New Zealand’s nuclear-free zone, legislated by Parliament in 1987, is something we all take pride in.
It’s important, however, that we don’t let it thwart its own ultimate purpose – a world free of nuclear weapons.
That goal must be within a comprehensible time-frame, with purposeful action, and discernible progress. Not a continuous process of prevarication, with rationalisations as to why the commencement of nuclear disarmament is not realistic, just yet.
Last Thursday, 8 June, it was fitting that Parliament should note the 30th anniversary of New Zealand’s legislation. In anticipation of that, the Green Party circulated, nine days before the due date, to all parties represented in Parliament, a draft Notice of Motion.
The draft Motion noted the 1987 Act, then went on to ask the House to resolve that “New Zealand fulfil the hope that underpinned the legislation through leading in the completion of negotiations and our early ratification of the Convention on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which will introduce under international law a total ban on nuclear weapons”.
The Government ignored the draft. On the morning of 8 June, it circulated its own. This referred to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, calling upon non-members (Israel, India, Pakistan, South Sudan) to join, and criticised North Korea for its nuclear weapons programme. Their timing allowed all other parties five hours to digest and respond, during a busy sitting day.
During that time, I spoke informally with the Foreign Minister, with a view to amending the Govt. Motion, to refer to the current negotiations for a Nuclear Weapons Convention. After some reflection, the Government refused.
In the House, when the Minister put the Motion, I formally proposed our amendment. This narrowly lost on a recorded vote by 61 to 58. In addition to the Green Party, Labour, NZ First and United Future supported. The House then adopted the Motion, by 105-14.
A recorded vote on a Notice of Motion without Debate is unusual. There were, however, strong reasons for concern, and even opposition, to be recorded in this particular case.
They reflect two different views on how, or even whether, real progress is to be made for a nuclear weapon-free world.
The first is that nuclear disarmament can proceed only at the pace the nuclear powers allow. They who possess nuclear weapons will determine when or even if they can divest themselves of their weapons.
This view takes formal expression in the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, in which 188 states bind themselves never to possess nuclear weapons. The five original nuclear powers (US, Russia, UK, France and China) are acknowledged to have de facto possession. But they accept a legal obligation to pursue negotiations in good faith towards cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.
This view insists that the NPT is the only realistic legal instrument to govern the nuclear calculus, and there must be no meddling by smaller states – anything outside the NPT runs the risk of threatening strategic stability.
The second view disagrees. It notes that in the near half-century since adoption, the nuclear powers have failed to meet their legal obligations towards nuclear disarmament. It notes the World Court’s 1996 advisory opinion that there exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament.
The Court also found that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict. But it could not conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful ‘in an extreme circumstance of self-defence in which the very survival of a State would be at stake’.
Significantly, in its preparatory reasoning, the Court found ‘no treaty language that specifically forbade the possession of nuclear weapons in a categorical way’.
The second view is that, given the failure of the nuclear powers to pursue negotiations in good faith over 49 years, and 21 years after the Court noted their obligation to conclude them, there’s time for treaty language specifically forbidding the possession of nuclear weapons in a categorical way.
This means the NPT must be seen as a precursor, not an obstacle, to a treaty prohibiting the nuclear weapons.
In December ‘16 the UN decided to convene a conference in 2017 to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.
The vote was 113 for, 35 against, 13 abstaining. New Zealand voted for. This reflects the global view: opinion polls show 77% to 93% in favour of a ‘total ban’ treaty.
Negotiations began in March and resume this month. The treaty is expected to be ready for signature by September when the UN meets again.
Most five original nuclear powers are boycotting the negotiations, further violating their obligations under the NPT. They insist, ironically, that the Convention will undermine the NPT.
Wrong. The draft Treaty cites the NPT and builds upon it. When it comes into force, it will fill the gap in international law that the World Court noted.
It will take time for the nuclear powers to join the treaty. But the prohibition will already be there, in law, waiting for them. This is the biggest step forward in taming human weaponry, perhaps ever.
It is stunningly significant that New Zealand is one of the vice-chairs of the negotiations; Ambassador Dell Higgie is one of the most highly-regarded disarmament diplomats in the world. New Zealanders have a right to be proud of the work she is doing.
It is strangely weird that the NZ foreign minister refused to allow the Parliament to note the negotiations.