Australian Labor’s position on the UN nuclear weapon ban treaty
On 7 July 2017, 122 nations voted to adopt the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Australia was not among them. The Liberal–National government boycotted the negotiations, arguing that US nuclear weapons are essential for Australia’s security.
However, the Australian Labor Party – the main opposition political party – backed the historic process, urging the government to “participate constructively”. Here we summarize Labor’s comments and commitments in relation to the treaty.
At its national conference in 2015, Labor adopted a new national platform expressing firm support for the negotiation of a treaty banning nuclear weapons. The prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons is a humanitarian imperative, it said.
“Given the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons, Labor firmly supports the negotiation of a global treaty banning such weapons and welcomes the growing global movement of nations that is supporting this objective.”
July 2016 Pre-election commitment to pursue a ban
Ahead of the federal election on 2 July 2016, the Labor party reiterated its support for a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons and criticized the governing Liberal party for describing the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world as “utopian”.
“Labor disagrees with this position,” the party said in a letter responding to an ICAN questionnaire. “Labor’s policy is ambitious and realistic, and recognizes the humanitarian imperative for global prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.”
In a speech outlining the party’s foreign policy, Tanya Plibersek MP, the deputy federal leader, said that Labor is committed to pursuing nuclear disarmament. She spoke of the party’s “proud and progressive tradition” on this important issue.
A month after the election, the Labor senator Lisa Singh introduced a motion noting “the growing movement of nations supporting the negotiation of a global treaty banning nuclear weapons”. It passed with the backing of the government.
October 2016 Support for resolution to launch negotiations
On 27 October 2016, 123 nations voted in favour of a landmark UN resolution to launch negotiations on a “legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination”. Only 38 nations voted against. Australia was among them.
Senator Penny Wong, the shadow minister for foreign affairs, called on the government to explain its decision to vote no. “The government has not yet sufficiently explained why Australia has adopted this position,” she said in a statement.
“The UN vote demonstrated a strong commitment to the global movement to ban nuclear weapons … Labor shares international frustrations with the pace of disarmament and we remain committed to the cause of eliminating nuclear weapons.”
At a public forum in Perth ahead of the vote, the opposition leader, Bill Shorten, stated that a Labor government would have voted in favour of the resolution. Earlier, Senator Singh had said at an event at the United Nations:
“With changes in political leadership and changes in the composition of parliaments, long-held positions could quite easily shift in favour of a ban. I’m confident that a future Labor government in Australia would sign and ratify a treaty banning nuclear weapons, as per our national policy platform.”
February 2017 Challenging the government’s boycott
On 16 February 2017, Australia announced that it would boycott the UN negotiations for a ban on nuclear weapons. Senator Wong responded: “It’s disappointing that yet again the government has chosen not to have Australia’s voice heard.”
Senator Singh expressed astonishment: “Clearly negotiations for this treaty are going to go ahead. It is short-sighted for Australia to refuse to even have a seat at the table. This leaves Australia in a minority on the biggest humanitarian issue facing the world.”
In a Senate committee, Senator Singh asked the government whether its boycott is compatible with Australia’s obligation under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to pursue disarmament, and whether the government had pressured others to boycott the process.
In the final week of March 2017, more than 130 nations participated in the first round of UN negotiations for a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons – bringing an end to more than two decades of paralysis in multilateral nuclear disarmament efforts.
Senator Wong called on the government to explain “why Australia is the only country in the region to boycott negotiations for a new global nuclear weapons treaty”. On Twitter, she expressed her great disappointment at the decision.
Senator Singh submitted a motion urging the government to “participate constructively” in the process. It was passed with the support of the Greens and other crossbenchers. Anthony Albanese MP submitted the same motion in the House of Representatives.
On 7 July, following three weeks of intensive negotiations at the UN in New York, 122 nations voted to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons – the first legally binding international agreement to outlaw nuclear weapons.
A large majority of federal Labor parliamentarians, including members of the shadow ministry, have since pledged to work for Australia’s signature and ratification of the landmark agreement when their party next forms government.
October 2017 Labor congratulates ICAN on Nobel Peace Prize
The Labor party issued a press release congratulating ICAN on being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its role in achieving a treaty-based ban on nuclear weapons. It also voted in favour of a Senate motion congratulating the campaign.
“For the past 10 years ICAN has worked to keep the world’s focus on the appalling humanitarian fallout from the use of nuclear weapons, as well as marshalling the landmark United Nations treaty prohibiting their use …”