Australia yet to sign up to treaty banning nuclear weapons but will attend UN meeting as observer

Australia will attend – as an observer – a UN meeting of countries that have outlawed nuclear weapons; parties to a treaty Anthony Albanese championed in opposition and committed Labor to ratifying in government.

Government backbencher Susan Templeman’s attendance at the meeting in Vienna on Tuesday comes as a group of 55 former Australian ambassadors and high commissioners have written an open letter to the prime minister urging the government to sign up to the treaty, which outright prohibits the development, testing, production and use of nuclear weapons.

“We hope … that Labor’s commitment to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will be swiftly realised. Making meaningful gains in eliminating the most destructive weapons ever invented is as crucial for Australia’s security as it is for the security of people everywhere,” the letter, signed by the former diplomats, including Stephen FitzGerald, John McCarthy, Neal Blewett, and Natasha Stott Despoja, said.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) came into force in January last year: it has been ratified by 62 states, though not by any nuclear weapons powers.

The former Coalition government consistently rejected the nuclear weapons ban treaty, saying it would not reduce nuclear arsenals or increase security, and would undermine existing disarmament efforts.

But Anthony Albanese, now prime minister, has been a longstanding and public supporter of a Labor government signing and ratifying the new treaty.

At the 2018 ALP conference, he proposed the resolution that committed the party to sign and ratify the treaty in government.

“Nuclear disarmament is core business for any Labor government worth the name,” Albanese said. “Labor in government will sign and ratify the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.”

“I don’t argue that this is easy. I don’t argue that it’s simple. But I do argue that it’s just.”

The motion was passed, and the ALP’s formal party platform states: “Labor in government will sign and ratify the ban treaty”, contingent on ensuring an effective verification and enforcement architecture, and the ban treaty’s compatibility with the existing Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Templeman, the Labor member for Macquarie, will attend the UN meeting of states parties to the treaty as an observer only. Australia has neither signed nor ratified the TPNW: that position has not changed with the change of government.

The Guardian understands the new government wants to assess the adequacy of the TPNW’s verification and enforcement regime; its interaction with the treaty on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (that Australia is a party to); and how countries that have joined the new treaty intend to attract universal support for the outright ban.

The government will need to be satisfied on those questions before it decides to sign and ratify the treaty.

The Australian-founded International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (Ican), which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 for its work on the TPNW, said the diplomats’ open letter “demonstrates the broad support for the treaty among Australia’s foreign policy establishment”.

“It was a mistake for the previous government to abstain from the negotiations on this crucial treaty,” Gem Romuld, Ican’s Australian director, said this week.

“But it isn’t too late to join – and we expect the new government to follow through with its promise to do so.”

The diplomats’ letter argued it is unacceptable that nearly 13,000 nuclear weapons remain in the world today, more than half a century after the nuclear non-proliferation treaty came into force.

“These weapons pose an existential threat to human life.

“That threat is again underlined now by Russia’s nuclear sabre-rattling over Ukraine and, more generally, by the abysmal state of relations between the United States and its two most powerful nuclear-armed rivals. Unless we chart a new course, nuclear weapons will almost certainly be used again, with predictably catastrophic consequences.”

The diplomats argued that, by becoming a state party to the ban treaty, Australia “can work with like-minded states to help avert such a calamity – and at the same time restore its reputation as a champion of multilateral disarmament”.

“In the course of our careers, we have seen first-hand what our country can achieve on the world stage and know that Australia is at its best when it pursues a principled foreign policy – one that advances the global common good. This is a sensible and overdue step. We urge you to take it without delay.”

The TPNW is international law – it came into effect for those states that have ratified it, in January 2021. But the efficacy of a ban treaty remains contested.

Without the participation of the states that actually possess nuclear weapons, critics argue it cannot succeed.

But proponents say a nuclear weapons ban will create moral suasion – in the vein of the cluster and landmine conventions – for nuclear weapons states to disarm, and establish an international norm prohibiting nuclear weapons’ development, possession and use.

Non-nuclear states have expressed increasing frustration with the current nuclear regime and the sclerotic movement towards disarmament.

With nuclear weapons states modernising, and in some cases increasing their arsenals instead of dismantling them, more states are becoming disenchanted with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and are lending their support to an outright ban.

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