Celebrating the Entry Into Force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

Disarmament and Arms Control

It is a great pleasure to be here this afternoon to celebrate such an historic occasion - the entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

This is a moment many feared would never come, but would rather remain forever an aspirational goal to be pursued by future generations of dreamers and idealists.

It is a moment for celebration, for reflection and, above all, for hope.

Today is the culmination of efforts across generations; efforts which have spanned the globe. It is a reward for the activists, academics, religious leaders, politicians and officials who never lost faith in the promise of a world without nuclear weapons.

Many, if not all, of you in this room have been involved in the campaign against nuclear weapons – some of you for decades.  Today is your celebration fully as much as it is for those 50-plus governments whose ratification of the Treaty has now brought life to it.  What has been achieved together is remarkable: I hope it will serve as a source of inspiration for tackling other seemingly insurmountable challenges ahead of the world right now.

New Zealand's place in nuclear disarmament advocacy

For most of us here, there is no need for advertisements for Steinlager or for McDonald’s Kiwiburger to remind us of the part nuclear disarmament has played in the evolution of New Zealand’s national identity and our independent foreign policy.  

The leadership role we continue to play on nuclear disarmament has its foundation in the groundswell of public opposition to nuclear weapons, triggered by nuclear testing in the Pacific. Flotillas of private vessels sailing to disrupt the French at Mururoa; tens of thousands of signatures on the petitions presented to parliament by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (NZ); and the rolling out of self-declared nuclear weapon free zones across private properties, churches and marae, as well as suburbs and entire cities. As should be the case in a democracy, New Zealand foreign policy followed closely – with Norman Kirk’s dispatch of HMNZS Otago (with Minister Fraser Colman on board) to French Polynesia in 1973, and the first of our cases against France at the International Court of Justice in the same year. 

The peace movement gathered strength in the 1980s and 1990s. As a 19 year old quite a number of my Friday nights were spent on anti-nuclear marches on Queen Street, and when then Prime Minister Robert Muldoon invited US navy vessels to Auckland we were there in sail boats and all manner of water craft to give them a Kiwi anti-nuclear welcome. The shocking bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in 1985 seared anti-nuclear sentiment into the Kiwi psyche; It was followed by the welcome establishment by treaty of a nuclear-free South Pacific in 1987; and the passage of the iconic New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Act also in that same year.  In the 1990s we tried to take France again to the International Court.  With rather more success, we voted at the United Nations in favour of securing an Advisory Opinion from the Court on the legality of nuclear weapons – and then, supported by a strong showing of New Zealand civil society, lodged strong arguments with the Court on their illegality.

Our advocacy for nuclear disarmament has continued at the UN, at all meetings of Parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and in the context of our strong support for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty adopted in 1996.  Most recently - just last month - I spoke (virtually) at the first ever meeting of Parties to the Treaty of Rarotonga to reinforce New Zealand’s staunch commitment to the elimination of nuclear weapons.

We have worked for many years with our partners in the New Agenda Coalition to push for legally-binding measures on nuclear disarmament.  We have worked, too, as a member of the De-Alerting Group, a grouping set up during the tenure of one of my predecessors as Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control, Hon Phil Goff, here with us tonight. to promote, as a useful transitional measure, the lowering of the launch-readiness of nuclear weapons.

More recently, earlier this past decade, we were one of the original group of 16 countries launching the Initiative on the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons.  As many of you will know, this Initiative played a critical role in putting the spotlight back on the very real human cost and risk which nuclear weapons entail.  The most telling part of the Initiative’s ‘mission statement’ is that “it is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances.”  I don’t think there’d be any New Zealander who would disagree with that conclusion.  Importantly, it was this Initiative which laid the foundation for the negotiation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons – the cause of our celebration this evening.   

Nuclear disarmament: the current situation

Underlying the activism on disarmament by both New Zealand Governments as well as civil society from the 1970s through the 1990s was the clear and present danger posed by regional and world events at the time – the horrors of nuclear testing in the Pacific, the exponential growth of nuclear stockpiles as a result of the Cold War arms race, and the very real fear of a nuclear conflagration. In fact, government-sponsored polling in the mid-1980s revealed nuclear war to be the threat that New Zealanders were most concerned about.

In comparison to this period, however, attention and activism on nuclear disarmament in recent decades has been relatively subdued, with the focus more heavily on looming environmental catastrophe including the overwhelming impacts of climate change.

And yet, our work on nuclear disarmament is far from over. There are still more than 13,000 nuclear weapons in the arsenals of nine states – with the US and Russia accounting for approximately 12,000 of them.  That’s more than enough to end life on this planet many times over. Reductions in the stockpile have slowed; and in a concerning trend, some nuclear powers are now increasing the size of their arsenals.

Nuclear risks are widely understood to be increasing, alongside the deterioration of the global security environment and the ongoing threats to multilateral institutions and the international rules-based order.

In the past few years, major military powers appear dismissive of the contribution that disarmament and arms control can make to the building of trust and confidence and the reduction of international tensions. Instead, they have walked away from numerous multilateral and bilateral agreements that played an important role in preserving the international security environment.   

Global tensions and mistrust have increased the prospect of miscalculation and escalation. Nuclear-armed states have developed military doctrines that contemplate the use of nuclear weapons in a growing number of circumstances, while continuing efforts to develop and deploy new types of nuclear weapons that would seem to lower the threshold for a nuclear conflict.  Public statements about the deployment of so-called “tactical”, “low-yield” or “more survivable” nuclear weapons – some of which are yet more powerful than the devastating bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – indicate a deeply troubling shift away from the wisdom contained in the Reagan-Gorbachev maxim that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”.

