Remarks to Diplomatic Corps
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It is a pleasure to be with you all this evening.
Some of you may have been surprised when you received an invitation from the Minister of Disarmament and Arms Control, and I would forgive you if you were. New Zealand is unique in having established a Ministerial portfolio for this area of our foreign policy, and I’m really enthusiastic about the challenges the work brings.
That we have this dedicated portfolio reflects the importance that successive governments – as well as the New Zealand public – place on the issue. It dates back to a time in our modern history when New Zealand and our neighbours reacted with disgust to the destructive and toxic effects of nuclear testing of in the Pacific.
Can I take a moment to specifically acknowledge our Pacific colleagues, whose countries continue to provide a strong voice on nuclear disarmament, and who continue to raise the legacy consequences of nuclear testing. I want to underline New Zealand’s support for a proper process in dealing with these legacy issues once and for all.
If you ask me, disarmament no longer gets the profile it deserves. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists don’t come to their conclusions lightly, and in 2021 they have again determined that humankind is only 100 seconds to midnight – the nearest the doomsday clock has ever been set to destruction. The Bulletin makes this assessment because of the twin threats to humanity: nuclear annihilation, and the climate crisis.
They make this assessment because there are still more than 13,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Nearly 2,000 of these are kept in a state of high operational alert, meaning they can be launched at a moment’s notice.
Many of you in this room tonight represent governments that continue to field nuclear weapons. Some of you have extensive – and eye-wateringly expensive – programmes underway to replace and modernise these weapons, or in some cases expand your arsenals.
And many of you will also know that New Zealand is a key proponent of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. For some of you, our positions when it comes to this Treaty couldn’t be further apart.
But I want to make the point that New Zealand’s support for the Treaty, and the support from the 54 other countries that have ratified, is due in large part to intense and sustained frustration at the nuclear weapons States for failing to deliver on their Article VI obligation to disarm.
The TPNW is now a legal reality. In January this year it entered into force. Fifty-five countries have ratified the Treaty, and many more are expected to do so over coming years as it progresses through respective legislatures. 122 countries voted in favour of the Treaty’s adoption at the United Nations in 2017. This is significant.
We know for many of the nuclear weapon states that membership of this treaty is out of the picture right now, and realistically it will be for many years to come. But I would just encourage you to keep an open mind when it comes to the TPNW and what we’re trying to achieve through it: the total elimination of nuclear weapons.
Our experience with other weapons of mass destruction: biological weapons, and chemical weapons have taught us that in order to turn rhetoric into action on nuclear weapons, we must first prohibit them at international law. Why would the situation be any different here?
But my portfolio is not just about nuclear disarmament, or even weapons of mass destruction. I’m also responsible for the Government’s international engagement on conventional arms issues, including those relating to emerging security challenges.
One of the reasons I’m so optimistic we can chart a course that serves all of our diverse interests on nuclear weapons is down to the impressive work on conventional weapons over the past two decades.
In the early nineties, I was involved as a campaigner in the global movement to ban landmines. At that time, governments poured cold water on the idea of stand-alone negotiations for a legally-binding treaty to prohibit landmines. And yet, today 164 States Parties are proudly parties to the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, which has set the world on an ambitious path towards being mine-free as early as 2025.
The 2000s saw the negotiation and entry-into-force of a similar prohibition treaty on cluster munitions, itself with more than 100 States Parties today; and more recently, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).
Many of your countries will be parties to these treaties, and if you aren’t yet members, I’d encourage you to consider membership. New Zealand has produced model legislation for both the Cluster Munitions Convention and the Arms Trade Treaty that we would be more than happy to share with you if that would be useful. And please take that as an open invitation for bilateral collaboration on any of these issues.
Disarmament also must move with the times, and consider new threats to peace and security.
That is why I’ve instructed my officials to work on policy around banning and regulating autonomous weapons systems, also known as killer robots.
For many of us, the idea that a computer could autonomously identify and attack a target will be unconscionable. But, at the same time, it’s also clear the existing international processes on this are not delivering.
