UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

Fifteen years ago in The Hague, the International Court of Justice – the highest legal authority in the world – handed down one of its most contentious advisory opinions. To the chagrin of the nuclear powers, it declared that all governments are legally obliged to disarm, and to do so without unreasonable delay.

“The destructive power of nuclear weapons,” the court remarked, “cannot be contained in either space or time. They have the potential to destroy all civilisation and the entire ecosystem of the planet.” It observed that radiation released by a nuclear explosion would affect health, agriculture and natural resources, and pose “a serious danger to future generations”.

Through their ordinary use, nuclear weapons – like biological and chemical agents, anti-personnel land mines and cluster munitions – violate fundamental principles of international humanitarian law, including prohibitions on the use of weapons that cause unnecessary suffering and are incapable of distinguishing between civilians and combatants.

Every year since the court’s landmark opinion was handed down, more than 120 governments have voted in favour of UN General Assembly resolutions affirming its ruling and urging the immediate commencement of negotiations leading to a treaty that would outlaw and eliminate nuclear weapons, as has been proposed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

During the Howard years, Australia sided with the United States and other nuclear powers in voting against the resolution. When Labor came to office in 2007, Australia’s vote changed to an abstention. Yet it had gone to the election that year promising to “drive the international push” for a nuclear weapons convention. An abstention is hardly a ringing endorsement.

The Rudd and Gillard governments, like those before them, have taken a cautious approach to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. They have been unwilling to push for anything more than the United States will accept. Indeed, Australia’s policies perfectly mirror those of our powerful nuclear-armed ally.

The Australian government has two main priorities: securing the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and negotiating a global instrument to ban the further production of fissile materials. No one could argue that these are unworthy goals; but they do fall short of the mark for a government that presents itself as a disarmament advocate.

Bringing the CTBT into force is purely a non-proliferation measure. The treaty prohibits the testing of any nuclear explosive device, whether underground or in the atmosphere. In recent years, the only nation that has conducted such tests is North Korea. However, the United States and other nuclear powers have carried out “sub-critical” tests on a semi-regular basis.

These tests, unlike the full-blown variety covered by the CTBT, do not involve a chain reaction. Yet their effect is essentially the same: they allow the nuclear weapon states to make qualitative improvements to their nuclear forces. While the health and environmental impacts are greatly diminished, they still pose a significant impediment to disarmament.

Although the United States has not yet joined the treaty, US President Barack Obama has urged the Senate to pursue ratification. Some non-nuclear weapon states have suggested that the only reason the US administration supports the treaty is that it has developed the capacity to test nuclear weapons in other ways. And they are right.

The second plank in the agenda is a ban on the production of fissile materials, the core ingredients of nuclear bombs – highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium. Such a ban has been debated in the Geneva-based UN Conference on Disarmament for several years now, with not a word of treaty text agreed upon.

The body operates on a consensus basis, and Pakistan has long refused to accept a treaty that does not require the nuclear weapon states to destroy existing stocks of fissile materials. The United States and other nuclear powers are adamant that the new law should only prohibit future production, and not deal with the issue of existing stocks.

The reason is simple. The United States, Russia and other established nuclear-armed nations have amassed enormous quantities of fissile materials. The two former Cold War foes have enough to fabricate thousands of new nuclear weapons if they chose to do so. By contrast, Pakistan – a newer nuclear state – does not have such reserves.

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While Australia supports the “long-term goal” of a world without nuclear weapons (like the United States), it has demanded little in terms of real disarmament. Its main “disarmament” proposal is that the nuclear weapon states be more transparent about the size and composition of their arsenals. The United States is fine with this, as it has revealed more about its nuclear weapons than other countries.

For years, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons has urged the Australian government to join the international mainstream in supporting negotiations on a comprehensive nuclear weapons ban – a nuclear weapons convention. But it has refused to do so, insisting that it is premature and would derail non-proliferation efforts.

The problem is that an incremental step-by-step approach, focused on arms control rather than elimination, is unlikely to yield desired results. Without meaningful progress towards nuclear disarmament, the threat of nuclear proliferation will only worsen. Nuclear weapons must be dealt with in the same way as other inherently inhumane weapons – through a universal ban.

Tim Wright is director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons in Australia. He has degrees in law and arts from the University of Melbourne. His research and advocacy focuses on nuclear modernisation, divestment, military spending and international humanitarian law.