On 7 July 2017, a United Nations General Assembly Conference adopted The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (NBT). Since then much debate has surrounded its efficacy for nuclear disarmament. This has contributed to states’ hesitance to ratify the treaty, including Australia.
The Australian Government’s position on nuclear disarmament supports a liberalist future that is free of nuclear weapons; however affirms that as long as nuclear weapons exist, Australia must rely on the protection offered by the American nuclear umbrella.
The Australian Government also declared they do not believe a fast-tracked ban on nuclear weapons will lead to their elimination. Instead, the government places their faith in the Treaty for the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which they believe has a more structured plan. They also fear the NPT could have its success detracted from by the NBT.
Are these reasons enough to validate the Australian government’s decision to not ratify the NBT?
Australia claims it needs the protection of the Extended Nuclear Deterrence of the US if it were to receive a nuclear threat or attack. Out of the nine known nuclear states comprising of the US, China, France, Britain, Russia, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea; Russia and North Korea are the only two states Australia does not have amicable relations with.
Motives behind potential attacks against Australia from either of these countries are likely to be attributed to Australia’s nuclear relationship with the US. Northeast Asian, and Russian expert, Dr Leonid Petrov of the Australian National University, has stated that Australia could become ‘collateral damage’ between the US and its enemies, due to the positioning of anti-missile defense systems in the country.
Russian President, Vladimir Putin indicated in Oliver Stone’s, ‘The Putin Interviews’, he believed Australia had lost its sovereign identity to the US, quoting, ‘I don’t see the sovereignty in Australia... You think you have it, but certainly if you get dragged into something you will be right there with America, riding the rockets’.
Despite improvement in relations between US President Donald Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, the government-run Korean Central News Agency has previously criticized Australia. The criticism lies in Australia’s continued support of joint South Korean and United States military actions against their nuclear program; stating ‘Lately, Australia is showing dangerous moves of zealously joining the frenzied political and military provocations of the US against the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea]’.
The question looms, does Australia need the protection of the US nuclear umbrella, or is this continued connection, in fact, perpetuating the nuclear threat against Australia? If the Australian government is serious about the elimination of nuclear weapons, could it step out from under the umbrella and vote against nuclear weapon states’ possession of nuclear weapons?
Moving onwards, assistant minister to the Australian Prime Minister, Senator James McGrath, stated the NBT ‘risks undermining the nuclear non-proliferation treaty by creating ambiguity and confusion through parallel obligations and by deepening divisions between nuclear and non-nuclear states’.
The NPT’s main goal is not disarmament, but rather the prevention of the spread of nuclear weapons amongst non-nuclear, and nuclear-weapon states. The NPT is able to serve as a preamble to international nuclear policy that specifically aims for disarmament, as the NBT does, as set out in it’s guidelines that bind states to ‘not develop, test, produce, possess, transfer, receive, station, deploy, use or threaten to use nuclear weapons’. The two forms of legislation can coexist.
Furthermore ‘undermining the NPT’ as stated by the Australian Government, would suggest sufficient progress had been made on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons- and by extension disarmament- to undermine, which there hasn’t. The US, China, France, Russia and the UK have each ratified the NPT, yet each of these states still possess nuclear weapons. Additionally, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea are not currently signed onto the NPT.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute released a report in 2016 that suggested all nuclear-weapon states either have the intent, or are deploying new nuclear weapon systems. The US Congressional Budget Office plans to spend approximately USD$400 billion between 2017-2026 modernizing their nuclear forces. This suggests the NPT is neither effective in the non-proliferation, nor disarmament of nuclear weapons. Which debunks any arguments that the NBT could detract from progress made by the NPT as claimed by the Australian Government.
Australia should risk losing the protection of the US nuclear umbrella, and ratify the NBT, whilst continuing its support for the NPT, as the two can co-exist. If society is to one day live in a nuclear-free world- as Australia has claimed it supports- states need to put as much pressure on the US, and all nuclear-weapon states, to disarm their nuclear weapons. The more states that can do this the better and this includes Australia.
Katherine Everest is currently studying a Bachelor of International Studies at Deakin University.