Speech to NZDF Command and Staff College

Disarmament and Arms Control


It’s a pleasure to join you today – and I extend a particular welcome to Marty Donoghue (a member of the Public Advisory Committee on Disarmament and Arms Control) and Athena Li-Watts (interning with me this week) who are also joining me today.

On the face of it, some people might think a Disarmament and Arms Control Minister is a fish out of water making a speech about peace on a military base. A line of questioning I’ve had more than once in some of my public engagements as Minister is why New Zealand has a defence force at all, given our strong and principled stance on disarmament.

I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. And what I wanted to say to you today is that there is no contradiction between strong, modern armed forces and being a force for peace in the world.

In fact, these two essential pieces of our foreign policy need each other. Modern armed forces I would argue must be deployed to make the world a safer and more peaceful place, and our disarmament diplomacy, to be successful, must be grounded in a realistic understanding of modern warfare.

And that’s why I’ve been looking forward to our conversation today.

In my role I’m something of a de facto Minister for Peace. People look to this role as one that will advocate for peace on the world stage – which is a goal I’m sure you all share as well. It’s a unique role which no other country has – it is mandated by our nuclear-free legislation.  

I want to provide a few remarks about New Zealand’s leadership on disarmament, situating this in the context of our broader foreign policy.  I’ll then step through some of the challenges and opportunities we face in an increasingly challenging international environment.  I’ll then turn to how our disarmamant work and the work of the New Zealand Defence Force complement each other – ultimately reinforcing the international rules based order on which New Zealand relies.

I want to keep this informal and interactive, so I’ll keep my introductory remarks as  brief as possible. And I’m looking forward to hearing from you and and my colleagues here today for a lively discussion.

Why we prioritise disarmament:

So let’s begin with why. Why, on the long list of New Zealand’s foreign policy priorites, has disarmament, particularly nuclear issues, consistently ranked so highly?

Anti-nuclear advocacy has been at the heart of our foreign policy now for 40 years. It has shaped our national identity and internationally we are known for it.

So why do we feel so strongly about this issue?

It’s existential. We are at a greater risk of nuclear catastrophe than at any time since the height of the Cold War - we need only look at Putin’s war in Ukraine or the actions of North Korea as grim examples of this reality. New Zealand’s message remains that nuclear weapons do not make anyone safer and no longer have a place in our world - and actually this reflects the view of the majority of countries. 

But let’s look at this through the lens of our broader foreign policy.

Prime Minister Ardern spoke to the Lowy Institute earlier this year, and identified three key pillars of New Zealand’s foreign policy:

  • First, our sense of collectivism or global cooperation.  This means that, in the face of global conflict and tension, we continue to position ourselves based on the principle of upholding the rules based order through multilateral institutions. And when seeking solutions to issues, be it war or dispute, New Zealand turns to these same institutions, often in the company of others who share similar values and interests.
  • Second, seeking partnerships and approaches based on our values.  We recognise that we have a moral responsibility to do our part to maintain the rules based order and that falls on each of us to defend and uphold (regardless of whether a collective approach is possible).
  • And, third, that these principles of collectivism and our values will always be shaped by our place – which is the Pacific. The Pacific is both our identity and our place in the world.

And that’s a good lens for considering how - and why - we’ve championed disarmament, and why it continues to occupy such a prominent place in New Zealand’s foreign policy. 

Our history of anti-nuclear diplomacy dates back to 1973 – the year that Mururoa Atoll became the site of France’s atmospheric nuclear testing. Prime Minister Norman Kirk ordered the frigate, HMNZS Otago, to sail to Muroroa Atoll to patrol international waters and to protest the French atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons.

Banning the bomb was baked into our DNA during the heady years of the Cold War, the anti-Vietnam War protests, and the rise of modern environmentalism. When the French decided to test their nuclear weapons in the Pacific, it sparked the rise of a mass movement for peace in New Zealand that helped propel the Lange Labour Government to power in 1984, and led to the passing of our anti-nuclear legislation in 1987. The French bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in 1985 cemented New Zealand’s willingness to campaign against nuclear weapons and, on this issue, to stand against some of our biggest and oldest friends.

And since then we have sought to use that voice in international institutions  – whether it be taking action against nuclear testing through the International Court of Justice, or more recently working actively to bring the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons to life as a new piece of international law.

We have been, and remain, prepared to speak out about something that we think is important, in pursuit of our own values and for the security of our Pacific region.

The elimination of nuclear weapons is a focus for us. But we’ve also led the way on a multitude of other disarmament and arms control intiatives such as chemical weapons or biological weapons, and the use of other conventional weapons.  Although progress on disarmament treaties can sometimes feel slow, there have been some significant milestones in recent years.

  • In 1997, The Chemical Weapons Convention came into force, banning the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons and calling for the destruction of all existing chemical weapons. The treaty has had considerable success in that about 99% of the world’s declared chemical weapons stockpiles have been destroyed.
  • We support the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, continue to play a leadership role in the agreements banning cluster munitions and regulating the arms trade, including by promoting wider adherence to these treaties, as well as trying to ensure better implementation of the Arms Trade Treaty in the Pacific.
  • And later this year, countries will sign onto a Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences arising from the use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas. The declaration's focus is to address the devastating and long-lasting humanitarian impact of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas – a development of particular import in light of Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Working in a difficult international environment:

It is a very tough environment right now to make progress on this work. The international security environment is becoming more fractured, more fraught, and more challenging to navigate.  Europe is facing war, and the relative sense of peace and stability that the region has enjoyed since World War II has been shattered by Russia’s actions. In our own region – the Indo-Pacific – we’re observing mounting pressure on the international rules-based order. We see attempts to disrupt and destabilise – even New Zealand is targeted by Russian mis- and dis-information.

