty is the cornerstone of Australia’s defence and security arrangements.
As a result of ANZUS, and the many agreements and arrangements that sit beneath it, Australia’s defence arrangements are intertwined with the United States.
As referenced recently by my colleague and Labor’s Shadow Minister for Defence, Richard Marles, ratifying the Ban Treaty risks impacting on Australia’s alliance with the United States.
As a close ally of the US, we benefit from its strategic power, and Labor’s support for the alliance is unshakable.
We also recognise the imperative to make progress on disarmament. Australia’s position reflects the dilemma that is at the heart of the disarmament challenge: how does the world take steps together? How do we collectively build the path to disarmament in a context where mutuality is precondition of success?
Our ultimate objective must be a treaty to prohibit the development, possession, use, threat of use, stationing or transfer of all nuclear weapons.
But we must recognise the context in which we operate.
States are inherently distrustful of one another. Each is looking for strategic advantage, and each is watching others to ensure they do not obtain it.
The successes of the NPT have been a result of its ability to build trust and confidence – trust and confidence that are verified.
In an environment lacking trust, the unequal treatment of states with regard to safeguards and verification arrangements will thwart progress to a world free of nuclear weapons.
There are currently 15,000 nuclear warheads on our planet.
Dismantling 15,000 nuclear warheads and the security arrangements that rest upon them is not going to happen overnight.
The international community is not going to reach the goal of universal disarmament in a single leap, or with a single all-encompassing treaty in the short-to-medium term.
While the Ban Treaty has genuine normative value, collective virtue signalling is not going to be enough.
But we must make meaningful progress: to accept the status quo is not an option.
The question is, how do we make progress and what role can Australia play?
Since becoming Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, I have set about articulating the foundation of Labor’s foreign policy.
Labor’s foreign policy is founded on the belief that we deal with the world as it is and we seek to change it for the better.
We are an independent multicultural nation, confident of our place in the world. We reflect this in the assertion of our interests and our advocacy for our values.
The four core interests that underpin the framing and delivery of Labor’s foreign policy are: the security of the nation and its people; the economic prosperity of the nation and its people; a stable, co-operative strategic system in our region anchored in the rule of law; and constructive internationalism.
Constructive internationalism, an evolution of Gareth Evans’s ‘good international citizenship’ – is a fundamentally strategic concept.
It goes to the heart of Labor’s foreign policy and how we conceptualise Australia’s role in the world.
Put simply, constructive internationalism is about working with others to achieve common benefit.
It is about harnessing international co-operation to solve complex, multi-faceted and multi-stakeholder problems that require a collective response.
By working co-operatively to resolve them, we create critical international public goods – where we all draw benefit, even when the economic, environmental and security returns are different in kind and distribution.
I have referenced constructive internationalism in the context of Labor’s approach to climate change, outer space, and the oceans.
Nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament certainly requires a collective response.
Labor has a proud history of multilateralism and of contributing to international efforts to progress non-proliferation and disarmament.
This includes the Canberra Commission in 1995 and the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament – announced in 2008 by then Prime Ministers Rudd and Fukuda.
The International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, jointly chaired by Gareth Evans, provided its final report in 2009. The Commission set out ‘a two-phase strategy for getting to Zero’: the ‘minimisation’ phase, and the ‘elimination’ phase.
The report acknowledged that elimination will not happen overnight. That it will require practical and realistic steps, and the building and maintaining of trust and confidence. And that only after minimisation has been achieved, can a realistic deadline for elimination be set.
In Government, I will work with parties to the Ban Treaty and civil society to consider the role that the Treaty can play in the minimisation and elimination phases.
For example, what are the necessary conditions that would enable more nations like Australia, our allies and partners, to support a ban treaty?
And Labor believes that Australia can and must play a constructive role to re-engage our allies and partners to achieve minimisation and then, ultimately, elimination of nuclear weapons.
First, a Shorten Labor Government will seek to muster wide international support, including from the states that possess nuclear weapons, for a “No First Use” declaration.
While we do not underestimate the complexity of this task, given the increasingly blurred boundaries between conventional and nuclear forces in armed conflict, such a collective declaration would be a significant confidence building measure and welcomed by people of all nations.
‘No First Use’ would limit the potential use of nuclear weapons to deter against the use of nuclear weapons. For states with nuclear weapons to adopt a ‘No First Use’ policy would constitute a major step forward in reducing tensions and risks of accidental or mistaken use. It would contribute to other critical minimisation measures including de-alerting nuclear weapons, reducing deployments and decreasing stockpiles.
Second, we will leverage Australia’s strong relationships with nuclear weapons states to advocate for a reduction in their nuclear stockpiles.
The objective of these discussions should be the reduction of arsenals by set percentages and the introduction of risk mitigation measures, such as de-alerting, towards the goal of final elimination.
Labor will further encourage Nuclear Weapon States to progress negotiations on Article VI of the NPT and to press for an internationally agreed weapons minimization` program involving all states possessing nuclear weapons, with a view to identifying a nuclear weapons elimination target date.
And we will seek to re-energise international action to conclude a “Cut-Off” treaty to ban the production of fissile material.
Third – we will seek to strengthen existing institutions and agreements.
We will work to build the capacity of the International Atomic Energy Agency to meet the challenges in the next phases of the nuclear disarmament agenda.
And we will maintain sanctions and strict enforcement measures against states seeking to proliferate nuclear weapons outside of the NPT – as we have done in the case of North Korea.
The spectre of nuclear Armageddon that so worried Albert Einstein in 1946 has grown into a monstrous reality. We cannot just drift along, hoping that ‘someone’ will find a way through this wicked problem. We need to be proactive.
And, as Einstein noted, we need to change our ‘modes of thinking’. We need to be able to articulate and deliver constructive policy on a number of fronts simultaneously. This is painstaking diplomatic work that requires leadership and application. And it requires advocacy.
A Shorten Labor Government is up for this. We will bring application and energy to the task of global nuclear disarmament, working with our long-standing friends and allies and other like-minded nations to bring about movement on the reduction of nuclear arsenals with a view to their elimination, while at the same time working to strengthen the international rules that prevent the further proliferation of nuclear weapons.
When Einstein drafted his telegram, he had no doubt thought deeply about the unimaginable pain and suffering experienced by the unsuspecting citizens of Nagasaki and Hiroshima as they went about their daily business in the dying days of WW2.
Women looking after their children.
Elderly people hoping for peace and a better life.
Adolescents attending school.
All of them innocent civilians obliterated in moments.
The Spanish Jesuit, Pedro Arrupe, who was in Hiroshima on that August morning, described the scene as ‘destitute of all human help’.
World leaders have a solemn duty to prevent such a catastrophe from re-occurring. Labor will work to that end.
Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra.