Where is nuclear-free New Zealand? Pressure mounts for Pacific nation to join pledge

September 6, 2015

For close to three decades, New Zealand has been a leading voice in global efforts to stigmatize, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons – but is the Pacific nation starting to drag its feet on disarmament? Anti-nuclear campaigners there are urging the government to end its equivocation and endorse the 115-nation Humanitarian Pledge issued last December in Vienna.

New Zealand has so far been a prominent and constructive player in the Humanitarian Initiative on nuclear disarmament. At the United Nations session on disarmament in October 2014, it delivered a joint statement on behalf of 155 nations declaring it “in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances”.

But the Humanitarian Pledge goes a step further, committing nations to work together “to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons”. Most NATO members, as well as New Zealand’s biggest neighbour, Australia, oppose such a move, perceiving nuclear weapons to be essential for their security.

Some commentators have speculated that New Zealand is under pressure from the United States not to endorse the pledge. NZ Herald journalist Dita De Boni noted last month in a column that “a Norwegian politician recently revealed – inadvertently – the country had been instructed by the US not to sign the pledge”; the same, she suggested, might be true for New Zealand.

Whatever the reason, its absence from the list of 115 endorsers has not gone unnoticed. At the Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference held in New York this May, several Pacific island neighbours – and others – privately expressed surprise and concern that New Zealand had not yet come on board.

Most countries of the region – which has suffered, and continues to endure, the terrible health and environmental consequences of past nuclear testing – were quick to endorse the landmark document: the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. Most Southeast Asian nations have also backed it.


Clear support from opposition political party

Phil Goff MP, the disarmament spokesperson for New Zealand’s opposition Labour party, has urged the National party government to get behind the pledge. Speaking at an event in Wellington last week organised by ICAN partner organization the UN Association of New Zealand, he called for negotiations to begin now on “a convention which prohibits nuclear weapons”.

We should not wait “for the concurrence of the nuclear weapon states”, he said. “We should take this step in the expectation that it can generate the same strong practical and normative consequences as the Ottawa and Oslo conventions did on land mines and cluster munitions”. New Zealand “can and should” be a “trailblazer on this issue, rather than waiting for others”.

Mr Goff was defence minister of New Zealand when it hosted a negotiating conference in Wellington in 2008 to achieve a convention banning cluster munitions – canister bombs that disperse multiple “bomblets” and typically have devastating effects for civilians. With this experience in mind, he is advocating a similar process to ban nuclear weapons.


Maintaining a proud anti-nuclear tradition

Events were held across New Zealand last month – from Auckland and Wellington in the north, to Christchurch and Dunedin in the south – commemorating 70 years since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Organizers included ICAN partners Peace Movement Aotearoa, the UN Association of New Zealand, the Peace Foundation and the Disarmament and Security Centre.

There is a long and proud history of anti-nuclear activism in New Zealand, with public opposition to nuclear weapons in the 1980s prompting the government to enact historic legislation barring nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered ships from entering its ports. This July marked the 30th anniversary of the sinking by French agents of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior vessel, which had been campaigning against nuclear testing at Moruroa.

Edwina Hughes, who coordinates ICAN’s activities in New Zealand, expressed her hope and expectation that – in keeping with this tradition – the government would soon endorse the Humanitarian Pledge and signal its readiness to join negotiations on a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons. “The imperative now is to negotiate a simple global ban treaty, whether or not nuclear weapon states are involved,” she said.

For more information about ICAN’s activities in New Zealand, visit www.icanw.org.nz

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