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Australia's role in disrupting a nuclear weapons ban

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 10 May 2017

So I will address my comments briefly to the unanswered questions on notice. They were placed on the Notice Paper on 17 March. The custom in this place is that within 30 days the Senate is provided with a reply, and that has not occurred. Senator Brandis has failed to provide the Senate with any satisfactory explanation as to why these questions remain unanswered. The substance is the decision by the Australian government, I would argue, an unprecedented decision, under longstanding policy by both Liberal and Labor governments to participate in good faith in negotiations at the United Nations level to work towards the elimination of the existence of nuclear weapons. And it is a remarkable lapse -

Senator Ian Macdonald:  Madam Deputy President, on a point of order on the grounds of relevance: the motion is to take note of the answer given by Senator Brandis. It had nothing to do with the United Nations. It had nothing to do with violence. Senator Brandis's answer, as I heard it, was simply to say that his office had not been contacted. Senator Ludlam can debate why Senator Brandis's office was not contacted, that he does not have efficient system, or the minister he is representing did the wrong thing. That would be part of a legitimate debate, but talking about the United Nations has nothing to do with the answer given by Senator Brandis.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT:  Thank you, Senator Macdonald. That is very similar to the point that Senator Brandis raised and I have already made a decision in relation to that. Please continue, Senator Ludlam.

Senator LUDLAM:  This is starting to stray very close to disrespecting the ruling that you gave quite some time ago.

An opposition senator interjecting—

Senator LUDLAM:  Yes, it is.

Senator Ian Macdonald:  You have got to follow the standing orders.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT:  Order!

Senator LUDLAM:  Between them, you might learn something, 
Senator Macdonald, if you just keep your trap shut.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT:  Senator Ludlam, please direct your comments to the chair.

Senator LUDLAM:  I am in enough trouble as it is, I will do so. Nine nations between them, today, hold more than 15,000 nuclear weapons in their arsenals. And some of them—most of them—are vastly more powerful than the weapons that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Australia was one of the founding nations of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. It was signed in 1968 and it came into effect in March 1970. Today, there are 190 signatures to that international agreement, and I am proud that Australia is one of them. There are actually only nine states in the world left that remain outside this international agreement. These are countries such as South Sudan, North Korea, Pakistan, India and Israel. These countries have turned their backs on the international rules-based order and insist on maintaining and deploying these weapons, despite global international agreement as far back as the late 1960s that these devices should be abolished. But Australia has remained a part of this agreement. And I would argue that over time, we have played on occasion an extremely confused role but, on some occasions, a really important and constructive role, particularly under the Labor governments and under Labor prime ministers and foreign ministers. But there are some achievements that you could notably point to on the other side as well.

Article 1 of the nuclear nonproliferation agreement goes to importance of nonproliferation—no transfer. It is one of the reasons that Australia has signed up to—what I would argue would be an ineffective, nonetheless they are there at least on paper—agreements that we will not sell uranium to states that will then divert that material into nuclear weapons. It is a documented fact that Australia sells to many nuclear weapon states. We sell uranium from South Australia and from the Northern Territory, from a dwindling number of uranium mines to nuclear weapon states—we do that. But there are processes on paper that are meant to safeguard against diversion of that material into nuclear weapons programs. We would argue that simply tipping Australian uranium into a bucket, and then tipping out a certain amount for civil nuclear power and a certain amount for nuclear weapons is thoroughly ineffective. But those agreements stand for a reason: that uranium remains today the only fuel for an energy source that is also a source for weapons of mass destruction.

Article 1 of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty says no to the proliferation of technology that would allow countries to do what North Korea or India did, which was take these devices, these plants, these processing facilities, meant the civil nuclear power and immediately—not through any change of technology but really just a flick of a policy switch—turn those facilities over to fissile material production for nuclear weapons programs. The nonproliferation regime has, when compared with some of the more dire predictions from the fifties, sixties and seventies that proposed that maybe by now, by 2017, we would have 20 or 30 countries deploying nuclear weapons, ensured there is a much smaller number.

Article 6 of the nuclear nonproliferation agreement is, if anything, even more important. This is the article that binds nuclear weapons states and their allies, such as Australia, to participate in good-faith negotiations leading to total and complete nuclear weapons disarmament. Sometimes you could imagine, maybe, in a foreign minister's or a prime minister's office that this agreement only relates to nonproliferation—other people cannot have nukes, but we are comfortable with those who do. But, in fact, the agreement that we signed up to nearly 50 years ago says that all nuclear weapons states under this agreement are obliged to negotiate for complete and total disarmament of these weapons. That is the agreement that we signed up to.

So how are we going 47 years later with these good-faith negotiations? The first point to note is that compared to the height of the Cold War there are fewer of these weapons in the arsenals of the world's nuclear weapons states. There are fewer. Negotiations have taken place between governments of the United States and Russia—or the Soviet Union at the time—to stand down many of these weapons. That did occur. That is possible. It can happen. But are these negotiations proceeding in good faith towards disarmament? No, they are not. We know they are not because every nuclear weapons state in the world, bar none, is currently actively refreshing, renewing, redeploying, redesigning their nuclear weapons arsenals—47 years after that agreement came into effect. It does not catch rogue states like North Korea or Israel who stay outside these binding international agreements. But it should catch the policy and doctrine of states like the United States, the government of Russia and the government of China. But we know that the United States government is redeveloping nuclear weapons. We know that the government of Great Britain is proposing to rebuild its Trident submarine capability and that Russian rearmament is a matter of record. This is not good faith. This is the opposite of good faith. While negotiations are bogged down in the United Nations, the nuclear weapons states are not only refusing to disarm but actively maintaining and upgrading their nuclear weapons stockpiles.

