Matters of Urgency

25 October 2022

I think we can all appreciate the ambition for a world that is free of nuclear weapons. All of us in this place have been unanimous in our condemnation of Russia’s brutal, illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. And it’s incredibly concerning that Russia has threatened to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine. Indeed, the escalation of Russia’s invasion is what has, in many ways, restarted the conversation about nuclear weapons and efforts to disarm. Recently, Russia deliberately obstructed progress at the 10th review conference of the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons treaty.

The Assistant Minister for Trade, Senator Tim Ayres, led Australia’s delegation to the conference in New York and affirmed Australia’s strong commitment to the treaty. After four weeks of negotiations, all parties were ready to agree to a meaningful and balanced outcome across the treaty’s three pillars, which are disarmament and the non-proliferation of and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Russia’s obstruction made an already difficult job unachievable, and hindered progress towards a safer world free of nuclear weapons.

But of course, concern about the proliferation of nuclear weapons is not isolated to Russia. Just a few days ago, the Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, and his Japanese counterpart condemned North Korea’s ongoing development of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons in the hands of states which show no regard for international rules based order is of particular concern to Australia and our allies. This brings me to why the government cannot support the motion that is before the Senate today but share’s the ambition of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. But we must acknowledge the practical barriers that do stand in the way.

In order to sign the treaty, we must ensure an effective verification and enforcement architecture. Without this, any treaty isn’t worth the paper that it is written on. Perhaps most importantly, for any nuclear prohibition treaty to be successful and practical it must achieve universal support. Surely everyone in this place can acknowledge that, if Australia’s allies prohibited their own nuclear weapons while other states refused, this would be disastrous for our own national security and, indeed, international peace. To make any practical progress on disarmament, all nuclear-weapon states must be involved. Given Russia’s deliberate obstruction of efforts towards prohibition, and North Korea’s disregard for the security of the international community as it developed its own nuclear weapons, it is currently impossible to meet the criteria that would make any treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons practical.

Of course, this highlights the difficulty at the heart of this debate. Nuclear weapons pose a threat to all of us, and the world would be a safer place if they were all disarmed. But this threat is precisely why any treaty that does not include all nuclear-weapon states cannot be supported. Supporting this treaty would greatly empower those states which maintain their nuclear capabilities and present a grave threat to the international order. I understand the motivation for this motion, I admire its ambition and I hope it is one day realised. But the practicalities of achieving a nuclear weapon-free world mean we cannot support this motion.