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Nuclear Weapons: Make Sure Australia is on the Right Side of History

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Scott Ludlam 31 Aug 2016

On 18 September 1985, just shy of 31 years ago, Senator Jo Vallentine stood and addressed the parliament for the first time. It is quite instructive reading to look back at Senator Vallentine's inaugural speech. She speaks of cuts to education budgets harming the prospects of Australian children. She speaks of cuts to the international development aid budget falling behind global targets and of some of the aid that we do give going to authoritarian regimes. She speaks of rapidly rising defence spending, particularly on overseas procurement of high-tech weapons platforms. It is actually eerily familiar.

 

And then, most significantly for our present circumstance, she says the following:

A very important concept escapes many Australians, including some politicians. It is that our country, knowingly or unknowingly, is engaged in preparations for fighting a nuclear war. There can be no mistake, no delusions and no cover-up about this very disturbing fact.

The preparations that Senator Vallentine spoke of are the same in 2016 as they were on that morning nearly 31 years ago. We still host signals intelligence and targeting facilities at Pine Gap, North West Cape and elsewhere that are directly implicated in preparations for a war that must never be fought. We host warships and strategic bombers that are nuclear capable. Our defence white papers consistently express support for the so-called nuclear weapons umbrella.

Just to be very clear about what this posture means, it is official Australian defence policy to endorse: the indiscriminate mass murder of millions or tens of millions of people, the contamination of the global food chain and gene pool, the disruption of global weather patterns and the ruination of entire countries. It is government policy to endorse that as a possibility. It will be too late to change the policy if the worst comes to pass; we have to change it now.

At the time Senator Vallentine delivered her speech, she pointed out the major shift in strategic doctrine that had taken place in the late 1970s, at least in the US. Defence planners there were moving from a doctrine of mutually assured destruction to a posture of tactical use of smaller nuclear weapons, the so-called battlefield weapons. Mutually assured destruction is a formal suicide pact in which an attack is presumed unlikely because the counter strike would reduce the aggressor's cities to radioactive ash. Both actors have to stay rational for the decades or centuries during which this hideous arrangement has to endure. There can be no accidents, no slipups, no malfunctions, no strategic miscalculations and nobody like Donald Trump within 1,000 miles of the launch codes. But what happens when this doctrine finally slips? What happens when it escalates beyond a suicide pact between the United States and the then USSR and spills into the subcontinent between India and Pakistan, between Israel and its enemies—the states it considers hostile to it—in the Middle East or East Asia? What happens then, when this doctrine finally slips? What happens when nonstate actors, who no defence planner in their right mind would consider remotely rational or subject to arguments of counter strike, acquire this technology?

We know a little bit about what happens because these weapons were used in anger in August 1945. It has been 71 years since these weapons were detonated on largely civilian populations. There have been hundreds of atmospheric and underground nuclear tests, including in my home state of Western Australia and across outback South Australia, but nuclear weapons have been used in warfare on just those two occasions. For 71 years, some geopolitical survival instinct has kept the finger off the trigger. But we should not assume that this will prevail and we should not rely on good luck or necessarily good will in the increasingly uncertain security environment that we face.

So it is with a measure of optimism that I bring to the chamber today word of the most important and hopeful progress in nuclear disarmament diplomacy in decades—that is, it is actually happening. We know what happens if one of these weapons is used based on the experience in Japan in which a bomb was exploded over Hiroshima with the energy between 12,000 and 18,000 tonnes of TNT. Just one modern nuclear weapon can have the equivalent force of close to one million tonnes. These are weapons hundreds or thousands of times more powerful than those which obliterated the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. If a single megaton nuclear weapon was detonated over a major city such as New York, a million people would die in 11 seconds, up to 2¼ million people would die over the duration. The bomb would cause a firestorm 100 times the size of Sydney's central business district—one bomb and one city is taken off the map.

At the United Nations, an overwhelming majority of states have just voted to press ahead with the measures to rid the world of more than 15,000 of these weapons that still remain deployed. Most of these countries want negotiations for a ban treaty to start next year, and Australia must back this move. This is a turning point and Australia has to be on the right side of it. We actually have in past decades acquired a decent reputation for disarmament diplomacy, for bridging the gap, for having hard conversations with allies and with those that we would not consider allies yet Australian diplomats have substantially been required by this present government to try and sabotage and block this incredibly hopeful move.

The proposal afoot is taking place through an open-ended working group which emerged out of a conference that occurred a couple of years ago to investigate the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons. It did not come from a military or strategic perspective; it came from the perspective of what happens if these devices are used one day. When they are used one day, what happens? Out of that conference has come a proposal for the General Assembly of the United Nations to commence negotiations on a ban treaty in 2017 without waiting for the nuclear weapon states to sign up. They have held up progress for 71 years and patience has started to run out. This was how the Chemical Weapons Convention was brought into being. It was how landmines, cluster munitions and biological weapons were finally banned at an international level. Nuclear weapons are the only category of weapons of mass destruction not subject yet to such an instrument. It does not eliminate them on the day on which such an agreement is signed; it stigmatises them. It shows that there is progress that the overwhelming majority of the world's people in democracies and otherwise, when polled, want these weapons abolished.

What the agreement actually says is 'that additional efforts can and should be pursued to elaborate concrete effective legal measures, legal provisions and norms that will need to be concluded to attain and maintain a world without nuclear weapons'. It also affirms the central importance of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in these efforts. What has happened? This is what Richard Lennane said in a piece in The Interpreter earlier this month:

On Friday at the United Nations in Geneva, Australian diplomats called a vote they knew they would lose, split their already modest support base in half, and enraged more than 100 other countries that had been ready to agree to a painstakingly negotiated compromise. For its trouble, Australia gained precisely nothing, and seriously damaged its credibility and influence. If it sounds like a diplomatic train wreck, it was. What on earth was going on?

I am going to make it my business in this 45th Parliament not only to find out what is going on but to work with others of goodwill across the political divide—from the crossbench, from the government, from the opposition—to change that diplomatic stand to make sure that Australia is on the right side of history. As this incredibly important and hopeful change in the international disarmament diplomacy space occurs, we have to back it and we have to make these weapons obsolete. 

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