Nuclear weapons – where are we at? The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

It is a pleasure to be with you today and to have the opportunity to talk to you about New Zealand’s disarmament efforts, in particular our advocacy against nuclear weapons.

For some of you it may be surprising – and no doubt incredibly disappointing – that some 77 years after nuclear weapons were used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we are still pursuing nuclear disarmament. I want to talk to you today about why that is, why New Zealand remains committed to the achievement of a world without nuclear weapons, and why we must continue to pursue it with greater urgency than ever.  I also want to give you a broader overview of our disarmament work and how it fits within New Zealand’s foreign policy – while nuclear weapons are among the greatest challenges we are facing, they are by no means the only ones.

It is probably helpful to start with a snapshot of where we are right now with respect to nuclear weapons and our broader disarmament efforts.

It will not be news to any of you that the picture is grim.

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 unprovoked, unjustified and illegal invasion of Ukraine.  Russia’s so-called “referenda” and purported annexations in eastern and southern Ukraine constitute a new and additional act of aggression and a breach of fundamental rules of international law. Its conduct of the war has violated many principles of international humanitarian law, causing devastation and unacceptable suffering to Ukraine’s civilian population and infrastructure.

President Putin seems oblivious to the calls of the international community to cease Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, withdraw troops and return to diplomatic negotiations as a pathway to resolution of the conflict. Instead he appears intent on escalation, with his nuclear threats raising the risk of nuclear war to its greatest level in many decades and trashing the negative security assurances that had been given to Ukraine. The resultant tensions, and Russia’s spoiling tactics, have paralyzed numerous multilateral fora – including a number of fora central to our disarmament efforts. 

Of course, Europe is not the only part of the world facing serious security challenges. Conflict continues around the world, including in Myanmar, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Syria. We are confronted by North Korea’s continuing ballistic missile and nuclear programmes in contravention of UN Security Council resolutions, its recent launch of a missile over Japan, and reports that it is preparing for a further nuclear test. These actions demonstrate a reckless disregard for international rules, and pose a serious threat to New Zealand’s security. China has become more assertive in pursuit of its interests.

The list of challenges goes on and, quite frankly, can seem overwhelming. Indeed, in 2022, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has once again determined that humankind is only 100 seconds to midnight – keeping the doomsday clock the closest it has ever been set to destruction. The Bulletin, which does not come to its conclusions lightly, has made this assessment because of the twin threats to humanity: nuclear annihilation and the climate crisis.

Rather than throw our hands up in despair, we view our current predicament as a call to action.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has made clear New Zealand’s strong view that the legacy of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine must not be an arms race, or a more polarised and dangerous world. What is needed is an equal commitment to international institutions, multilateral forums and disarmament.

But rather than realising the security dividends history has proven can accrue from nuclear arms control and disarmament measures – such as those agreed by Krushchev and Kennedy, Regan and Gorbachev – the nuclear weapon states and many of their allies are doubling down on deterrence.

They argue that this challenging global security environment means it is not the time to be pursuing nuclear disarmament and arms control. They suggest that the conditions are not right for disarmament, and they need to feel safer and more secure before they can pursue a reduction in their nuclear arsenals or adjust their reliance on them.

This argument is a threat not just to progress on nuclear disarmament, but also to global efforts to stop the spread or proliferation of nuclear weapons. After all, if the most powerful militaries in the world need nuclear weapons to feel safe, why shouldn’t everyone else have them too? 

This is not an argument New Zealand can subscribe to, not only because of our international and domestic legal obligations but because of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. More nuclear weapons – whether in the hands of the existing nuclear weapons states or others – will not make us safer.

Indeed, it is the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons that has inspired New Zealand’s ongoing and unequivocal opposition to them. For over half a century, France, the US and the UK collectively tested more than 300 nuclear weapons in the Pacific, devastating communities and ecosystems, and driving Pacific people from their homelands. The groundswell of public opposition in New Zealand to this testing set us on our path of global activism against nuclear weapons, and provided the firm foundation for the laws and policies that have become part of New Zealand’s DNA.

Many of you will remember this period and perhaps were active in it.

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.

This is a history we can be proud of, and one that continues to resonate today.

