Working together for disarmament
Faculty of Law, Victoria University of Wellington, 1 June
Thank you for joining me here this evening for what is part of an ongoing conversation about New Zealand’s work on disarmament, and how that intersects with New Zealand’s broader approach to peace and security, and to our foreign policy.
Tonight I will be speaking about a strategy I will be presenting to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committee on Thursday.
Following this presentation, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade will be releasing the disarmament strategy publicly. In doing so, we hope to raise public awareness of what we are trying to achieve and to encourage some fresh ideas about how – and with whom – we can have the greatest impact.
This work has a long and proud history in New Zealand.
Horrified by the consequences of nuclear testing in our peaceful Pacific neighbourhood, and angered by the disregard shown by France in particular, New Zealanders in the thousands – including me – protested, marched and signed petitions. Communities established their own nuclear free zones and demanded the government act to stop the testing.
Flotillas of private vessels – and one New Zealand Navy vessel with a Minister on board – sailed to disrupt the testing in French Polynesia, and we took the first of our cases against France at the International Court of Justice.
These bold moves in the 70s and 80s – and our ability to withstand pressure from our closest allies – were only possible because of the strength of public opinion against nuclear weapons. Norman Kirk, on taking office after the 1972 election wrote to the French President that he was obliged by democratic mandate to represent strong opposition to nuclear testing; and a dramatic rise in popularity for then Leader of the Opposition Don Brash was brought spectacularly down-to-earth by a flippant remark that should he be elected Prime Minister our anti-nuclear positions would be “gone by lunchtime.” Such was the public reaction that he himself was practically gone by lunchtime, and the cross-party consensus on our nuclear policy was retained.
This is a heritage we are proud of. And yet the level of public engagement in New Zealand’s disarmament policy has diminished over recent decades. Of course it would have been difficult to sustain the same level of interest and engagement, even if other issues had not arisen to worry and inspire newer generations. The existential nature of the climate crisis, the reality of life in a global pandemic, inequality, poverty, the housing crisis, ongoing discrimination on the basis of race, gender and sexual orientation. These are all urgent issues, with day-to-day, real life impacts.
Against the backdrop of these challenges, then, is it any wonder that disarmament issues are no longer front and centre in the minds of young kiwis (or indeed most old kiwis!). It would be comforting to think that, thanks to our rebelliousness in the 80s, and our relentless global advocacy ever since, nuclear weapons were no longer a threat to everything we hold dear. Or to be reassured that because we have prohibited landmines and cluster munitions, and better regulated the international arms trade, New Zealand has already done its bit for conventional disarmament. And I can understand why, with the future already looking as challenging as it does, there might be reluctance to worry about the implications of weaponised AI or a conflict in outer space.
The trick here is for us to open the door for youth. More than 40% of the world’s population is under the age of 25, and yet under-25s are woefully under-represented in discussions on international disarmament. Young people are disproportionately both the protagonists and the victims of armed conflict around the world. Youth are the ones whose futures are stolen by the countless billions of dollars spent on weapons every year that could be invested in health, education, and environmental protection if we had a more peaceful world.
The good news is this generation is better educated than ever before, and is at the forefront of international protest movements from the climate strike to Black Lives Matter.
In this context, I think it is worth going back to first principles, and considering why we have attached such importance to disarmament in New Zealand. It goes beyond simply the fact nuclear weapons were being tested in our own backyard.
There are still more than 13,000 nuclear weapons in the world, many on hair-trigger alert, which means they can be launched at a moment’s notice. 12,000 of these are in Russia and the United States, with the next largest holdings in France, China and the United Kingdom – those states recognised as nuclear weapons states under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. There are also four states possessing nuclear weapons outside of that Treaty, and which have made no legally-binding disarmament commitments whatsoever. They are India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea.
Although the raw number of nuclear weapons has declined since the height of the Cold War, the pace of disarmament has also slowed, and in some cases, reversed. All the states with nuclear weapons are modernising their stockpiles, and still haven’t shown any real commitment to moving away from the doctrine of nuclear deterrence.
This is reflected by the most recent report on the Doomsday Clock – which measures threats to humanity and planet and which is now set at only 100 seconds to midnight (the closest it has ever been) – in which the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists noted accelerating nuclear programs in multiple countries having moved the world into “less stable and manageable territory.”
