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Why Australia Should Sign The UN Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty. Now.

It will help stigmatise nuclear weapons and change mindsets about retaining them, but our Government doesn't support it.

21/09/2017 1:43 PM AEST | Updated 21/09/2017 3:15 PM AEST

Nuclear annihilation was the common childhood nightmare for those growing up in the late 20th century. When the Cold War ended, the issue dropped off the public radar, to be replaced by other existential concerns such as global warning.

In the meantime, states with nuclear weapons got on with modernising their arsenals away from the glare of community awareness, and other states forged ahead with their own nuclear programs because, as noted by Australia's former UN Ambassador Richard Butler, "as long as any state holds nuclear weapons, others will seek to acquire them".

Now, two man-children possessed of odd hairdos, nuclear arsenals and twitchy fingers have brought the issue back to where it should have been all along. Uppermost in our minds.

Nuclear weapons are uniquely destructive to human health and the environment, because of the nature and extent of the devastation they cause and the ongoing radioactive fallout. Some nuclear weapons today are more than 3000 times more powerful than the atomic bombs that wiped out Hiroshima and Nagasaki 72 years ago. A single nuclear warhead, if detonated on a large city, could kill millions of people, with the effects lasting for decades.

While other destructive weapons -- land mines, cluster munitions, biological and chemical weapons -- are already banned, the most powerful of all, nuclear weapons, remain the only weapons of mass destruction not yet explicitly prohibited under international law.

"It is time for Australia to finally let go of our long-time strategic dependence on a great power, and to pursue fully independent foreign and defence policies."

This year, more than 135 other countries came together at the United Nations to negotiate a nuclear weapons ban treaty. You'd think Australia's participation in the negotiations would have been a no-brainer for the federal government, what with the Australian public being overwhelmingly supportive, with Australia's proud record of advocacy of nuclear disarmament, and with the Labor Opposition expressing its strong support.

But no. Shamefully, the Australian Coalition government turned its back on the majority of the world's nations and peoples by boycotting the nuclear ban negotiations. It claimed as justification that U.S. nuclear weapons are essential for Australia's security.

This so-called 'nuclear deterrence' policy requires rational behaviour by all those who control nuclear weapons. Do we really have confidence that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and U.S. President Donald Trump will always behave rationally in not launching an attack on other nuclear states or their allies?

The nuclear deterrence policy also assumes that nuclear weapons make the world safer, not more dangerous. Patently, the reverse is true. The production, testing and possession, let alone the use, of nuclear weapons pose inherent risks.

There have already been a number of close calls (think Cuban Missile Crisis) and accidents, including last June, when a test missile involving the British Trident nuclear deterrence program malfunctioned and veered towards the U.S. coast before self-destructing. Luckily the missile was not armed with a nuclear warhead on that occasion but the British and U.S. governments did not reveal the incident when it happened, which incidentally, was just before the UK Parliament voted on renewing the Trident nuclear program.

Channeling Kath and Kim's 'I've got one thing to say to you', the former UN Secretary-General was heard to say: "There are no right hands for wrong weapons."

John Carlson, former head of Australia's nuclear safeguards office for more than two decades, has pointed out in articles for the Lowy Institute that, as a party to the non-proliferation treaty, Australia is legally required to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to nuclear disarmament.

It is difficult to see how Australia's boycott of the nuclear ban treaty negotiations could be compatible with that obligation. Carlson also noted that:

"The world still has 15,000 nuclear weapons and the risk of nuclear war is increasing. A ban treaty is needed to re-energise disarmament efforts. The treaty will help to stigmatise nuclear weapons and change mindsets about retaining them".

Notwithstanding Australia's immoral (and likely illegal) boycott of the negotiations, the treaty text was finalised on July 7, and opened yesterday, September 20, for signature.

The treaty prohibits nations from developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, transferring, possessing, stockpiling, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons, or allowing nuclear weapons to be stationed on their territory. It also prohibits them from assisting, encouraging or inducing anyone to engage in any of these activities. Nations are obliged to provide assistance to all victims of the use and testing of nuclear weapons and to take measures for the remediation of contaminated environments. The preamble acknowledges the harm suffered as a result of nuclear weapons, including the disproportionate impact on women and girls, and on indigenous peoples around the world.

Many Australian indigenous and service personnel victims of British colonial nuclear testing at Maralinga, Emu Field and the Montebello islands in the 1950s and '60s would no doubt attest to the importance of the treaty, which will come into force upon the ratification of 50 nations.

Just as it is time for Australia to have its own head of state, it is time for Australia to finally let go of our long-time strategic dependence on a great power, and to pursue fully independent foreign and defence policies.

Our ties with the U.S. will always be close -- as Paul Keating said recently, "we couldn't shake the Americans, even if we wanted to". But surely, the time has come, particularly following the election of Donald Trump, to distance ourselves from counter-productive defence policies that are based on false assumptions, and take our place among the majority of nations as a constructive contributor to global peace.

I urge the Turnbull Coalition government to sign and ratify the UN nuclear ban treaty. If the present government fails to act, I urge the great Australian Labor Party of luminaries like Tom Uren, to convert its present support for nuclear ban treaty negotiations in Opposition into future support for the treaty in government, with a firm commitment at next year's ALP national conference to ratify the nuclear ban treaty early in its first term.

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