Australia undermines Austrian-led nuclear ban initiative

Tim Wright
Tim Wright (ICAN’s Asia Pacific Director)

Diplomatic cables and ministerial briefings, obtained on September 9 by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) under FOI laws, reveal that the Coalition Government has become increasingly “worried” about the “growing momentum” behind the Austrian-led Humanitarian Pledge to ban nuclear weapons.

This growing momentum was confirmed once again when foreign ministers and other high-ranking government officials met at the United Nations on Wednesday September 30 to commemorate the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.

It was reported that many of these officials agreed that the Humanitarian Pledge on nuclear disarmament had opened up new possibilities to achieve much-needed progress towards abolishing these weapons of mass destruction.1

The Pledge, issued at the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in December last year, aims “to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks.”2

Nuclear weapons are the only weapons of mass destruction not yet explicitly prohibited under international law. The Pledge is a commitment by nations to fill this unsatisfactory “legal gap”. It offers a platform from which they can launch negotiations on a treaty designed to ban and eliminate all nuclear weapons.

The number of nations that have signed the Pledge now totals 117.3

However, according to Tim Wight, the author of ICAN’s exposé, the cables reveal that Australia “has not merely refused to join the growing movement towards a global ban on nuclear weapons, but rather has led efforts to undermine the disarmament initiatives of Austria and other progressive nations”.4

It is now apparent that Australia’s optimism following the Vienna conference that the US and other nuclear-armed nations had succeeded in weakening the ban treaty movement was mistaken.

Prof. Ramesh Thakur, Director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament at the Australian National University, also claimed that Australian diplomats had underestimated support for the Humanitarian Pledge.

“What is really clear from these cables, but not explicitly stated” he said, “is that Australian officials have been very surprised, they have been taken aback, by the strength of support for the humanitarian consequences pledge, and they are scrambling to explain that.”5

“Support for the humanitarian consequences pledge is making Australia’s position more difficult” he claimed. “It is galvanising public and political opinion, and Australia finds itself running against the domestic and international tide.”6

Prof. Thakur also noted that Australia’s earlier leadership on nuclear disarmament had diminished over the past four years.

What the growing movement behind the Austrian-led Humanitarian Pledge fundamentally challenges is Australia’s long-held stance on nuclear deterrence. This stance erroneously posits that as long as nuclear weapons continue to exist, Australia needs to rely on America’s “nuclear umbrella” to protect it from a nuclear attack.

As ICAN convincingly argues, it is increasingly clear that Australia, together with NATO’s member states, are “standing on the wrong side of history.”7


1.Refer to ICAN International’s report ‘At high-level UN meeting, nations voice support for Humanitarian Pledge ‘to fill the legal gap’, October 1, 2015.
2. The text of the Humanitarian Pledge can be found here.
3. For a list of the 117 nations that have so far signed the Pledge, refer to ICAN’s report here.
4. Refer to Tim Wright’s article ‘Documents reveal Australia is ‘worried’ about ‘growing momentum’ towards nuclear weapon ban’, ICAN International, Sep 15, 2015 for a detailed account of Australia’s diplomatic attempts to undermine international moves to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons.
5 & 6. Prof. Ramesh Thakur quoted by Ben Doherty, ‘Australia resists nuclear disarmament push because it relies on US deterrent’, The Guardian, Sep 16, 2015.
7. Refer to note (4) above.



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