While I hope – and indeed expect – all of our delegations to continue their best efforts to advance negotiations in Geneva, if that’s not successful, New Zealand will be looking for allies with whom we can design something truly fit-for-purpose.
If your government is as concerned about the challenge posed by the prospect of killer robots as I am, I encourage you to reach out. My door is always open!
Another emerging area of concern is the weaponisation of outer space. New Zealand is very proud to be one of 11 space launching states worldwide, and so on this we have an interesting perspective to share.
Through this programme we have a close and fruitful relationship with the United States on the commercial launching of satellites, as well as the peaceful exploration of outer space as envisaged by the Artemis Accords which our two countries recently signed.
The domestic launch framework is largely the responsibility of my colleague, Minister Nash, but I do have responsibility for international efforts to promote the responsible use of outer space.
On this, New Zealand was pleased to endorse the Resolution and approach put forward by the United Kingdom at last year’s United Nations General Assembly meetings, and welcomes the UK’s leadership in this area.
The UK, of course, is not the only country that has proposed a distinct approach here, and we commend all countries that are seriously trying to address the issue, so we can maintain outer space – in the spirit of kaitiakitanga – as a resource for our children and grandchildren to benefit and prosper from.
At the core of all of this work is the protection of civilians. The laws of armed conflict have on the whole served us well. But we are all well aware of the breaches, and the catastrophic effect they have on civilians.
A great example of efforts to strengthen implementation of existing international humanitarian law is Ireland’s work to agree a Political Declaration protecting civilians in urban conflict zones from explosive weapons.
Over the past decade, the increasingly urban nature of conflict has captured the attention of the international community, and the tragic consequences of conflicts in the Middle East have demonstrated the urgent need to better protect civilians when conflicts take place in cities and towns. Over that time, 91% of all those killed or injured by explosive weapons in populated areas worldwide were civilians; a total of 238,892 people.
You can’t look at figures like that and say the status quo is acceptable. And it’s this conviction that had led New Zealand to join Ireland, and others, at the forefront of this effort known as EWIPA (Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas). When the Declaration is promulgated later this year, I really hope your countries view and engage with it favourably.
Before inviting you all to mix and mingle, I want to return to nuclear weapons for a moment.
Consider the language we use when talking about nuclear weapons. We call them weapons of mass destruction. Their use in virtually all theatres of war have been determined by the International Court of Justice to be completely at odds with International Humanitarian Law.
Why, then, do many militaries around the world hang on to them? What are the incentives of holding on to a weapon that cannot, legally, be used in war?
I realise we aren’t going to solve this evening many of those long-standing differences in viewpoint these questions raise – but I do hope that we can work with each and every one of your delegations for the forthcoming Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference.
The NPT is one of our most significant guarantors of security. It has – through the excellent work of the IAEA and the non-proliferation community – been overwhelmingly successful at preventing nuclear proliferation. But its progress on disarmament – the other end of the ‘grand bargain’ – has in recent years been woeful. None of us can afford this treaty to come apart. And while I’m not suggesting it will, in order to take some of the heat out of the situation, we need to ensure a credible outcome on all pillars at the Review Conference.
New Zealand has – as a member of two key nuclear disarmament groups – put forward a series of concrete recommendations for the nuclear-weapon States to take on board going into next year’s Review Conference.
Firstly, as a member of the New Agenda Coalition, and latterly as a member of the Stockholm Initiative. I won’t go into the details of each here, but I do invite each of you to have a further conversation with me about what we might be able to do to cooperate and work together on each proposal.
Ultimately this is a process of reconciliation. Security is one of the most basic rights and aspirations a country can have. And we will all have different national histories and experiences that have brought us to this point.
But those differences on the whole make us stronger. They force us to be creative, and to be optimistic, in order to find solutions. And I’m absolutely certain we can find solutions and common ground here too.
And with that, I want to thank you for coming out tonight, for what I hope is an enjoyable evening as we korero in a spirit of openness, and friendship.
We all know we have differences in approach to these issues, and I expect many of you have come armed with talking points from capital. You’re not alone. My officials too have provided me with talking points! But I want to invite you all tonight, as guests in New Zealand’s house, to speak past those points and to engage as colleagues and friends.