Indeed, our advocacy for nuclear disarmament has continued at the UN, at all meetings of Parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, and – most recently – in our promotion of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

I would like to touch briefly on two of these treaties now – the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (the NPT) and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

The NPT was adopted in 1968 with three objectives – to prevent the spread of nuclear weapon and weapons technology, to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament. It reflected rising fears after the Cuban Missile Crisis and a recognition that serious efforts were needed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and to end the nuclear arms race.

Of course the NPT was – and remains – far from perfect. The NPT established a two-tier system of Nuclear-Weapon States and Non-Nuclear Weapon States. The former were the five countries that had made and exploded nuclear weapons prior to January 1967—China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States. All other States had to either forego nuclear weapons, or not belong to the NPT and thus miss out on its benefits. This discriminatory system was agreed to by almost every country in the world because of the grand bargain struck in the Treaty’s provisions. In return for non-nuclear weapon states agreeing never to acquire nuclear weapons, those five countries that already possessed them agreed to multilateral negotiations to achieve nuclear disarmament.

The NPT’s discriminatory structure has been persistently criticised, as has its failure to establish a permanently resourced body to monitor and ensure implementation of its nuclear disarmament obligation. The consequences of this failure are significant.

There are still some 13,000 nuclear weapons in existence, with some of them on high alert meaning they can be launched at a moment’s notice. The decades-long trend of nuclear stockpile reductions is on the verge of reversal. All nuclear weapon states have modernisation programmes under way, with billions of dollars invested in plans for the long-term possession of nuclear weapons. The military doctrines of these states, and their alliance partners, continue to reflect an undiminished reliance on nuclear weapons. And no progress has been made on bringing the four states that possess nuclear weapons outside the NPT within (or back within) its fold – India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. 

Following the failure of the most recent NPT Review Conference to agree an outcome – which was blocked by Russia in the final hours of the month-long meeting – the Treaty is in real trouble. The draft outcome that was on offer fell far short of New Zealand’s aspirations on nuclear disarmament but did contain some opportunities for forward movement, in particular on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and on the push for greater transparency and accountability on the part of the nuclear weapon states. The forthcoming review cycle of the Treaty will need to demonstrate some real progress on these issues – and on the concrete steps needed for reductions in nuclear arsenals – if the grand bargain at the heart of the NPT is to retain any credibility. New Zealand will remain actively engaged in the NPT, in particular on efforts to build pressure on the nuclear weapon states to implement their Article VI obligations and to be held accountable for those efforts.

In contrast to the NPT, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has burst into life. Negotiated and adopted in 2017, the TPNW entered into force in January 2021. For those states that have joined the TPNW, nuclear weapons are illegal – their development, possession, use, threat of use, indeed every aspect of nuclear weapons is prohibited. The TPNW also requires its states parties to adopt and maintain safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency, thereby strengthening the nuclear non-proliferation regime established under the NPT. And it includes important provisions to address the humanitarian and environmental harm caused by nuclear weapons. 

Noting the strength of the TPNW’s provisions it is no surprise that it was not been welcomed by the nuclear weapon states and their allies. After all, it leaves no grey area for parties to declare their opposition to nuclear weapons and then continue to possess or rely on them. And it provides a powerful tool to build public and political pressure on the nuclear weapon states and their allies to join the rest of humanity and prohibit nuclear weapons.

I am pleased, however, that most of the Treaty’s opponents seem to be calibrating their approach. This is appropriate, given the constructive first meeting of states parties to the Treaty which took place in Austria in June 2022. That meeting adopted a powerful Political Declaration – widely viewed as the strongest ever UN statement against nuclear weapons – and put in place an ambitious plan of action to achieve the Treaty’s objectives.   New Zealand will continue our active role in the TPNW, including as the co-chair of the workstream on nuclear disarmament verification and as a strong supporter of the work led by Kiribati and Kazakhstan on victim assistance and environmental remediation.

This latter work aligns with another key element of New Zealand’s work on nuclear disarmament, namely addressing the nuclear legacy issues in the Pacific. This is a long-standing and complex challenge which is beginning to achieve the global attention it deserves. Already an important aspect in the domestic and bilateral policies of the affected Pacific Island states, it has also been on the agenda of the Pacific Islands Forum for many years. In 2019 the Forum established a Task Force on Nuclear Legacy Issues which New Zealand has been pleased to join. We are strong supporters of its efforts to commence a region-wide collation of existing studies on the environmental and health effects of nuclear testing, with a view to commissioning any further research needed to address outstanding issues.

