Speech to Disarmament and Security Centre

Disarmament and Arms Control

Kia ora tatou.

It’s great to be here today and to get a conversation going on the disarmament issues of greatest interest to you, and to the Government. I’m thrilled to be standing here as a dedicated Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control, which I hope reinforces for you all – and for our friends and partners offshore – how serious this Government is about pursuing New Zealand’s objectives in this portfolio.

I want to thank the Disarmament and Security Centre, and in particular centre coordinator Lucy Stewart for hosting this visit. And I want to especially acknowledge my old friends Kate Dewes and Rob Green who have done so much over the decades to keep hope alive. You two have contributed so much to our country’s great and honourable tradition of peace and anti-nuclear activism.

We often talk about the historical connection New Zealanders have to disarmament issues – in particular nuclear disarmament but also to the movements that banned inhumane weapons such as landmines and cluster munitions. This is, indeed, an important part of our whakapapa, and the reputation and credibility New Zealand has on disarmament issues today reflects the consistency and effectiveness of our past efforts, by both government and civil society, by grassroots movements and political parties.

It is equally important to recognise our work on disarmament is not simply an automatic continuation of what we have always done. Our movement has always adapted and changed to take on new challenges. In these times of competing priorities and strained resources, we cannot just continue to work on the same things in the same ways because it is familiar and comfortable, or because it feels good.  When we are faced with an ever expanding list of complex challenges, both internationally and at home, we must be thoughtful and practical about where we are putting our effort.

It should go without saying however that the pursuit of a world free from nuclear weapons, and a world where civilians in conflict zones are much better protected, are goals all governments should accord the highest priority.

The International Environment

But the global environment we are operating in, as it pertains to those goals, is as you will be aware far from conducive. 

The return to the tensions of the Cold War has put long-standing and important frameworks under threat, undermining New Zealand’s interests in the international rules based order as well as our own national security. Frictions between the world’s superpowers have led to many disarmament setbacks, include a new nuclear arms race, expanding roles for nuclear weapons in military doctrines, and flagrant violations of the rules and norms against the use of chemical weapons. They are also being felt in the conventional weapons space, where efforts to continue strengthening international humanitarian law are often slowed down or frustrated by broader geostrategic frictions. The rapid pace of progress in technology is a further challenge, with international concern mounting about the sustainability of outer space and the spectre of fully autonomous weaponry.

Of course the picture is not all bad. There is some cause for optimism, including the early decision of the Biden Administration, working with Russia, to extend the New START treaty and the limits it imposes on the nuclear arsenals of both countries. And the entry into force  of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has given a much-needed boost to momentum on nuclear disarmament. These developments are positive and open a small window of opportunity we must seize.

Strategic rivalries and the decline of multilateralism don’t weaken the case for urgent action on disarmament and arms control, they make it stronger.

New Zealand’s Values-Based Foreign Policy

It is against this backdrop that we develop our ambitions and plans for disarmament in 2021. Equally relevant is our domestic context, and I want to draw your attention to the speech delivered by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Honourable Nanaia Mahuta, at Waitangi. That speech laid out the Minister’s vision for New Zealand’s approach to foreign policy, and is directly relevant to our efforts on disarmament.

In particular, the Minister reiterated New Zealand’s core interests in an international rules based order, which gives all countries a voice and provides frameworks that promote stability; in keeping New Zealanders safe; and in global action on sustainability issues where solutions depend on international cooperation.

The Minister also articulated a values-based approach to our work, highlighting four values in particular:

manaaki – kindness or the reciprocity of goodwill;

whanaunga – our connectedness or shared sense of humanity;

mahi tahi and kotahitanga – collective benefits and shared aspiration; and,

kaitiaki – protectors and stewards of our intergenerational wellbeing.

These values resonate with our work on disarmament. Our policies have always reflected humanitarian values alongside the clear recognition that disarmament and international humanitarian law make a direct and concrete contribution to global security and to the safety of New Zealand and New Zealanders. This is true for our enduring work on nuclear disarmament, cluster munitions, landmines and the Arms Trade Treaty. And it is true, too, for the newer issues on which we are looking to step up our engagement - the use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas, Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (or LAWS), and the peaceful uses of outer space.

Emerging Issues – Outer Space & Autonomous Weapons

It is on two of these emerging issues – LAWS and outer space – that I’d like to focus for a moment.  At the outset I should perhaps make clear that our work on such issues is very much in progress. What I want to do here, though, is not lay out a detailed articulation of policy options, but rather give you a sense of why these issues are important for New Zealand and how I hope to move forward on them.

In many ways, these two issues are among the most challenging in the disarmament portfolio. They do not fall neatly into a category of weapons with clear definitions, nor are they able to be viewed through either a strictly humanitarian disarmament lens or one focused solely on strategic considerations. Rather, they are examples of complex public policy challenges with important legal, military, political, ethical and technical dimensions.  

LAWS, for example, raise important questions for New Zealand (and indeed for all countries) about the ability of such weapons to comply with international humanitarian law, and about the risks they might pose to regional and global stability and security, and to ethics and human rights. As a staunch advocate of IHL, we are concerned by the prospect that key decisions might be made autonomously, or delegated to machine processes. International humanitarian law must require some form of meaningful human control over weapons systems and we need measures to ensure this.  In pursuing these, however, we need to be careful to balance this against the legitimate needs of our own defence force, including their ability to work alongside international partners; and nor do we want – on the other hand – to curtail the development of autonomous technologies for commercial or civilian application, whether in health or transport.

