Recent statements by a French diplomat to “the Australian” newspaper criticizing Australia’s decision to observe the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) reveal the panicked efforts by nuclear-armed states to undermine the treaty as support for the ban continues to grow. It also shows a European state with a dark colonial legacy continuing to exert pressure on the Pacific - an area heavily impacted by French nuclear testing - instead of respecting national sovereignty.
On 2 October an article in “the Australian” newspaper cited an unnamed French diplomat claiming that Australia’s support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons “undermines the primacy of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)” and “is contradictory with Australia’s ambition to reinforce its partnership with NATO.”
Both of these statements are not only hamfisted attempts at pressuring the Australian government away from the TPNW, they are also factually incorrect: The TPNW was carefully crafted to reinforce, complement, and build on the NPT, which obligates its parties - including France - to negotiate further legal measures to achieve nuclear disarmament under Article VI, and NATO members face no legal barrier to joining the treaty, so long as they commit not to engage in or support any nuclear-weapon-related activities. Moreover, several NATO partners are already TPNW parties (Austria, Ireland, Kazakhstan, Malta, Mongolia, New Zealand) or signatories (Algeria, Colombia).
These declarations show France’s mounting concern over the growing support for the TPNW. The statements themselves are no surprise, as France has stridently protested the TPNW ever since it was adopted at the UN in 2017 with the backing of 122 states. France insists it has a legitimate right under the NPT to possess nuclear weapons, while ignoring its commitments to pursue negotiations in good faith for nuclear disarmament under the same treaty. What is new is the fact that this pressure is being exerted publicly, and on a state that is largely seen as an ally on security issues. Previously, France has limited this kind of pressure for formerly colonised states, particularly in Africa.
Australia’s growing support for the TPNW
The Australian Labor Party, which has been in power since May 2022, adopted a resolution in 2018 committing it to sign and ratify the TPNW in government. This was moved by Anthony Albanese, who now serves as prime minister and has been a vocal supporter of the TPNW. He said at the time: “Our commitment to sign and ratify the nuclear weapon ban treaty in government is Labor at its best.” Labor reaffirmed this position in 2021 and most recently on 18 August 2023. The government also has confirmed its intention to observe the treaty’s upcoming meeting of states parties in New York (2MSP) and is evaluating whether to sign and ratify the treaty.
This is an encouraging step, but ICAN’s Executive Director, former Labor MP Melissa Parke, has criticised the government’s delay in ratifying the treaty: “It’s not enough to keep promising to sign the treaty without acting. We want to see the Prime Minister put pen to paper, without delay. Labor’s commitment on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation will be hollow if Australia fails to do so.” Speaking to the revelation that French diplomats are exerting pressure on Australia to consider, she said: “Our two countries have never seen eye to eye on nuclear weapons. France shouldn't be lecturing Australia on nuclear policy. We can make our own decisions, in our own interests – and for the global common good.”
France’s unresolved nuclear legacy in the Pacific
From 1966 to 1996, France tested 193 nuclear weapons in Maohi Nui/French Polynesia, a Self Governing Territory of France in the Pacific. In 1974, Australia famously took France to the International Court of Justice in a bid to force an end to its atmospheric nuclear testing in the Pacific, as the impacts of nuclear weapons are not contained by national borders. Yet France only ended its Pacific nuclear test explosions once it was confident it had developed non-explosive testing methods sufficiently for new weapons development, and it refuses to acknowledge and address the catastrophic legacy of its nuclear tests to this day.
This legacy is also a subject of hot debate at the national level in France. On 28 September, only days before France’s criticisms of Australia, the assembly of French Polynesia unanimously adopted a resolution supporting the TPNW, highlighting the region’s history as the site of numerous French nuclear tests. The resolution underscores the TPNW as a humanitarian disarmament treaty and emphasises the deep concerns of the French Polynesian population regarding this issue. While French Polynesia cannot currently access the assistance and rehabilitation outlined in Articles 6 and 7 of the TPNW due to France’s non-ratification, it sends a resounding message in favour of the treaty to Paris.