This article was originally published by the Sydney Morning Herald.
If international law as an institution is to have any relevance, it must apply to critical issues. Nuclear weapons do not fall beyond its scope – indeed they pose its most critical test.
These instruments of terror, through their ordinary use, cause indiscriminate human suffering on an unimaginable scale. They violate fundamental principles of international humanitarian law, as well as treaties protecting human rights and the environment.
Their continued existence in the thousands undermines the very notion of the rule of law, reinforcing instead a system of rule by force, whereby a small number of nations threaten to inflict mass destruction on others – and themselves to boot – to achieve political objectives.
Fifteen years ago today, the International Court of Justice – the highest legal authority in the world – declared it illegal to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons, and ruled that all nations have a duty to eliminate their nuclear forces, whether or not they are parties to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Today there are more than 20,000 nuclear weapons across the globe with an average explosive yield 20 to 30 times greater than that of the Hiroshima bomb. Roughly 2000 are maintained on high-alert status – ready to wreak havoc at any moment by accident or design.
A single nuclear bomb, if detonated on a large city, could kill millions of people. No effective humanitarian response would be possible, with most medical infrastructure in the city destroyed and any outside relief efforts severely hampered by high levels of radioactivity – a silent, scentless, invisible and persistent killer.
The only sane path is to eliminate these monstrous weapons from all national arsenals without delay. Nuclear disarmament is not just an option; it is mandated by international law. But nuclear powers and their allies, including Australia, are resisting progress towards abolition.
A comprehensive convention banning the nuclear bomb is long overdue. Australia should drive the international push for negotiations – just as the Labor Party promised it would do prior to winning government in 2007.
Similar agreements have been concluded to outlaw and eliminate other categories of weapons deemed by the international community to cause unacceptable humanitarian harm – from biological and chemical weapons to land mines and cluster bombs. All of these treaties have changed state practice and resulted in meaningful disarmament.
The New START agreement recently concluded by Russia and the United States is a move in the right direction, but it will only result in modest cuts to the two nations’ sizeable arsenals. The three other NPT nuclear weapon states – Britain, France and China – have little to show in terms of actual disarmament, and nothing much has been done to bring Israel, India and Pakistan into a multilateral disarmament process.
In spite of the support declared by some nuclear-armed states for “a world free of nuclear weapons”, all are investing heavily in the modernisation of their nuclear forces – which is incompatible with the requirements of international law.
In 2011 they will spend an estimated $100 billion between them bolstering their nuclear arsenals. This sum is equal to the UN regular budget for 50 years. According to the World Bank, an annual investment of just half that amount – between $40 and $60 billion – would be enough to meet the Millennium Development Goals to end extreme poverty worldwide.
The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons revealed this May through FOI laws that the Future Fund – which invests Australian taxpayers’ money – has holdings worth $135 million in 15 companies that manufacture nuclear weapons for the US, Britain, France and India.
These investments hamper disarmament efforts and go against the Future Fund’s own stated policy not to invest in companies involved in economic activities that are illegal in Australia or contravene conventions to which we are a party. The Fund should divest from these companies, just as it has, commendably, divested from companies that produce land mines and cluster munitions.
So long as Australia continues to claim the protection of US nuclear weapons, its credibility as a disarmament advocate will be greatly diminished. With a US president sympathetic to the cause of disarmament, the time is ideal for Australia to adopt a nuclear-weapon-free defence posture and begin contributing meaningfully towards nuclear abolition.