Nuclear Weapons now Illegal


The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons entered into force in January. As a nuclear-endorsing nation, Australia's signature is critical to the process of turning the tide against these inhumane weapons.

By Gem Romuld, Australian Director, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, Australia

Like countless people and organisations since the invention of nuclear weapons, the overall mission of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is to eliminate nuclear weapons, no small feat. To that end, we’ve helped bring about a treaty that prohibits these weapons, in a similar way to how biological and chemical weapons, landmines and cluster munitions are banned. An international prohibition is critical to the process of getting rid of an inhumane weapon, clarifying it’s illegitimacy for all nations. International law works incrementally over time to erode the legal, economic, political and social status of a weapon, providing new momentum and impetus for disarmament and policy change.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was adopted at the UN in 2017 with the support of 122 nations, around two thirds of all countries. Since then it has gained 86 signatories and 54 states parties, triggering its entry into force in January this year. The TPNW is now permanent international law and will continue to gain states parties and support worldwide, with the first meeting of states parties to take place in Vienna in January 2022. The nuclear-armed states are on the defensive. They hate this treaty because it puts them on wrong side of history and the wrong side of humanity.

There remain 9 nations wielding over 13,000 weapons between them, with around 94% held by Russia and the US. While the world continues to battle the devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, somehow there is always enough public money to continue or even expand nuclear weapons systems. This order of priorities is harrowing for those who have suffered or lost their loved ones. In 2019 alone, nuclear-armed states spent $72.9bn. According to research by ICAN, in France, the United Kingdom and the United States, each country’s spending on nuclear weapons could instead pay for at least 100,000 intensive care unit beds, tens of thousands of ventilators and tens of thousands of annual salaries for nurses and doctors.

Just weeks ago, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a 40% increase to the UK’s nuclear weapons cap from 180 to 260, effectively ending 30 years of gradual disarmament. This decision is a clear breach of Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which the UK is a state party. Article VI compels states to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” The Morrison Government claims the TPNW undermines the NPT, a mind-boggling falsity, especially in the face of a nuclear-armed state increasing its stockpile. Now, Morrison is silent on the UK’s violent posturing?

What role does Australia play? The Australian Government is still part of the problem, in claiming a role for nuclear weapons in our defence policy. The notion of “nuclear deterrence” is illegal under the treaty. This concept legitimises nuclear weapons and says that they are OK to use, somewhere, some day. However, the government’s position is contested. 88 federal parliamentarians from all parties have pledged to work for Australia to ratify the ban, and federal Labor has committed in policy to sign and ratify in government. This policy commitment was reaffirmed during Labor’s special platform conference in March, 2021.

The Treaty has already been effective in exposing Australia’s complicity with the nuclear weapons problem, a feature of our foreign and defence policy that received little attention before the TPNW was negotiated. In joining the ban, Australia will demonstrate to our regional neighbours and all nuclear armed states that it is serious about nuclear disarmament. Nuclear-armed states claim they must possess nuclear weapons for the benefit of their allies. It’s time we discontinued this dangerous arrangement. 

The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs recently circulated a “note verbale” to missions in New York stating that the first meeting of states parties to the TPNW will occur from 12-14 January 2022 in Vienna, Austria. As per the terms of the treaty, all states may attend as observers, if not states parties. Australia will soon be making a decision whether to attend and engage. The right thing to do is to ratify and attend as a state party, with full participation in decision-making and debate. Australia must at least observe the first meeting of states parties this coming January.

The President-elect of the meeting of states parties is Alexander Kmentt, Director of the Department for Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-proliferation in the Austrian Foreign Ministry. He recently addressed a room of parliamentarians via zoom for the second event hosted by Parliamentary Friends of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Co-chaired by Ged Kearney MP, Senator Jordon Steele-John and Ken O’Dowd MP, the group is a “non-partisan forum for MPs to meet and interact with nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation advocates on matters relating to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and to discuss ways to ensure the Treaty's success into the future.” Kmentt welcomed the opportunity to speak with parliamentarians, saying “this is international law and it cannot be ignored… This is a global issue and every state has a stake”.

Nuclear weapons are never an acceptable means of defence. Determined not to become nuclear targets, more than 1,600 cities and towns worldwide have joined the call for their national governments to join the TPNW. Endorsers include LA, Washington DC, Paris, Geneva, Berlin and Manchester. In Australia, 35 councils have declared their support for the ban including Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Port Adelaide, Mt Isa, Fremantle, Hobart and most recently, Shoalhaven City Council. Earlier this week, upon petitioning by Unions Shoalhaven, the council passed a motion to support the TPNW with 12 votes in favour and 1 against. Cr Bob Proudfoot said “what this does is put pollies around the world on notice. Russia, UK, North Korea, you better get together and start talking about it.”

Opinion polls demonstrate that 70-80% of the public want our government to sign and ratify the nuclear weapon ban treaty. This is not controversial with the people, they are on board.

If we don’t get rid of them, nuclear weapons will be used again. And the consequences will be catastrophic. This treaty is our best chance to get rid of our worst weapon, and Australia’s signature is critical.

Header photo: Canberra celebrates the entry into force of the TPNW at the Rotary Peace Bell. David Flannery

[Opinions expressed are those of the author and not official policy of Greens WA]