At the same time, the prospect of human error has not disappeared and there is no shortage of documented “near misses” involving nuclear weapons to serve as a reminder of how close the world has come to nuclear catastrophe. Technological developments are further contributing to the already significant risks associated with nuclear weapons.

Against this backdrop, it is clear that nuclear weapons continue to pose as much of a threat – if not a greater threat – than they did during the height of the Cold War. Yet, while the major powers were at that time willing and able to conclude landmark agreements intended to halt the arms race and progress nuclear disarmament, they argue now that the current environment is not conducive to such developments.  

New Zealand recognises the challenges posed by the current international security environment – indeed, we work tirelessly in support of broader efforts to uphold the international rules-based order and multilateralism, and to address specific proliferation challenges including Iran and North Korea.  

But we cannot entrap ourselves in a catch-22 scenario whereby progress on disarmament is made contingent upon improvements in the broader security context – at the very same time as that context is actually being aggravated by the absence of such progress.

As we have stated previously with our New Agenda Coalition partners, “there is a direct causal link between the retention of nuclear weapons and possible attempts to acquire them. The dynamic of an arms race has always been that possession provides the incentive for acquisition; proliferation begets proliferation.” 

It is a grim and unsettling outlook that explains why the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is needed now more than ever.

And it is why today it is so encouraging that the Biden Administration has announced it is seeking a five year extension of the New START treaty with Russia.  Without this the treaty would have lapsed in February, removing any limit on the number of Russian and US nuclear-armed submarines, bombers and missiles, with all the consequences that would have for a nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament.

It is our sincere hope the new Administration will re-engage seriously on nuclear disarmament, and carry forward implementation of article VI of the NPT, and recommit to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran nuclear deal). We hope that all nuclear weapons possessors will find a pathway to support and ultimately sign up to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

I referred before to other pressing global issues, such as climate change, which have now tended to displace nuclear disarmament from the primary place it has held on the agenda for many activists over past decades.  Within New Zealand, I think it’s clear that the end to nuclear testing in the Pacific has seen an overall decline in the public and media focus directed at issues relating to nuclear disarmament. 

I want to reassure you, however, that the Government’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon-free world will continue.  Whether or not it may be in the forefront of their minds, New Zealanders remain firmly opposed to weapons we see both as most inhumane, and also now illegal.

I can count on all of you here to know exactly why I am referring now to these weapons as “illegal”.  The Treaty of which we are today celebrating the entry into force – the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons – follows in the path of many other highly significant treaties (like those relating to Chemical and Biological Weapons and those dealing with Landmines and Cluster Munitions).  For those countries who join the TPNW nuclear weapons are from now on – in all contexts and for all purposes – illegal as a matter of international law. 

The Treaty has therefore closed what was often referred to as the ‘legal gap’ on nuclear weapons: it has given us the legal framing for a nuclear weapon-free world.     

Let me give you a very brief outline of some key provisions of the TPNW.  Article 1 of the Treaty establishes a comprehensive prohibition – applicable to any State joining the Treaty - against the full spectrum of nuclear weapon-related activities.

Article 2 is a transparency measure.  Declarations are required from all States Parties as to whether or not they possess nuclear weapons anywhere on their territory.  New Zealand will shortly be sending its Article 2 Declaration in to the UN Secretary-General - and I don’t need to tell you that it won’t entail any difficult legal drafting! 

Article 3 requires Parties to maintain the same standard of nuclear safeguards that they have in place under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or, if they do not already have an IAEA comprehensive safeguards agreement in place, they must proceed to do so.   

Articles 6 and 7 deal with “Victim Assistance and Environmental Remediation”. Article 6 requires Parties whose persons or territory have been affected by the use or testing of nuclear weapons to provide adequate assistance (including medical care and psychological support) and to take appropriate measures towards the environmental remediation of contaminated areas.  These obligations are without prejudice to the duties and obligations owed by any other States.   

Article 7 provides that Parties in a position to do so must provide assistance to other Parties that have been affected by nuclear weapons or nuclear testing and for their victims.  It also recognises that a Party that has used or tested nuclear weapons has a responsibility to provide adequate assistance for the purpose of victim assistance and environmental remediation.

Ladies and gentlemen - that’s a very quick and, necessarily, selective overview of the TPNW. 

We are proud to have played our part in bringing this Treaty to life.  In doing so, it was certainly a privilege to work alongside other likeminded countries and for us all to be able to draw on the commitment and vision of global civil society – led by the Nobel prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons – as well as that of international organisations like the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Today is an important milepost on the road to nuclear disarmament. Of course the nuclear armed states are not going to relinquish their nuclear arsenals tomorrow.

But when an overwhelming majority of the community of nations, global civil society, scientists, faith leaders, and public opinion all say that nuclear weapons are not only morally and ethically wrong but wrong and prohibited under international law, then it becomes more difficult to sustain the argument that they make us safer.

It also becomes more difficult for members of the nuclear club to talk as if they are meeting their disarmament obligations under the NPT, while at the same time modernising their arsenals and allowing hard-fought disarmament agreements to lapse.

The future

In committing to champion this Treaty and to advocate for its universalisation and implementation, New Zealand will, at the same time, be maintaining our full support for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  We will work with all its Parties to achieve a meaningful outcome from this year’s Review Conference – and will continue our collaboration with the cross-regional groups of which we are a part and which share our commitment to moving forward on nuclear disarmament.  We will continue, too, our committed advocacy for the entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.  

But, rather than look too much into the crystal ball of the future, for now I would like to close by registering New Zealand’s pleasure, in company with so many of our Pacific Island partners, to be among the first 50 ratifiers of the TPNW – part of the grouping, therefore, which has secured its entry into force - today.  Please join me in putting your hands together in tribute to all the mahi by so many people over so many years to produce this historic achievement.

Note to editors: Please note that the speech as delivered may differ slightly from this text.