New Zealand is also pleased that nuclear legacy issues are receiving attention in a growing number of fora.  They were key themes not just at the first Meeting of States Parties to the TPNW but also at the 2022 NPT Review Conference. And nuclear legacy issues were also a topic of great interest at the Human Rights Council this year, with the Marshall Islands bringing a resolution on their own experience to that forum. New Zealand was honoured to cosponsor that resolution and we look forward to continuing to build the momentum needed to address nuclear legacy issues in the Pacific and beyond.

As my remarks today have no doubt shown, nuclear weapons are a core priority for New Zealand’s disarmament strategy, and indeed for our wider foreign policy. But achieving their elimination is by no means our only focus. We are also strong supporters of efforts to ensure a world free of all other weapons of mass destruction. We have a busy period ahead of us in this regard with review conferences coming up for both the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention. Given the challenges facing the international community, neither of these conferences will yield easy results.

Conventional weapons, too, continue to have a devastating impact on communities globally. In 2006, then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan labelled them weapons of mass destruction as a result of the carnage they inflict every year.

New Zealand is active across the conventional weapons agenda, which aligns closely with our broader pursuit of peace and security. We remain strong supporters of the treaties prohibiting cluster munitions and anti-personnel landmines, and were devastated to see new use of these inhumane weapons in Ukraine this year. We also remain committed to the Arms Trade Treaty, which regulates the international trade in conventional arms and aims to reduce the number of victims of armed violence.

A particular focus for us in recent years has been the negotiation of a Political Declaration to reduce harm to civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Statistics show that, when such weapons are used in urban or densely populated areas, 90% of the victims are civilians. At the same time, such weapons cause catastrophic damage to essential civilian infrastructure including hospitals, energy supplies, schools and transport networks, meaning suffering continues long after the conflict has ended. New Zealand has been a member of a core group of countries raising awareness of this issue since 2015 and we are thrilled that, under Ireland’s leadership, a political declaration text was agreed in June this year. The Declaration will be adopted in Dublin on 18 November and New Zealand is actively promoting its uptake in the Asia-Pacific region in particular.

Weapons of war are also 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 or 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. That is why we have confirmed New Zealand’s support for new, legally-binding prohibitions, rules and limits on autonomous weapons systems.

Now, given the sheer volume and scale of challenges before us, you may be asking what New Zealand can possibly hope to achieve. On our own, the honest answer to that question would be not a lot. But we do not work alone and so can be much more ambitious in our aspirations. Our disarmament agenda sees New Zealand operate across a number of diverse cross-regional coalitions involving states, international organisations and civil society partners.

On nuclear disarmament we work very closely with our New Agenda Coalition partners within the NPT – Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico and South Africa. In the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons we operate alongside a broader group of countries that also includes Austria, Indonesia, Thailand, Chile, Kiribati, Kazakhstan, Costa Rica and most of the Pacific Islands. Many of these same countries are close partners for us on Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas and Autonomous Weapons Systems. Our engagement on chemical weapons and the broader conventional weapons portfolio sees us working with our European partners, Canada, the US, Japan and Australia.

These efforts are supported by the work of many UN bodies and the International Committee of the Red Cross, as well as civil society groups and networks.  Key among these are the Nobel-prize winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), the International Campaign to Ban Killer Robots, Reaching Critical Will, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and the Cluster Munition Coalition.

Our engagements with our international partners helps keep our energy and ambition levels high, and are a constant reminder of how widely our disarmament aspirations are shared. Our cooperation is more important than ever, given the magnitude of the challenges we face across the disarmament portfolio and the limited resources we have to hand. We are not powerless or without agency, and will continue to strive towards our disarmament objectives.

What we really need, of course, is for the nuclear weapon states to step up and play their part - to stop citing the current international security as a reason why disarmament cannot be achieved and instead see it as we do – namely as an urgent call to action. The stakes are too high to do otherwise.