Beyond the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons, I’m afraid the news is just as bad. In recent years we have seen a number of cases of chemical weapons’, including by Syria and Russia, in flagrant violation of international rules and norms prohibiting such activity, and in the case of Syria in particular, resulting in a devastating human cost.
All of this is set against a backdrop of increasingly tense international relations. Cooperation on arms control has taken a significant step back in recent years, as countries withdraw from multilateral processes and nationalist rhetoric ramps up.
But, we need to cooperate now more than ever. As more than fifty former leaders from NATO States said in an open letter last year, “we must not sleepwalk into a crisis of even greater proportions” than the one we have experienced since the onset of Covid-19.
Last week I was asked whether the situation I’ve been outlining keeps me awake at night. My response was that I am an optimist at heart. Even as the challenges of disarmament seem overwhelming, it’s within our power to address them, and as Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control I am determined that New Zealand will continue its efforts to do so, and will work with our friends and allies. The new strategy that I’ll be releasing later this week reflects this commitment.
That strategy sets key objectives across three major workstreams: nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation; strengthening international humanitarian law; and shaping the future.
But before we get on to the how, I want to take a moment to consider the why.
I have already spoken about the existential nature of nuclear weapons, and the threat they pose to life as we know it. But I want to take a moment now to outline why these are issues of global justice.
Nuclear weapons have left a painful legacy of harm as a result of their testing, predominantly on rural, minority, disenfranchised and colonised peoples. The peoples of the Pacific have suffered unimaginably from radioactive contamination, with devastating impacts on human health, environmental degradation and social cohesion. In 2020, the UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics called the legacy of nuclear testing in the Pacific “one of the cruellest examples of environmental injustice witnessed”. What’s more, the existing damage is now being compounded by climate change-induced sea level rise which is causing the degradation of the radioactive “tombs” housing the left-over nuclear waste.
With this in mind, the drafters of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons made sure to reflect in its preamble the unacceptable suffering and harm inflicted upon the victims of use and testing of nuclear weapons, and to reflect the disproportionate impact of nuclear-weapon activities on indigenous peoples.
From 1946 to 1996, some 300 nuclear test explosions were conducted at Bikini, Enewetak, Kiritimati, Kalama, Malden, Moruroa, and Fangataufa in the Pacific. The impacts from this testing on the fragile ecology, physical health and mental wellbeing of the Pacific peoples has been profound. According to the recently declassified Mururoa Files, scientific modelling at the time suggested that approximately 110,000 people – almost the entire Polynesia population at the time – were infected by radioactive fallout as a result of French nuclear testing.
Conventional weapons, too, 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 each year.
Over the past year, civilians have continued to bear the brunt of military operations, accounting for 91% of those killed or injured by explosive weapons in populated areas worldwide over the last 10 years – a total of 238,892 people.
Over this time, the most affected country was Syria, with more than 92,000 casualties, 84% of whom were civilians. And for many of us the conflict in Israel and Palestine will be front of mind, following the appalling loss of civilian life there over the past month. Over the past decade, Gaza has recorded 5,700 civilian casualties: making up 90% of total casualties.
But the figures don’t tell the whole story. Armed conflict also brings injury and psychological trauma, as well as destruction to homes, schools, hospitals and civilian infrastructure such as electrical and water systems.
Likewise, the arms trade stokes instability, provokes crime and corruption, and leads to human rights abuses. It hampers democracy, disrupts the provision of healthcare and undermines food and environmental security.
This is what makes the Arms Trade Treaty so important, and why New Zealand has actively supported it. The ATT was negotiated with a human security focus, and at its core, is intended to reduce the number of victims of armed violence. It also contributes to the Sustainable Development Goals, including poverty reduction, health, and education.
It may seem obvious, but weapons affect people differently depending on their age, ethnicity and gender. Although the majority of perpetrators and direct victims of armed violence are young men, women suffer disproportionately from the consequences. These include sexual violence, disability and economic degradation.
It is for these reasons the Arms Trade Treaty became – in 2013 – the first international legal instrument to recognise the link between gender-based violence and the international arms trade. Under the ATT, it is illegal to transfer weapons if there is a substantive risk that the weapons will be used to facilitate gender-based violence.