In the same way, ensuring the safe, secure, sustainable and peaceful use of outer space will require a suite of policies that reflect our values as well as our interests. Of course we are not starting from zero, and already have a robust regulatory system governing our domestic approach to space launches and the payloads they can deliver. This system upholds our existing domestic and international legal obligations, while supporting a vibrant and growing industry. It also takes into account our increasing dependence on space-based infrastructure to support daily life and to help us tackle other challenges more effectively – be they climate change, illegal fishing, or disaster response.

It is against this backdrop that New Zealand must also start to address the complexities surrounding space debris and the utilisation of space resources, as well as concerns about the militarisation and weaponisation of space. This will again require us to take into consideration our broader foreign policy and disarmament interests as well as our commercial interests in space.  Navigating these issues is unquestionably important for New Zealand but it will be challenging.

Developing policy at the national level is not enough. Space is a great commons, and it is going to take a multilateral approach to protect it for the future.

Our position as one of only 11 countries with space launch capabilities inspires us to play an active role in developing the rules and norms that are needed to preserve the global commons of outer space for future generations.  And as a country with a strong commitment to ensuring our Defence Force is fit for purpose, well-equipped and a champion of international humanitarian law, we must also play our part in addressing the risks posed by Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems.  We also can’t be naive to the external threats that exist, nor the exceptional contribution our defence force has made in recent conflicts, to improve stability, in the Pacific and beyond.

Our challenge, then, is to develop policies that are right for New Zealand, and that can play a meaningful and constructive role in the elaboration of global norms and rules on both these issues. In doing so, we will draw on our decades of disarmament activism, making the most of the interest and expertise we have both at home and abroad. As we have done in the past, we will work with partner governments, international organisations, civil society, academia, think tanks and others, striving to ensure we involve and reflect diverse perspectives.  Given this is an issue of profound importance to future generations, we will be engaging with young people to raise awareness and invite views. This approach has been at the heart of our success on traditional disarmament issues and I’m confident it will position New Zealand as a creative, constructive and credible player on these emerging issues.

Disarmament and Arms Control Agenda for 2021

This emphasis on new challenges does not mean that New Zealand will be taking a step back on our long-standing work on nuclear disarmament, or on our advocacy on conventional weapons. On the contrary.

 Across the board I have made engagement a personal priority since taking on the portfolio This has included constructive bilateral conversations with key international organisations like the UN and IAEA, civil society groups such as ICAN, and our traditional state allies in this space such as Ireland. I took part in the first meeting of States Parties to the Treaty of Rarotonga late last year, which as you will all know forms an important part of our regional arms control architecture. I have met twice with our own Public Advisory Committee on Disarmament and Arms Control, and throughout this year will be holding a number of events like this one today across the country to outline the Government’s agenda, and build the relationship between government and civil society.

I said before that the challenging international environment makes progress on disarmament even more urgent.

New Zealand has long held the view that progress on nuclear disarmament can contribute to building trust and confidence between states, and to creating an environment where further reductions in tensions – and in armaments – is possible. This is not a naïve view – but was one that has been tested and proven both during the Cold War and more recently. New Zealand will therefore continue leading and advocating for nuclear disarmament, both as a contribution to global security and in recognition of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences any use of nuclear weapons would certainly entail.

Our efforts will focus on both the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and on the NPT, which we see as compatible and mutually reinforcing. As I made clear in my speech celebrating the entry into force of the TPNW on 22 January, New Zealand is a proud advocate of this Treaty and will be promoting its uptake and engaging actively in preparations for the First Meeting of States Parties scheduled for January 2022.  We will be working closely with our Pacific neighbours in this context, including on legacy issues relating to history of nuclear testing in the region.

At the same time, New Zealand will continue our many efforts to advance nuclear disarmament within the NPT – including through the New Agenda Coalition and as a member of the Stockholm Initiative. We are eager to see progress by the nuclear weapon States on the implementation of their long-standing nuclear disarmament commitments, and – as an interim measure – see nuclear risk reduction as an urgent priority. Although we were buoyed by the extension of New START earlier in the year, we are concerned and disappointed by recent backwards steps on nuclear disarmament and will be working actively to promote a more promising approach at the forthcoming Review Conference.

New Zealand’s strong support for addressing nuclear proliferation challenges such as Iran and North Korea, and for strengthening the non-proliferation regime, is also an important part of our approach to the NPT.  We see concrete progress on nuclear disarmament as a crucial enabler of further steps on nuclear non-proliferation.

I also want to emphasise New Zealand’s ongoing commitment to humanitarian disarmament through ongoing work on cluster munitions, landmines and the Arms Trade Treaty – and to continuing our unwavering support for the rules, norms and institutions prohibiting chemical weapons and nuclear testing. In particular, I am motivated to see New Zealand playing its part to improve the protection of civilians in urban conflicts particularly through the curtailment of explosive weapons’ use. Making meaningful progress on this issue must be a priority.

Finally, I want to underline the core belief that sustains our disarmament work. That by working together with others we can make the world safer. That cooperation and multilateralism are the only alternatives to a twentieth century view of the world that sees firing missiles into your neighbour’s backyard or a new arms race as rational responses to an uncertain world. New Zealand has always stood for a rules based order. It is what works best for us and we believe it is best for the planet. And as we rise to the particular security challenges of the early 21st century, it is more important than ever.

Now that you’ve all heard from me, I want to turn the floor over to you.

I am interested in a dialogue on disarmament – I welcome your opinions, advice, criticism and ideas. As I mentioned earlier, one of the reasons why I think New Zealand has had such success internationally on disarmament issues is because of our recognition of the integral role that civil society and academia have to play in this work. As experts, advocates, inventors and entrepreneurs, energisers, force multipliers and strategists – there is little than can be achieved on disarmament without your support. I am determined to build and make the most of our relationships so that, together, we can really make a difference on these issues.


NOTE TO EDITORS: Please note the speech as delivered may differ slightly from these notes.