On 6 August 1945 the United States government dropped a 16-kilotonne weapon on the people of Hiroshima in the closing days of the Second World War. Sixteen kilotonne means the equivalent of 16,000 tonnes of TNT in one device dropped from one aircraft. A device of that destructive power completely destroyed an area one mile across, killed 70,000 to 80,000 people in the blast wave and resulting firestorm, killed 30 per cent of the population of Hiroshima and created 70,000 injuries immediately. Goodness only knows how many casualties there have been over the longer term from radiation sickness. That compounds through the generations.

Over Nagasaki three days later a 21-kilotonne plutonium weapon detonated and immediately and instantly killed 40,000 people—one device dropped from one aircraft. A 21-kilotonne weapon is the largest nuclear weapon that has even been used against people, a civilian population, in a time of war—to say nothing of those devices that were tested on Australian service personnel and unwittingly on the Aboriginal people who were bombed off their lands around Maralinga and the Montebellos in the north-west of WA.

I say without reservation that Minister Dan Tehan should be congratulated by everybody in this place for doing what he could to right that historic injustice for, as Senator Brandis provided some details on in supplementary answers to Senator Lambie a short time ago, those personnel who, in service to their country, were bombed and exposed to nuclear radiation by an ally, the British government, in the 1950s and 1960s. Minister Tehan has done what the previous Labor government refused to do and what other governments have refused to do all the way back into 1950s and 1960s, which was acknowledge that those horrific wrongs were done to Australian personnel and to Aboriginal families living in the immediate area.

A 21-kilotonne weapon remains the largest used on a population in wartime.

But, in 1961, the Russian soviet government tested a 57-megaton hydrogen bomb—equivalent to 57 million tonnes of TNT; an unimaginably destructive weapon. It is the largest nuclear weapon that has ever been tested because, at about that time, global civil society had discovered the incredibly damaging effects of the global spread of nuclear fallout from atmospheric nuclear weapons testing and had begun to draw the nuclear powers back into line so that nuclear weapon testing would cease.

In 2014, a coalition of medical experts convened a conference in Vienna—a humanitarian initiative—effectively, to put before the governments of the world and global civil society the argument that, in the event of the use of nuclear weapons, the global medical community will not be able to help. There is no kind of healthcare system or emergency support structure that you can put in place to remediate the damage done to civilian populations by the effects of nuclear weapons. That message was heard loud and clear. That set in motion an open-ended working group within the United Nations setting out a process, finally, to make these weapons illegal in international law—illegal in the same way that chemical weapons, biological weapons and cluster munitions are illegal. Not everybody signs up; you do not wait for North Korea or Syria to sign up to pass an agreement like this into international law. Countries of good will get together, they craft international law and then they sign up, like Australia did with the NPT.

We have some questions for the Australian government as to why—given 47 years of what I would argue would be deliberate paralysis and the opposite of good-faith negotiations to ban these weapons and, with the first crack in the armour that we see, moves by global civil society and a majority of governments around the world to ban these weapons and to finally have them accepted and understood to be illegal tools of genocide under international law—Australia would participate in a boycott of those negotiations. How is that good faith? How is that anything other than sabotage? That, effectively, is what our questions to the foreign minister go to. That was what we wanted to see an answer to when we put these questions to the minister on 17 March.

What are the reasons for the decision by Australia not to participate in the UN conference? Were we told not to participate by the US government, because there was some heavy-duty arm twisting going on from the nuclear-weapon states and their client states in advance of the open-ended working group's determination to actually put this to the UN First Committee. Is it the fact that it settled Australian defence doctrine, in successive white papers under governments of both flavours, that Australia relies on the US nuclear weapons umbrella? Given everything that we know about the effect of these weapons—the humanitarian catastrophe that unfolds when populations are bombed by these devices—and all that we know in the many, many years since those days, three days apart, in August 1945, is it still a matter of fact in Australia's defence doctrine that we would support, under some conditions, the use of US nuclear weapons in defence of Australia? Is that why we are boycotting these talks? Is that why the US government demanded that we not participate? Did they even need to demand, or did we just fold? It is unprecedented, in my experience, that the Australian government would sit this out.

There is an argument to be made that we are better off out of the room, if all we were intending to do was sabotage the talks as we so clearly attempted. Our diplomats, what an utter disgrace—attempting to sabotage the work of the open-ended working group. Maybe it is better that we are out of the room. What would be better than that would be to be in the room, arguing in good faith for the banning of these weapons. For a nuclear umbrella state like Australia to be doing so would be of enormous consequence. 

One country after another will sign onto this agreement. The closing negotiations are occurring in June and July 2017. I intend to be in New York when that is happening. I think it is going to be an absolutely historic moment. Australia can be left behind by that—we can go under the wheels as a saboteur or, as we have been called in these negotiations, a 'weasel state'—or we can be part of the movement to bring into effect that agreement that was signed in 1970. That is where I think most Australians want us to be.

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