David Lange, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and a courageous leader in the global effort to eliminate nuclear weapons, was the recipient of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s1988 Distinguished Peace Leadership Award and a long time member of the Foundation’s Advisory Council. He was honored for his commitment to creating and protecting New Zealand’s nuclear-free status. He died in New Zealand on August 13, 2005 at the age of 63. The article below by New Zealander Kate Dewes is a tribute to David Lange’s remarkable life and legacy of peace.
A few days before David Lange left home for his final journey to hospital, he phoned to encourage us in the peace movement to maintain our vigilance regarding nuclear-free policy; to thank us for our work and to say goodbye. It was also an opportunity for us to thank him for his outstanding contribution to peace both in Aotearoa/ New Zealand and the world. Between bouts of coughing and voice loss, he apologised for being too emotional when opening the Gandhi photographic exhibition in Christchurch in August 2002 — the very day he had learned he might have only a few months to live. Gandhi was his guru; India his ‘second home’ (he’d been there 28 times), and he had been determined to come.
The 200-strong audience experienced vintage Lange: no notes, a perfect balance of heart and head, enriched with personal anecdotes and humour. As he described how Gandhi was “shot dead with three shots, and died with God’s name on his lips”, the tears flowed. Full of emotion, he concluded: “We have the capacity to love and be loved. They’re pretty old fashioned words. That’s the guts of it; and that’s why I’m here tonight”.
Like Gandhi, he reminded us of the spirituality which had sustained him to withstand death threats, ridicule from the media and ostracism from colleagues and officials for his peacemaking leadership. So it became urgent to seek formal international recognition for David – our ‘giant kauri’. As a result of our nomination, 15 months later he went to Stockholm to receive the honorary Alternative Nobel Peace Prize for his “steadfast work over many years for a world free of nuclear weapons”.
As Prime Minister from 1984-1989, he travelled extensively throughout the world exploding the myths of nuclear deterrence. His government helped negotiate a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone and demanded compensation from the French for the Rainbow Warrior atrocity. He addressed the UN General Assembly three times and was the first Prime Minister ever to address the Conference on Disarmament.
The celebrated 1985 Oxford Union debate, where he argued that “nuclear weapons are morally indefensible”, was seminal in the creation of a more independent foreign and defence policy. As he warned at the time, the speech “would change everything. We would cut ourselves adrift economically, militarily, culturally — the umbilical cord to our past would be severed.” With great pride he articulated what many New Zealanders felt: “This is who we are, this is what we believe, and damn the consequences!”
The experience of leading New Zealand as the first Western-allied state to legislate against nuclear weapons bolstered him later to call for formal withdrawal from the ANZUS Treaty; rejection of the frigate purchase from Australia; reform of the United Nations; a moratorium on all nuclear tests; and respect for international law. Later, he was highly critical of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the “war on terror”.
He also championed the causes of ordinary Kiwi peace activists and citizens. In 1976 he defended Peace Squadron activists in the Auckland courts following protests against visits by United States nuclear warships. In 1990 he risked his life by going to Iraq to negotiate successfully for the release of some 30 New Zealand hostages. In 1991 he sent a statement to a US Court about the importance of “demonstration as an instrument of international political betterment”, in support of Moana Cole’s direct action against US bombers during the Gulf War.
He became a strong advocate for the Christchurch-led international campaign to obtain an advisory opinion from the World Court on the legal status of nuclear weapons. He officially launched the World Court Project in Auckland in 1992, and led the challenge to the National government to argue strongly for their illegality in the World Court. In 1996 the Court confirmed that it was generally illegal to threaten or use nuclear weapons.
There is a need for David Lange’s peace legacy to be formally documented so that future generations can be inspired by his visions for a nuclear free and peaceful planet, his intellectual understanding of issues of disarmament, and how small states can make a difference.
One of my daughters, who was six when she first corresponded with David in 1989 opposing the frigate purchase, was able to thank him recently for giving her the courage to become a youth outreach worker for the Peace Foundation, and to address a youth rally of 3,000 in Hiroshima.
With the nuclear-free legislation again under threat, let us be sustained by David’s powerful closing words from his Oxford Union debate speech: “The appalling character of nuclear weapons has robbed us of our right to determine our destiny and subordinates our humanity to their manic logic. They have subordinated reason to irrationality and placed our very will to live in hostage. Rejecting the logic of nuclear weapons does not mean surrendering to evil; evil must still be guarded against.
“Rejecting nuclear weapons is to assert what is human over the evil nature of the weapon; it is to restore to humanity the power of the decision; it is to allow a moral force to reign supreme. It stops the macho lurch into mutual madness.”
(David Lange, Nuclear Free: The New Zealand Way, Penguin, 1990).
Kate Dewes is a Christchurch based peace educator and campaigner. She holds a doctorate in peace studies. Website: www.disarmsecure.org