Australia must engage on nuclear disarmament

Published on Mon 9 November 2020 9:40am

Australia has a strong tradition of leading work to limit the danger of nuclear weapons, but traditions need to be maintained and renewed. Diplomatic efforts on that front should be more purposeful and better resourced. We should regain our position as a country that is prepared to be out of step with the status quo in the cause of peace.

Mr J. H. Wilson, pursuant to notice, moved—That this House:

(1) notes:

(a) 6 and 9 August 2020 will mark, respectively, the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki;

(b) by the end of 1945, it is estimated that 213,000 people had died in those communities, and the legacy of chronic and terminal illness, stillbirths, birth defects, survivor discrimination, and acute environmental harm and contamination continues to the present day;

(c) 2020 also marks the 50th anniversary of the coming into force of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty;

(d) the ongoing work of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, an initiative founded in Australia that received the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for advancing a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons; and

(e) since 2017, 81 countries have signed and 38 have ratified the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which will enter into force after the 50th ratification;

(2) further notes with concern:

(a) a number of recent developments that weaken the international system of weapons monitoring, impair progress towards nuclear disarmament, and undermine agreements to prevent nuclear proliferation and explosive testing;

(b) the fact that the hands of the Doomsday Clock have been moved to within 100 seconds of midnight, representing the greatest yet marked risk of nuclear conflict; and

(c) a 2019 report by the United Kingdom Parliamentary Committee on International Relations that warns the risk of nuclear weapons is now as great as it was during the height of the Cold War; and

(3) calls on the Government to:

(a) voice its concern about the deterioration in the multilateral framework for achieving nuclear disarmament and for minimising the risk of nuclear conflict;

(b) voice its concern at indications the United States:

(i) intends to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies;

(ii) may allow the START agreement to expire in February 2021; and

(iii) has abandoned the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty; and

(c) increase our diplomatic focus and the resources needed to play a greater role in global efforts to reduce conflict, build regional and international cooperation, resist the further proliferation of nuclear weapons, and progress their ultimate elimination.

Mr Wilson (11:40am) – Deputy Speaker in this extraordinary year we are 75 years on from a whole series of historical events because, of course, 1945 was itself extraordinary. We saw the end of the most awful conflict in human history, but unfortunately the awful punctuation point of the war signalled the beginning of the nuclear age.

On 6 and 9 August 1945, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Those cities were not decisive military targets. They were urban centres full of civilians. Nothing justified that action. As President Truman’s Chief of Staff Admiral William Lay said:

In dropping those bombs, the US had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages.

The explosions resulted in the death of more than 200,000 civilians by the end of 1945. In the aftermath, survivors staggered through the streets – hair and skin gone, in many cases scorched to the bone crying out for something to drink. It is appropriate and heartbreaking that above the Nagasaki Peace Memorial Hall there is a basin always brimming with water.

Deputy Speaker we have travelled in time 75 years away from those nuclear events but there is a risk that we assume such catastrophes and are safely in the past, when in reality we may have been travelling towards the next one. The truth is no one watching recent developments in relation to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation could feel optimistic. No one watching North Korea, or watching as the US considers a resumption of nuclear testing, or as Russia openly develops new tactical nuclear weapons, no one can be sanguine about the state of the world when it comes to nuclear safety.

So, what needs to be done?

We absolutely must be engaged as citizens in the cause of peace and disarmament. To be as the Australian poet John Forbes said, a spanner in the works of death.

We cannot allow matters of military policy, procurement and engagement to be areas of assessment and decision making that are preserved for some insider security elite.

One of the principles of liberal democracy, which I think we’ve all had cause to consider over the past few weeks, is that defence and security apparatus must always be at the service of and subordinate to civilian government. We must defend and uphold that vital principle of democratic structure and culture at every turn.

Taking nothing away from Australia’s high-calibre agencies and personnel, it should never be the case that any person in the broader community, let alone any person in this place, feels hesitant to question defence or security policy, orthodoxies and decisions. The idea that those matters should be left exclusively to Defence and Security insiders, especially inside government without proper scrutiny is dangerous.

Australia has made wrong and harmful decisions of that kind. We allowed the British to explode nuclear bombs in this country without any proper parliamentary process. We went to the war in Iraq on the basis of faulty intelligence, and through unchallenged decisions of the executive that ignored evidence provided in our own intelligence assessments. It’s always worth remembering, with respect to so called military solutions, that to the person with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Deputies speaker since this motion was lodged, the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons received its 50th ratification, which means it will come into force in January.

At a time when the multilateral framework for disarmament and non-proliferation is frayed any prospect of taking normative and practical steps towards the elimination of nuclear weapons should be welcomed with open arms.

Australia has a strong tradition of leading work to limit the danger of nuclear weapons, but traditions need to be maintained and renewed. Diplomatic efforts on that front should be more purposeful and better resourced. We should regain our position as a country that is prepared to be out of step with the status quo in the cause of peace.

I continue to support the consideration of a War Powers Act to better shape and constrain how this country decides to be involved in military conflict where Australia is not directly under threat. I am glad that Labor’s position is to sign and ratify the nuclear weapons ban treaty through work to address its interaction with the NPT and to build wider international support.

Deputy Speaker, in 2016 I had the privilege of meeting Taniguchi Sumiteru in Nagasaki with a group of his fellow Hibakusha, or nuclear survivors. As a teenager Mr. Sumiteru was blown from his postal delivery bike by the blast. A photograph of his back, stripped of flesh, became one of the signature images of the bomb. Until his death in 2017, he was an unstinting anti-nuclear activist and in his memoir he writes,

Let Nagasaki be the last atomic bomb site. Let us be the last victim. Let the voice for the elimination of nuclear weapons spread all over the world.

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