Unexploded cluster bombs and landmines continue to plague communities around the world, with more than 5,500 casualties in 2019, and more than fifty countries suffering from landmine contamination, often decades after they were laid. Thousands of people go about their lives under daily threat of losing life or limb.
Landmines and cluster munitions stop productive land being used for farming. And they leave a sense of insecurity long after conflicts have ended, not to mention the delays they can cause for peace processes and the impediment to economic development.
For these reasons, the international community decided in 1998 that the suffering inflicted by landmines was unconscionable, and that their use should be prohibited by international law. The weapons were unable to distinguish between a combatant and a civilian, and their effects lingered long after conflict had ended.
And yet, there were new allegations of use of cluster munitions in Syria, and the Nagorno-Karabakh [pron. Nar-gor-no kara-bark] conflict in Central Asia last year, and more recently we’ve seen reports of horrific injuries from the alleged use of incendiary weapons in the war in Tigray.
Incendiary weapons cause significant injury, burning people, setting fires and causing respiratory damage, shock and infection. Their use against civilians is prohibited at international law.
When the modern practice of war – by state or non-state actors - kills and injures so many non-combatants already struggling with poverty, when it destroys infrastructure in developing or crisis-stricken countries, when the testing of weapons leaves the legacy of chronic inter-generational health issues, or when it creates such massive human insecurity, this calls into question the humanity of our age.
We, and indeed any country that prioritises human rights within its foreign policy, must resist narrow definitions of security and consider the full costs both of the use of weapons and the failure to regulate their use, and their place in military doctrine.
New Zealand is proud to have been at the forefront of the development of international humanitarian law in restraining the way wars are fought, alongside – of course – our international allies and civil society partners. On each issue, our partnerships with diplomats, international organisations, academics, and activists has been invaluable.
In her speech at the UN General Assembly in 2019, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern reflected on our experience in the wake of the terrorist attacks against the Muslim community in Christchurch earlier that year.
The Prime Minister spoke then about the increasing interdependence of peoples and laid out a vision for how we might organise ourselves internationally – based not on fierce nationalism or self-interest but on concepts that can and should be universal. They were: humanity, kindness and a sense of connection to one another. As the PM stated, this was founded on “a belief that we are guardians, not just of our home and our planet, but of each other.”
This aligns with New Zealand’s approach to disarmament and arms control.
Of course, it also reflects the values-based approach to foreign policy articulated by our Foreign Minister, the Honourable Nanaia Mahuta. It demonstrates our commitment as kaitiaki in the interests of our global whanaunga. It shows manaaki, both in our pursuit of outcomes that improve the lives of people around the world and in our approach to difficult disarmament negotiations. And it is through mahi tahi and kotahitanga that we strive to work with all partners both domestically and internationally to achieve our disarmament objectives.
The global rules and norms governing weapons and armed conflict are a key part of the international rules-based order. New Zealand’s work to strengthen and uphold those rules and norms is a key part of our foreign policy in the 21st century.
Although you might question the ability of a nation as small as New Zealand to influence things like the global arms trade and the way wars are fought, I would argue our record over sixty years speaks for itself. We have made a small but significant difference, and when we work with others “from little things big things grow”.
While this issue may not always be front of mind for the next generation of academics, activists, diplomats, or politicians, I hope I’ve made the case today for its enduring relevance.
The United Nations was founded on the idea of saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war. There is still significant work to do in that regard, and I am looking forward to learning more from you about how we can pursue that together.
Disarmament is at its heart is a multilateral endeavour, with international cooperation a precondition of progress. But disarmament doesn’t sit alone. It sits alongside the climate crisis, environmental degradation, poverty and inequality; all challenges that are inter-related and require concerted multilateral action in defence of people and planet.
We all share one planet. It is in all our interests to reduce the risk of nuclear catastrophe, to see civilians protected, to avert the climate crisis, to reduce inequality, and build a safer world.
I think this is the project not only for civil society and social movements, but also governments in the conduct of their foreign policy.
I look forward to hearing from the other speakers this evening on how we can tackle these issues together, and to engaging with you further on them.
Please note: Speech as delivered may differ slightly from these notes.