 Separately China has become more assertive in pursuit of its interests. It’s a complex, challenging environment.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Putin’s nuclear threats, have raised the risk of nuclear war to its greatest level in many decades. Putin’s threats have trashed the negative security assurances that had been given to Ukraine, and weakened the norm against nuclear threats. The resultant tensions, and Russia’s spoiling tactics, have paralyzed numerous multilateral fora, not least the recent five-yearly review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

This is a very dangerous time.

New Zealand’s response to this increasingly dangerous environment is to defend the rules-based order that we rely on, and that is under threat. Our robust support for the defence of Ukraine, including through the provision of military assistance is part of that.

But as the Prime Minister said recently in her address to NATO, the legacy of the conflict in Ukraine must be a strengthening of international institutions, multilateral fora, and disarmament, and that this must go hand in hand with our current efforts to support Ukraine.

Put simply – if we are to in the future avoid conflict like we’re seeing in Ukraine, or stop the retreat from diplomacy and multilateralism we’re seeing more broadly, we need to put the effort in now, and not wait for when the international environment feels conducive to doing so.

The Defence Force and our foreign policy:

So in fulfilling New Zealand’s foreign policy goals, particularly in a challenging environment, what role does the Defence Force play?

We take great pride in the contributions the NZDF makes to addressing significant security challenges, reflecting the intrinsic link between foreign policy and defence policy. In foreign policy, as with all areas of government, its vital that all the relevant parts of the machinery of government are working towards a common goal.

Our defence contributions amplify our international influence, and provide us with channels through which we pursue New Zealand’s interests and values. Being a beneficiary of the international rules-based order means we have an obligation to support it, as well as prevention or resolution of conflicts within and between states.

  • Take New Zealand’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for example. New Zealand’s current training deployment of 120 NZDF personnel to the UK, to help train Ukrainian soldiers, has been significant. It’s a concrete demonstration of our willingness to help Ukraine defend its sovereignty, and complements our financial, legal, humanitarian, and other defence assistance provided to date.  New Zealand is playing our part to hold Russia to account for its ongoing violations of Ukrainian soveriegnty and territorial integrity
  • Another great example is NZDF’s P-3 deployments in recent years to support United Nations Security Council sanctions on North Korea – aimed at supporting the goal of the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearisation of North Korea. Deployment of defence assets augment, in a concrete way, the diplomatic efforts to encourage North Korea to denuclearise.
  • New Zealand’s commitment to peace support has also been an important element of our defence and foreign policy as a founding member of the UN.
  •  Today, our peacekeeping contributions demonstrate our steadfast commitment to promoting peace and stability around the globe. This includes our contributions to South Sudan, UNMISS, the MFO, Sinai, UNTSO, and Israel’s border with its neighbours. Historically, our operations in Bougainville, East Timor and the Solomon Islands are great examples too.

Disarmament in difficult times:

We now have decades of experience developing international law and international humanitarian law to protect civilians and civilise the conduct of warfare. Much of this has tackled particular weapons systems.

Weapons of war are evolving – and we see this in the emergence of autonomous weapons systems, or “killer robots”.  New Zealand is working with our partners to push for new international law to ban and regulate autonomous weapons systems which, once activated, can select and engage targets without further human intervention.  While the evidence suggests fully autonomous weapons systems are not yet being deployed on the battlefield, the prospect of a future where the decision to take a human life is delegated to machines is abhorrent and inconsistent with New Zealand’s interests and values.  This is why we’ve confirmed New Zealand’s support for new, legally-binding prohibitions, rules and limits on AWS.

Autonomous weapons are also a key example of the role the NZDF can play in informing both our foreign and disarmament policy, and in heeding the call to bolster the institutions of peace.

Some of you may be aware of the important role the Defence Force played in the process for developing New Zealand’s own policy on autonomous weapons, which took place last year. This included real world experience and informed predictions of the impact such weapons could have on the future of armed conflict. There was also technical advice as to the spectrum of autonomy we can expect in future weapons systems, legal advice on the ability of such systems to comply with international humanitarian law, and operation advice on what these systems might mean for interoperability, rules of engagement, and force protection.

While the final policy was ultimately a whole of government position, its clear that the NZDF had a particularly important role to play which would not easily be filled by other agencies, and indeed they remain important partners in promoting the policy to overseas partners and building momentum for new international law in this area.


So where to from here?

The world has become a very dangerous place. New Zealand’s advocacy for peace is needed now more than ever, but is being put to the test more than ever.

I’d like to see this work strengthened by a stronger working partnership between our armed forces, and our diplomats.

Many of the challenges we face today are evolving. Weapons of war, and the nature of conflict, are changing. And we need NZDF’s assistance in understanding the nature of these evolving threats. We need to keep ahead of such developments and ensure that International Humanitarian Law is strengthened to address such challenges. Building strong defence co-operation and engagement with partners is integral to promoting the safety and security of our region.

We also need to better understand how our security partners see the world – and how central nuclear deterrence is to their psychology and ideology of their decision making. The total prohibtion of nuclear weapons will depend on making nuclear deterence theory redundant and replacing it with something else.

Our collective contributions are critical to protecting the international rules based order, and realising our ambitions for a safer and more secure world. NZDF’s part remains central to this endeavour.

With that, I’d like to open to the floor to hear from you and to answer any questions that you might have.  I’m interested in your thoughts on how the Defence Force can help tackle current and future foreign policy challenges. Thank you.